Published in the Sunday Magazene Section of the Hindu, 19th October, 2008 .
Water to the people
Bureaucrats and engineers from Tamil Nadu, working with villagers in a landmark experiment, are democratising the access to water. The lessons learnt were shared with an international audience at the Pan-Asian Colloquium on Water, organised in collaboration with the IIT in Chennai last month.
Villagers have included all communities and castes in the Koodams, public money has been used to renovate tanks and dig new ones…
Keen interest and participation: Water conservation methods and practices put up by the autorities have proved popular.
The acronyms come thick and fast — TWAD, IAMWARM — as do names like Change Management Group, and many others. But what really stands out is the attitude of the protagonists, their energy, enthusiasm, commitment, and above all success. They are State-government bureaucrats and agricultural and water engineers. Who? Yes that’s right, State bureaucrats and engineers. The water situation across the whole world is extremely serious, not least in India , where groundwater depletion by over-extraction has driven water tables so far down that borewells 500 feet deep are commonplace. The commodification of water and the failure of the State to ensure a reliable supply of clean water to all have had the effect of severely reducing access to water for the poor, which in India means hundreds of millions of people. Furthermore, through many a village, a pipe installed by big landowners takes water to be sold for a variety of uses; the villagers collect what they can from leaks in the pipes. As to the remaining groundwater, this is increasingly contaminated by fertilizer and pesticides, by highly toxic and disease-riddled human faeces, and by medicines in human and animal excreta.
The dominant rhetoric of water supply for two decades and more has been that water is a commodity to be extracted and sold in an unregulated market; at best, States have delegated powers to regulatory bodies, which tend only to follow the techno-managerial practice of buying machinery purportedly to supply water to the public, and on the evidence rarely improve the situation at all. For its part, the private sector has been as techno-managerial as public bodies.
In response, the bureaucrats and engineers of Tamil Nadu have transformed their own practices and the water situation in over 500 villages in the State. The officials concerned have gone for improvement in a big way, listening seriously to villagers for the first time in the latter’s’ lives, discovering painful things about their own failures and departmental narrowness, and transforming the engagement between millions of people and their State. First, the bureaucrats and engineers transformed themselves under inspirational and far-sighted senior leadership. From Chief Engineers to recent recruits, they went and sat on villagers’ floors, listening for the first time to an often humbling story of official failure and indifference. They learnt that in hundreds of villages where water scarcity had been unknown, water itself was now almost unknown. They learnt that meeting their own targets for miles of piping laid often meant nothing in the actual delivery of water, and they learnt that this was the very first time any official had simply sought out villagers and asked them what they thought.
The officials took the Indian Constitution seriously. Under the 73rd Amendment, Gram Panchayats are a part of the structure of the Republic of India , and with each Panchayat representing four or so villages, the bureaucrats, the engineers, and the villagers formed a Koodam, a traditional Tamil forum in which all have equal voices, despite their differences in status and position outside. Following the Koodams, where diversity was respected, differences recognised and consensus decisions were reached, the relevant Gram Panchayats assumed the responsibility for good water practice, drawing upon the advice and knowledge of officials as they needed. The engineers provided enormous amounts of advice and organisational support. For several months at a stretch, many engineers gave their own time, working well into the night after their official working hours.
Many innovations resulted as well. Testing kits are now widely used by children in schools so that water quality can be monitored locally and independently. Other officials were consulted too — in one village, a District Forest Officer permitted access to a reserved forest solely so that drinking water could be drawn thence. One Panchayat member has to walk through snake-infested terrain at all hours to turn on the pump, sometimes crossing a chest-deep torrent as well. He has done this every day for the last three years. On a visit, I too drank the water from the well.
The results are striking. Villagers have included all communities and castes in the Koodams, public money has been used to renovate tanks and dig new ones, check dams — an excellent method of recharge — have been installed in drainage ditches, and above all water is being conserved; areas under sugarcane have fallen by 20 per cent in some cases, rice is grown with far less water using the single-shoot or SRI planting system, and water tables have risen. And costs are substantially down too.
Sustainability must of course be part of the strategy, and here the State is essential; it ensures stability, continuity, and a new form of accountability to citizens, as well as a new form of responsiveness and engagement. Above all, when its citizens engage with the State, it provides incontrovertible public legitimacy grounded in fairness and equity.
The results and the lessons must be shared too. Collaborating with IIT Madras, the TN engineers hosted a Pan-Asian Colloquium on Water from September 25 to 27th. Over the preceding two days, delegates from over 20 countries in Asia , and some from the Americas , visited some of the villages which constitute the Tamil Nadu experiment in the democratisation of access to water. The manifest optimism and passion of the new approach infused the Colloquium; delegates shared details, themes, huge ideas, and thoroughly practical plans, all in a spirit of complete openness, equality, and wonderful friendship. Large private bodies were of course invited, but although the CII sent a representative, they made no contribution to the discussion, and FICCI did not respond to the invitation.
Criticism of the private sector’s failures was severe but by no means exclusive, though the evidence is overwhelming that the privatisation of water is meant to boost private corporations’ profits and not deliver water. Indeed that whole project is starting to stall; following determined public resistance, Uruguay has amended its constitution, recognising the fundamental right to water for all living things; Ecuador is currently amending its constitution to recognise water as a right for inanimate things as well! Mighty water corporations have been thrown out; one such even sued the government of Bolivia — and settled for a nominal sum. Philippine public-service unions have devised their own benchmarking systems to include public access, equity, and fairness among their performance indicators.
For those who attended the Colloquium, the next major event is the World Bank-sponsored World Water Forum in Istanbul in March 2009, and one task would be to democratise that Forum as well. Somehow water, the utter essential for all imaginable life, brings out the most resolute commitment from ordinary people, and is catalysing a form of democratic public engagement which both rejects the private corporation and reshapes the contemporary State. That could only have been done by ordinary people; more power to them and to the public servants who work with them.