The tale of dried up river beds!
Interview with D.M.Chitrashekar, Area Officer, SVARAJ (Society for Voluntary Action Revitalization and Justice), Bangalore, Karnataka

In the interview Chitra Shekhar talks about the importance of "˜rainwater harvesting"™. He also explains the economics and politics of rivers and water.



Our overall vision is to mobilize the communities in the Arkavathi basin for Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM), so that the community becomes the central point in managing water resources. The project comprises three segments: for rural, peri-urban and urban areas. In the rural areas we work on the concept of water budgeting. In peri-urban, we have initiated Town Water Planning as a platform for people’s voices and creating a public understanding, debate and action to meet the water and sanitation requirements of Doddaballapur town. In the urban areas, we take up reawakening of cultural consciousness, so that people in slums can access drinking water as a fundamental right.

If one were to ask why we have chosen this area, the answer is that the Arkavathy River used to fulfill the drinking water needs of Bangalore city. Arkavathy’s source is believed to be in the Nandi Hills, 60 km from Bangalore. Its source lies in the 26 feeder tanks that join Doddaballapur’s Nagarakere tank. With its catchment area spread over 150 big and 1,084 small tanks, the river took care of the needs of at least one-third of Bangalore’s population.

A dam was constructed on the river in the 1930s to create the Thippagondanahalli (T.G.Halli) reservoir which was one of the main sources of drinking water for Bangalore (along with the Hesaraghatta Lake) till the Cauvery water supply projects were commissioned. In fact, TG Halli dam still provides water to Bangalore. Since the 80’s, this river has gone dry from Doddballapur to Hesarghatta.

There are several reasons for this. The first one is that cultivation is undertaken in the catchment areas, the second is the loss of forests, and the third is growing of Eucalyptus plantations, the fourth, extensive drilling and drawing of water from bore-wells and the fifth, release of chemical effluents in the river. The consequence of all the above, is that the river is as good as dead.

SVARAJ took up one micro water shed (400 hectares of land), out of the 18, as a pilot project to implement the integrated water management project.

If we consider the Doddballapur town, there is acute water shortage there. The groundwater table is dropping fast and there is no recharging. The entire water requirements of this area are being met through bore wells. There is no other source of water. In the past, water used to be available from Nagal Kere for drinking, and it was then supplied through water tanks. Off late, the City Municipal Council (CMC) has become a complete failure. So, we had to find an alternative way for the drinking water needs of the town.

We had to educate the CMC and then ensure community participation in this initiative. We are focusing on rain water harvesting, development of the Nagalkere Lake, and regeneration of other local water bodies.

In Doddaballapur, the Arkavathy Water Regeneration Committee is functioning as a core group. It is working closely with the CMC. We also have a youth group called the Naga Dala and a Women’s Citizen Committee. The aim is to ensure participation of youth and women in the alternative drinking water project.

One of the activities that we have taken up is the de-silting of Ramanna’s well. It is a sweet water source; almost 3000 cubic meters has been de-silted from the well. Water has started regenerating in the well.

In the past three to four years, as far as rain water harvesting, water regeneration and allied activities are concerned, who would you say, has worked more? Is it the government or NGOs? What type of work has been undertaken? How much has been accomplished in your area?

As regards rain water harvesting is concerned, the government has not made any efforts. Some NGOs have pressurized the government to take action. But even those measures have not been implemented correctly or completely. In fact none of the NGOs are focusing on rain water harvesting exclusively. Most organizations look at it as a small activity along side the other big projects.

I was keen and curious to work in the area of rain water harvesting. SVARAJ provided me an opportunity to explore and implement that concept. They did not interfere in my work but at the same time they do not provide me with any additional support for this cause also. I have to approach other agencies or people for technical and financial assistance to implement the ideas. SVARAJ has advised me to raise funds from other sources only then they are willing to implement the rain water harvesting project. But the situation is very serious here, and I don’t know, what people of Doddaballapur will do for their water needs, till the time we are able to raise adequate funds to implement the project.

People of this town have shown some initiative and are willing to take up rain water harvesting themselves, by following the examples set by others. They are all keen to get this implemented. I am unable to provide all the information and technical assistance related to it. SVARAJ is the only NGO here, and we have only five resources. I have to admit, none of us here, have very clear and detailed knowledge about rain water harvesting.

Speaking about water needs, we can look at two things. One is the water required for irrigation or agricultural needs, and the other one is drinking water and water for other house hold purposes. What according to you is the key challenge in bringing about a change in mindset of people so that they accept rain water harvesting as a feasible solution to the acute water crisis?

It is a little difficult to analyze the problem clearly. One of the major problems is that people are migrating away from here, they are moving away from agriculture as an occupation. This is a fact.

Many people are disposing off their lands and looking for alternative work elsewhere. The idea is to get away from unprofitable agriculture, sell off the land for a better price and move away from this area. I have advised many of them to build check dams construct bunds and take up other remedial measures. The people are receptive to these ideas they do not reject them per se. But then, the key question they ask me is will they get return on investment which they make in constructing trench bund, check dam or other activities.

As long as we do not have plans for their sustainable development, it is difficult to go ahead with all these alternatives. We also need to have the necessary technical know-how to make these alternatives sustainable. Other wise it is difficult to bring about a change in peoples’ mindset. We are working with four panchayats lying between Nandi Hills and Doddaballapur.

Is your organisation a trust or a society?

SVARAJ has separated from Oxfam and it is under the Trust Act. We are partners. As of now we are just a team, the institution is yet to be registered.

Oxfam India is a partner for the project is that right?

Yes, they are the partner NGO. Since they are the funding agency, they function through this group, which has been constituted at the field level.

So it is like a project office?

Yes, that is all.

We discussed need for water for irrigation and rain water harvesting as a solution. What about the water needs for house hold use?

Look at our core audience or target groups. The key group we address is the poor people and those belonging to the Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes. They only possess degradable land. We advise them to construct check dams. At times, we provide the funds and get the check dams constructed for them. We tell them to adopt trench bunds, agro forestry and other alternatives. But who gets the benefits and results from these projects? The actual beneficiary is the rich peasant who lives in the lower plateau and owns a bore well to draw the water from the ground. So in essence the poor people conserve water, and the final consumption of the regenerated water is by the rich farmers. Then, the poor people tell us, see Sir, we have put in all the efforts and the others are enjoying the benefits of our efforts. So this is another major problem.

You spoke about two problems: one that people are migrating and moving away from the agriculture due to water scarcity, and the second that the rich peasants are appropriating and enjoying the benefits of rain water harvesting done by the poor sections of the population. Is there any other problem you would like to share?

There is one more new development that is taking place. The big corporations and agriculture industries are planning factories here and Bhaiyappa (Referring to the Bangalore International Airport Authority) is asking us to re-generate the lakes, and promises several crores for that effort. Many other agencies have come here and promised funds for lake regeneration. The key question is after spending crores of rupees on rejuvenating and regenerating water bodies and lakes, we need to be sure, who will be the beneficiary of the water regeneration program.

We need to find out why Bhaiyappa is so keen on water regeneration initiatives now. We hear that this authority is going to provide funds to rejuvenate and restore 240 lakes in the vicinity. On probing, we came to understand that this money has been collected from the residential layouts in the surrounding areas. The fees has been collected from the future residents of the lay outs planned in this area. So after all the revival efforts, who will benefit from the water? Everything that is done here is done for groups having vested interests and for their own community use. The efforts are made by the local population, whereas the results are appropriated by others.

So you think those groups that are making use of these technologies are doing it for their own benefit?

Absolutely. The other thing is that many big companies are jumping onto the agri-business band wagon. Corporate majors like Reliance are getting into agri-business in a big way. The farmers are not very aware about these big deals and businesses. No matter how much we want to retain and sustain agriculture, it is becoming extremely difficult to even get the lands ploughed. There is a financial crisis in this sector.

The government has taken some steps like waiving of loans. The waiving of loans renders the farmers bankrupt. It is not a good idea. It provides some short term relief, but it is not good in the long run. Also providing large subsidies is not helpful.

On the one hand, if the agro-industries approach the farmers for business, there will be one type of impact. Whereas if we emphasize on the traditional agriculture, that will lead to another type of problem. For instance, we advocate sustainable agriculture. When we go around in the villages, we advise them not to dig bore wells, adopt agri-forestry, and also advise them on the types of fruits to be grown etc. When these initiatives are done, we have a problem of creating a market for the goods. That creates problems as well.

In cases where people are ready to adopt rain water harvesting either for agricultural or house hold/drinking water needs, what types of hurdles do you face when you want to implement it for people who are ready to adopt the technology?

We face both technology and finance related problems. As regards the financial aspect, we have seen that when people get subsidies their mind set changes. Where ever peasants have got subsidies, nothing has been saved, or nothing remained with the farmers. It is perhaps beneficial only for one or two percent of the whole population. Whereas, when the farmers invest in initiatives, we have seen that they reap the benefits on a permanent basis.

Whenever we ask farmers to get some structures such as check dam, or trench bunds made, the immediate question they ask us is whether we will continue to provide funds in the coming years for maintenance and support of these structures. We cannot provide ongoing financial assistance for maintenance. So the initiatives are not implemented. The farmers just stay quiet; they never explicitly state that if they are given the money they will continue to maintain the alternatives. So, we need to ensure that from a small to large scale a specific level of support is maintained.

So the water basin development has to be undertaken in an integrated manner. Even before we approach the poor farmers and advocate our alternatives, it is important to convince the middle class farmers on how many seeds to plant, how much harvest to budget, and how much water to use from the bore wells. We need to work towards defined restrictions, through the community enforcement.

All the NGOs need to work together towards such an objective. What is happening on the NGO front is we get funds, we deploy the funds, complete some initiatives and immediately show case our success.

So have such projects been implemented anywhere?

Yes, but majority of watershed projects have not been successful. They keep talking about things like community participation, IWRA etc., they have built structures and things like that, but if you visit the location after ten years, you will not see any change there. In some places where the NGOs have provided the know-how instead of any financial assistance, you will be surprised to know, that in those areas, the projects have become successful.

Even here, in spite of urbanization, 10% of farmers are willing to adopt alternative technology and methods. The key challenge for us is to identify this segment and see how successfully we implement our projects for this population. When we approach the villagers with the alternatives, they want the proof of concept in real life. Tell me now, how can we visibly show somebody that we have the brains? There is another limitation with us, the NGOs. We assume that we have entered the social work field with complete knowledge; this assumption is wrong and completely false. What we need to do is to learn from the community.

NGOs assume two things: one that the villages and rural areas in general are in a pathetic and terrifying state, and the other (contradictory thinking) that villagers have a lot of land, and are making a lot of money. Both these view points are completely erroneous.

Both the approaches of NGOs of over emphasizing funding and need for education, are extreme in nature and do not work. We as NGOs need to work towards legal enforcement and regulation on water usage from the government. This is essential. Without such legal regulation and enforcement, no initiative will result in full benefit.

In Karnataka, there is a need for two critical legal initiatives. First one is a decree on uprooting of all the Eucalyptus plantations. Second regulation should restrict/completely forbid drilling of bore wells.

The government needs to re-introduce the cropping pattern and other regulative systems, which were practiced earlier. Integrated approach to land and water use is the need of the hour. No ad hoc suggestions should be given to farmers by NGOs and the government.

For example, in Doddaballapur they advised farmers to plant Areca nut (betel nut), since that area has black soil, which is suitable for Areca nut. People have been doing this in the past, without a need for bore well; farmers just needed the water from the lake. Now, in Nelakottae area, they are drilling bore wells and growing Areca nut plantations. A bore well will last for three or four years. The Areca nut tree will start providing benefits only after five or six years. See with this type of lopsided usage of land and water, the farmer who planted Areca nut would become completely ruined.

What about water for household use?

When we discuss about adopting rain water harvesting for domestic use there are three issues which come to my mind. In the villages, the roofs are thatched with hay or fire wood. In cases where they have used wood for the roofing, there is a problem of regular maintenance.

We have created a myth among the people on rain water harvesting. We have rendered this concept as something very complex, mystifying it as a big technology. There is unnecessary hype. See, when we go to a house in a village, and ask for water to wash our hands, they naturally give some collected rain water and ask us to wash. This is so simple and natural for them, but I don’t understand, why we are making this into a complex issue.

During the rainy season, in the villages, people drink rain water, use that water to quench the thirst of their cattle, and they use it for the entire house hold purposes. The moment we get in, and build some neat structure and put in some filters, they immediately stop using that water, and show their disapproval. They refuse to drink the water stating that the water is no good for drinking. When people take their cattle for grazing, they drink the lake water directly. Even today this is a common practice in the villages here. They may suffer from cold and cough for a couple of days but they get cured automatically. This is a general practice. Whenever the new rains come, water is consumed and people have some discomfort. But the same folks do not like to drink the harvested rain water.

They worry about the neighbors and they do not want to be seen consuming the water collected on the roof. It becomes a cause of social embarrassment.

The third issue relates to availability of space. Many families do not have the space or cannot afford to construct the tanks. The question then is why should we build structures for rain water harvesting for folks who collect the rain water directly, and store in drums and vessels?

The pipe and plumbing make sense when there is a water storage tank. In the absence of it, the structures do not make any sense. For people who insist on collecting rain water in drums, where is the need for investing in pipe, plumbing and structures? The situation can be observed both in Doddaballapur town as well as in rural areas of this district.

There are large houses where people are doing roof water harvesting in a big way. They do this with their own funds and efforts. Even such people do not respond when NGOs start talking about technology; they immediately show disapproval. The reason for their disapproval is the fear of complex technology. This is a fact and we have video and other documentation to prove this. For example, when I went to Basavanna’s house in Chinnarayappa village, without taking a look at their house, I kept talking about the roof and rain water harvesting. The response was very luke-warm. Then, on my next visit, I saw that they already had a roof water harvesting system in place for long. The problem I realized was that they could not establish a connection with what I was talking during my earlier visit.

So is it like giving a new name to a very old practice?

Exactly, it is like providing a new name to an existing social practice. This is one of the problems. Also, people know that the government provides funds for building toilets, and bath rooms. So they look at roof and rain water harvesting projects in the same manner.

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