Sabita Singh Kaushal
Today, water is a word of worry, mixed with apprehension, foreboding and uncertainty. Heavy rains result in less water, rapid floods follow droughts, falling groundwater equates to water-rich crops; all of these relentless onslaughts of water-related news reoccur in our lives over and over again. The waters are changing, and Mridula Ramesh’s new book, “Watershed: How We Destroyed India’s Water and How Can We Save It,” delves deeply into this seemingly tectonic shift in the water landscape around us.
On some level, we all seem to feel this not-so-subtle change, but are somehow unable to pinpoint the right place. This book takes us through a kaleidoscope of the nation’s fluctuating water resources, glaring demands, aspirations, and complexity that shape and meet our collective and individual water needs. Bringing together water stories from ancient India to modern urban cities, it goes through a journey that is both insightful and stimulating.
From the thriving Pataliputra protected and enriched by its rivers, to the reshaped and water-framed medieval city of Delhi, to the lost waterhole of today’s Chennai, the historical anecdotes make for an interesting read. He recounts how Israel, a world leader in water management, echoes famed Indian strategist Chanakya’s concept that “all water belongs to the state / king”.
Arthashastra decrees that during this period all water was highly valued (the fine for urinating in a water tank was double that of a holy place) and at a fair price, where everyone paid, but the rich paid more. The wealthier farmers who could afford to mechanically lift the water in the canals were taxed 1/3 of the product, while those who manually transported the water paid only 1/5 of the product as a tax.
He details how the Punjab’s canal system, “the greatest achievement of the colonial state”, was not simply an agricultural incentive, but represented “an uncompromising and highly profitable investment” for the British Raj which aided his intention. to “control, profit and colonize” effectively. In the same state, he explains how free electricity has resulted in groundwater abuse, with more than 14 lakh boreholes dug (until 2015). The rainfall is not enough for the Punjab farmer, he / she digs deep into the earth and taps the groundwater to meet the need for a dual model of rice and wheat cultivation. And, the farming community now finds it nearly impossible to break out of this powerful addiction. Why is this so, even if the farmer realizes that the depletion of groundwater and soil on the farm is collateral damage?
Interspersed with water-related stories, the book examines many of these dichotomies. Of how the elements that have played a formidable role in the waterscape for centuries have disappeared; and how it is these dilapidated reservoirs, these blocked rivers and these pruned forests that must be redesigned and renovated for a better future. The book ends with possible answers, ideas and action plans that an individual, community and organization can arm themselves with, to be able to secure a water efficient future.
However, a precise focus on rivers and their current state of flux would have been a useful addition. A frank discussion of river link projects, whether it be an ambitious pipe dream or some other disaster in the making, would have added to the depth and understanding of India’s current water problems. However, if water interests you or just baffles you; if you have any questions about water that bother you then this is just the book to pick up and become a little water wiser.