Basindra Village, Ratlam District, Madhya Pradesh, is watered by the perennial Jhamand River. The river flows about 100 ft below the village and was once its only source of water. The 2-3 handpumps installed here in the 1970’s by the Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED) used to run dry in the summer. When the river would shrink in the summer, people would dig holes in the riverbed to procure water for their daily needs.
Today the village has 13 handpumps and 2 tubewells. Groundwater therefore, is heavily relied upon for meeting daily water needs. This however, is not a daunting prospect for this village at least in the current scenario, for recharge measure have been taken in the form of an earthen dam, a solid weir and a check dam, all built on the Jhamand. “These structures don’t just recharge groundwater in this area, but also ensure that the river never dries up” informs Bhandari, a PHED engineer. PHED believes that the river has been made perennial by the dam even as they see that the river has actually shrunk because of it. The Dholavar earthen dam is over a kilometre long and manages to amass a large amount of water in the reservoir it creates. The dam has a live storage capacity of about 50 million cubic meters, submerging 600 ha of land. The riverbed on the other side of the dam is totally dry for a distance, till it is revived again by groundwater accrual. The multi-purpose dam has been supplying water to Ratlam city since 1984 (about 5 mld) and canal irrigation to neighbouring villages.
While currently seeming like a solution, one wonders what the adverse effects of this structure could be in the long-run, on the riverine ecology. The impact canal irrigation and all-year-round agriculture is having on the soil is already visible, “we never needed artificial fertilisers before, now they are a necessity, the soil seems tired” observed Juvan Singh, an elderly citizen of the village. Other than impacts in the immediate environment, dams of this size typically have severe downstream impacts as well.
Basindra has piped water supply today, brought to the village from 2 tubewells. The dugwell this village possessed, has typically fallen out of use, with the introduction of handpumps and tubewells. With an electricity-run motor now providing water in people’s houses, consumption has obviously increased. This, they say is not a problem as the reservoir has enough water. Since only about 35 families have opted for individual tap connections, the panchayat is not able to collect enough funds for the operation and maintenance of the scheme. In fact, the funds collected through community contribution (Rs.30/month/family) are not enough even to pay the electricity charges of the motor. “With the river and the handpumps close by, people don’t feel the need to spend money on piped water supply” says Anankuar, an elderly woman of the village. “Due to constant power cuts, we never have water in our taps anyway” she mournfully adds.
Rowty village, close by, is plagued with similar problems. Although electricity problems persist, here 80% of the people have individual tap connections. The only ones who don’t are the tribals, typically living in hamlets in the outskirts of the village, where pipes don’t reach. The charges for this facility are Rs.40/month/family, with an initial contribution of Rs.500.
Till the 1980’s Rowty was sufficiently watered by 3 dugwells, 1 baori (stepwell) and a seasonal stream. Gradually with climate change, deforestation etc, rainfall began to reduce, but the population pressure kept mounting. “We used to have a good monsoon every year back in the day, the dugwell and baori used to last us the entire year” reminisced a group of villagers. “In 1978 PHED started a pipeline system from the baori, connected to public standposts, but in 1984-85 water scarcity became acute, that’s when we built a stop-dam on the seasonal stream and an overhead tank along with individual tap connections” explained Bhandari. While these measures took care of the problem temporarily, in the 1990’s scarcity rose its ugly head once again as the sources kept drying up. The PHED then decided to build dykes and check dams in the watershed of the village, for recharging groundwater. Tubewells were also drilled, but the water they yielded suffered from bad quality. The handpumps wouldn’t just have bad quality water, but also run dry in the lean season. It was in the late 1990’s when the panchayat demanded water from the Jhamand, through long distance pipes. And only in 2006 was this scheme launched. It is managed by the panchayat, which apart from community contributions, also uses its own funds from other sources to run the system.
With the introduction of tap water, the baori and dugwells have been rendered useless and fallen into a dilapidated condition. While the PHED boasts of these two villages as success stories, it is essential to identify the loopholes. It is commendable that piped water supply has been taken seriously here, as opposed to most other villages, where water isn’t available even in public standposts and handpumps. However, the engineers themselves acknowledge that they do not factor in the electricity problem and therefore end up designing unrealistic schemes which are successful only on paper. They assert that designing schemes with lower consumption of electricity is possible, but they never consider it. Technically therefore, they have 24 x 7 water supply, but the ground reality speaks a different language.
The other point to ponder over is the environmental short-sightedness displayed by their schemes. PHED needs a drastic shift in its approach while designing drinking water schemes. The focus continues to remain on groundwater extraction by way of tubewells, ignoring dugwells and throwing traditional systems into disuse. The sustainability of the source or of the system is almost never considered. Even though they have now begun to make recharge structures to insure against falling water tables, simpler and less energy-intensive techniques are not considered. Many a times, their recharge structures involve dams, solid-weirs etc, which are ecologically myopic in nature and prove to be disastrous for the environment in the long-run. It is an imperative that the PHED tries to revive traditional and indigenous wisdom that is culture and geography specific, and apply technology to that, so as to make it relevant to modern times.
Moreover, PHED has not bothered to involve the community in either of these cases. Villagers are hardly ever consulted before designing a scheme. Their opinions or needs simply don’t matter. If at all any interaction takes place between the village community and the PHED prior to the installation of a water supply scheme, it is one-sided, in the form of information-education-communication (IEC). In these two villages, no IEC activity was undertaken, neither were the locals consulted at any stage of planning or implementation. For this reason, the Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) continues to lie defunct and it is the panchayat that runs the show. In the former example of Basindra, the scheme was not demand-driven and is running into losses.
“PHED schemes are not demand driven but politics driven” the engineers themselves claim. “Where water will be supplied and where it wont is not a matter of need at all, it is based on politics between panchayats, the PHED and MLAs” they discuss amongst each other. When villagers refuse to pay for the installed scheme, PHED engineers lash out at them with hostility, failing to draw a connection between their own observation that they don’t need it and their refusal to pay.
The point that squarely drives home is the compelling need for structural and systemic change within the governmental edifice, and more specifically, within the PHED. Under the new guidelines for provision of drinking water in villages, issued by the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS), PHED engineers are expected to involve communities in their schemes right from the planning stage. While very much in line with the participatory governance rhetoric, this idea has few takers as it is designed by those sitting in Delhi, far removed from ground-realities. Policies such as these are issued in a top-down manner by central departments, much in contradiction to what they ask of the engineers at the village level.
Community participation is a bottom-up process that involves consistent investment of time and effort by the engineers. It is not a one-day event or a one-visit job. Involving villagers in the planning, implementation and operation processes of a drinking water scheme entails gaining ground within all sections of the community, winning their trust, dealing with caste and gender issues, local politics and becoming aware of all the minute details of the problems they face. Mobilising the people and sustaining their confidence is a long drawn process that does not terminate once the scheme has been installed, for that is just the beginning, and running the scheme successfully henceforth requires much cooperation from the villagers.
However, this is not something the PHED engineers feel they are equipped to do. “We are expected to do IEC activities among other aspects of community participation, but neither do we have the skill nor the time for such activities” they claim. “I have over 600 villages under me, how can I undertake a two-year process of community mobilisation for each one of them?” exclaims a sub-engineer from Ratlam district. Another sub-engineer threw light on the loopholes in their planning process, “we are asked to design schemes overnight, how can we ensure people’s involvement in this manner? Our schemes therefore do not factor in local issues – geographical or social, and are unrealistic, thereby causing their own failure.” What these statements elucidate is a desperate need to bring in structural changes so as to enable PHED to respond to these local problems, which the central department often turns a blind eye to.
It is clear that many of the engineers are well aware of their limitations and weaknesses, one of them being their inability to involve communities for the reasons stated above. Lack of skill, time and manpower, as well as bureaucratic procedures are only some the barriers. The need of the hour isn’t just to convey the importance of bottom-up planning and participatory governance, but to bring about systemic changes within government bodies to make them more responsive towards current realities. Government bodies, whether the PHED, the municipalities, the development authorities or any other, cannot consist solely of engineers, but will have to have a wing of social scientists who have the skill that engineers lack to work at the village level, with the people.
Whether socially blind or ecologically short-sighted, the PHED interventions require a massive shift from being top-down, technocratic schemes to demand-driven, sustainable and people-managed system. What is needed is not a just a scheme but an entire system.
Share this article