Bundelkhand region, spread over 14 districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in central India, has often been in news due to water scarcity, a problem that can easily worsen in times of climate change if adequate steps are not taken to check this.
Recently there has been an increasing interest in the revival of Bundelkhand’s innumerable traditional water bodies to quench the thirst of its people and animals. This is seen as a highly cost-effective approach which can start giving good results within a few months, as compared to uncertain, questionable and delayed results of highly expensive river-link and large dam projects.
According to official estimates as many as 995 traditional water bodies, mostly tanks or talabs, are estimated to exist in a single district Tikamgarh(undivided). Most of these were created at the time of Chandela rulers, roughly between 9th and 14th century. A research organization the ABV Institute for Good Governance and Policy Analysis has identified 1100 such bodies in Bundelkhand which is being seen as only the first step to which many additions have to be made. The traditional water bodies identified by it include mainly those created during the reign of Chandela and Bundela rulers from 9th to 19th century. Although these are mainly identified with the names of rulers, actually these incorporate and are the result of the wisdom and understanding of people and communities to conserve water keeping in view the special conditions of the region.
In recent decades as the government emphasis shifted more to large dam projects, the proper maintenance of these smaller water bodies suffered from neglect. The large dam projects of this region are known for their ruthless displacement of rural communities, as depicted with detail and sensitivity in Virendra Jain’s award winning Hindi novels based on this region—‘Doob’ and ‘Paar’. Flash floods caused by sudden discharge of huge quantities of water from large dams have caused much devastation in Jalaun, Banda and other districts from time. The area irrigated by these dams has fallen much short of potential. The latest dam project, (Ken-Betwa link) which is also a river-link project, is the most high cost project, billed at INR 44,604 crore to be spent over the next 8 years ( one crore=10 million), involves displacement of people as well as massive tree felling and has highly questionable viability.
On the contrary the costs of rejuvenation of various small water bodies are very low and benefits are very visible, certain and considerable. If a sum like INR 44,000 crore over the next 8 years is made available for this, all the thousands of water bodies of the 14 districts of the region can be rejuvenated, and in addition a fund can be deposited for the future maintenance of each one of these water bodies.
Rejuvenation is needed because repairs and cleaning have been neglected for a long time. Even small repairs can make a lot of difference in terms of protecting the basic structure and its water conservation capacity, even enhancing it. When excess silt accumulating over several years is carefully removed from these water bodies, their ability to store water is enhanced and in addition farmers get vast amounts of highly fertile silt which can greatly increase fertility of their fields (or in other cases can be used for constructing bunds). This is more or less a free gift for them, as they only have to incur the cost of carrying this silt to their farms. Such a pattern of improving and cleaning water tanks has recently proved to be very successful under BIWAL project and has been widely welcomed by rural communities.
This rejuvenation work is therefore likely to receive the support of nearby communities, and community mobilization is also very important for ensuring that benefits get shared in justice based ways. Rejuvenation needs of various kinds of tanks in various states of maintenance can differ much from each other and local communities can best decide about the details and forms of rejuvenation work to achieve the best results at relatively low cost.
Similarly they are in a better position to warn about the precautions needed. Some tanks are inter-connected to each other and it is important to understand this clearly before starting rejuvenation work, or else tanks can be harmed by hurriedly done work taken up without understanding the basic structure.
Water bodies can be used in various ways for meeting various household needs, providing drinking water to animals, irrigation, fisheries, growing lotus seed (makhana) and water chestnut (singhara), even cultivating normal crops in dry months when water has receded. Therefore community involvement is a must for ensuring that people are able to decide about these multiple issues on the basis of optimal use, conservation and justice based solutions. While traditional fishing in tanks has been a welcome additional source of livelihood and nutrition for many households, the introduction of some exotic fish species and their special polluting feed in some tanks under the contract system has led to pollution of tanks and this has been causing much distress among several rural communities. Hence polluting forms of fisheries should be avoided in these tanks which have many sided uses for communities and animals. A very important use of these tanks as drinking water source for wild, stray and farm/dairy animals and birds should be emphasized more and this is denied once the tank is polluted by certain kinds of fisheries. In fact even local fish species, which contribute to cleaning and not polluting the tank, are also threatened by the introduction of exotic fish and their special polluting feed.
Apart from the more visible uses of these tanks, these also make a less visible contribution of water recharge and the water level of village wells and hand pumps remains high due to this. These also add to scenic beauty and contribute to weather amelioration during the summer, providing relief to people as well as farm animals, stray animals, wild animals and birds.
Apart from repair and cleaning, the catchment area of the water body must be protected from erosion and other harm. Both the main tank and its catchment should be protected from those encroachments which can threaten the survival of the tank.
Governments, panchayats and civil society organizations can all make important contributions to this rejuvenation work. It is important to form villagers’ committees which will take the responsibility for follow-up work and maintenance once the main rejuvenation work has been completed.
Well planned and ably implemented rejuvenation of water bodies is the way forward in Bundelkhand region for promoting water conservation and ending water scarcity in a cost effective way. This is also true for several other regions which have a rich heritage of tanks and water bodies but where their potential has been badly reduced by decades of neglect and degradation.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.