In his Mann Ki Baat speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged the people to make water conservation their mission. This is not the first time the PM has raised this issue: In the March 26 edition of the same programme, he had called for use of technology and water conservation to increase agricultural productivity. The message is valuable but the efforts to drought-proof India should have begun on a war footing much earlier since the country is already in the grip of a severe drought. Water conservation cannot be an ad hoc response when a calamity strikes; it has to be a continuous process. According to the government, 10 states are drought-hit and the economy has been set back by at least Rs 6,50,000 crore.
Things would not have to such a pass if successive governments had put their minds to build on what India already has: Every region of the country has its own system of water harvesting. In fact, the present government will be happy to know that the practice of rainwater harvesting dates back to the Vedic era and since then India’s royal families had built tanks, water channels, ponds, step wells, shallow wells and similar other structures all over the country to ensure water security. Sadly, the country has not only forgotten but also largely destroyed these existing systems. It has failed to acknowledge that these structures, like modern water saving technologies, were also ‘technological’ solutions. So it was not surprising that the PM chose to talk about technical solutions to tackle drought but not about the intricately designed old step wells and shallow wells found in his home state, Gujarat. It would make greater sense to revive these structures than to first buy expensive water-saving technologies.
Along with reviving these existing structures, people should be involved in the management of water. Once they become partners in its management, they will get involved in conservation. In Bundelkhand’s Lalitpur district, women’s groups have formed Jal Sahelis (friends of water) in both conservation of water and also to acquire the skills to fix water pumps and hand pumps so that they don’t have to wait for government engineers to remedy the problem. The permanent solution to tackle drought, as the PM wants, can only be found when citizens and technology (old and new) join forces; otherwise, the State will end up spending money and human resources on short-term measure like water trains and tankers.