Niti Aayog recently launched an integrated water management index to assess and improve the performance of effective water management. Some of the findings of the report are worrying: 600 million Indians face extremely high water stress, and India ranks 120th in the water quality index of 122 countries. Water conservationist Rajendra Singh – winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award and the Stockholm Water Prize, who is dedicated to stimulating community water harvesting and water restoration efforts – talks to Radheshyam Jadhav about sustainable solutions to the Indian water crisis:
What do you think of Niti Aayog’s Integrated Water Management Index?
The Niti Aayog report presents a dangerous scenario. This also reflects that MGNREGA is not moving in the right direction in terms of river rejuvenation. The MGNREGA model is based on our work and is expected to create water assets. But it has not been taken seriously. The money is used to build roads and build toilets. If you spend money and work hard to build johads (rainwater storage tanks) and make-up water aquifers, the rivers in India will not die. Funds used in water projects are abused and corruption is rampant.
But are some states not doing constructive work on water conservation?
I will put Jalyukt Shivar in Maharashtra in the first place. The country has done a good job in restoring small rivers. I ranked Telangana and Karnataka in second and third places respectively to work well under MGNREGA. Other states have wasted this opportunity.
What is the way forward to save the river and cope with the water crisis? Linking our brains and minds to the river should be our top priority. India needs river literacy campaigns. The literacy rate of rivers and water needs to be included in the course. All river basins must have resource mapping and community-driven catchment, and a protective structure must be established. Contractors must not have a place in these projects, and people must lead from the front. River water needs to be classified according to its purpose. This is a necessary condition for effective use of water. ‘A’ grade water must be allocated for drinking, ‘B’ grade water for growing vegetables and food, and ‘C’ grade water for industrial use.
Do you think you need to do more to encourage the public to participate in water conservation projects?
There is no serious effort to encourage public participation. The government defines public participation as meeting, eating and deceiving. The government called the meeting part of public participation, providing food to people and then deceiving them by changing the meeting procedures. This kind of public participation is meaningless. I have been discussing this issue in domestic and international forums for the past ten years. But no one wants to hear the truth.
Does the community come out to engage people to volunteer to save the river?
In many states, people unite to save the river and put pressure on the government. Public participation makes sense only when the people and the government hold the same shares in the planning and execution of water projects. The supply of water will maintain peace. The migration from village to city is increasing, and the socio-economic dynamics will change dramatically due to water shortages. People must master the reins and work on sustainable solutions to save rivers and water bodies. Only genuine and popular public participation can save India from further water crises.
Efforts are being made to advance the Arvari Sansad (Arvari River Council) model?
At the government level, there is no effort in this direction. But we are trying to implement this model at the national level by launching a community-driven river revitalization plan. About 70% of small rivers in India have died. Revitalization is only possible where people take initiatives and we ensure that community participation increases. The Rivers Parliament model focuses on river basin approaches and aims to encourage stakeholder participation, fair and decentralized water management.
Does the water crisis in rural areas lead to large-scale migration to cities?
It is necessary to ensure that sufficient water is available in rural areas. In the absence of water, large-scale urban migration will continue and most migrants will not be able to return to the village. If water availability is directly related to health, employment and overall well-being, then if there is water in the village, then migration to the city will stop.
You strongly oppose the government’s river connection project. Do you have any choices?
Community-driven decentralized water conservation and harvesting structures will help India cope with the water crisis. Water saving work must involve people rather than contractors.