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Indian Water Policy: British Period To Post Independence

As far as access to water by the majority is concerned, the water policy in India appears to benefit the powerful and the rich. At present in Manipur Loktak Project Khuga Dam & Tipaimukh Dam are planted by water policy. During the British rule, this was in favor of the imperial powers. Later, after Independence, the development planning evolved strategies for increasing productivity, which, in turn, meant major benefits of development going to the rich and the affluent.

The British Policy

The Water policy of the British was limited to the aspect of irrigation. One cannot state with any certainty that they had a policy concerning drinking water. The irrigation policy itself was closely linked to the British land settlement system which was mainly for revenue and not for production. The permanent settlement of 1793 in most of eastern India was to ensure permanent revenue to the British. Hence, the land revenue was fixed once and for all. As a result, the Government had little interest in encouraging irrigation as such. It was left to the zamindars. However, the zamindar concerned for water for all practical purpose is only as a tax collector who did not have interest in developing the land under his jurisdiction. The tenant could not perform much on their land since the system of tenancy was share-cropping. Whatever the production, 50 to 65 per cent of the produce went to the land-owner, leaving no surplus to invest in the land.

However, north India was annexed, the British found many functioning irrigation systems. Besides, based on the lessons of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal, they did not fix the revenue once and for all. Hence, it was not possible to maintain the canals in some cases to extend them. In the south and west, smaller areas were annexed gradually and then joined to the Madras or Bombay Presidency.

The land settlement in these areas was different from that of East and North. Instead of zamindars (which give land to the highest bidder who sublet to the tenants), the State entered into direct contract with individual cultivator (ryots), who had to pay the rent directly to the Government. This was the rotary system. The State had to intervene to ensure the maintenance of common resources like tanks and canals, since they could not be handed over to individuals.

Besides, the Grant Anicut and other irrigation systems, already in existence, had to be maintained. In Madras Presidency alone, more than 50,000 kilometers (kms) of embankments had to be maintained.

To ensure this, the British formed a department of irrigation, as they would not recognize the traditional irrigation communities. However, in order to maintain the Grand Anicut, the British engineers had to learn indigenous technology; they had to involve the local people. Hence, there was the possibility of a model with people’s participation evolving in the south.

However, between 1860 and 1921, irrigation was declared a Central concern (not a State or provincial). During these years, irrigation in the north was taken over by the British Government engineers who viewed maintenance only as a technical problem, and did not think of either local technologies or the involvement of the people. During these years this model was imposed on the whole country. With this, focus shifted to what was considered “scientific management” of water, and access of the majority to water decreased. Also the involvement of the people decreased and maintenance continued since the people needed the tanks. Only a few of the more than 30,000 tanks suffered every year. But the effect began to accumulate, and the access to their source of water by small farmers began to be reduced.

Water Policy After Independence

With independence began what is known as the era of planned development. The industrial, land forest and water policies had to be changed accordingly. Higher productivity was one of the principles on which all these policies were based. The Five Year plans kept repeating that productivity and distributive justice had to be combined in national development. Drinking water, Drought-Prone Area Development, small farmers’ development, became parts of this double approach to water management.

As in other resources, so also in water, the policy reflects the pressure coming from different sectors. And where there is pressure from contradictory forces, there is often an inclination to choose the strongest. This has happened in the forest policy, in land management and was bound to happen also in water management. Higher productivity was essential. Only 9 per cent of the country’s cultivated land was irrigated in 1950, and it was important to increase the area under irrigation. Moreover, other forms of energy, mainly electricity, were needed and water had to be exploited for this purpose too.

In this quest for fast development, it was assumed that the western model was the only one available. The technology was, therefore, imported and major dams were build in order to make the natural resources and productive as possible. Little efforts were made to study indigenous systems and to update them rather than replace them.

Slowly but surely, focus shifted towards the big farmers, since production had to be increased. This was done through the hybrid seeds, fertilizers, irrigation and mechanization. Since dam water could not be made available to everyone, the farmers were encouraged through subsidies to develop their own irrigation systems. Tube-wells became the norm for the farmers, who could afford them. India has a ground water potential of 42.3 per cent and only 23.73 per cent of it is used. But what has happened in recent decades is overexploitation of deep tube-wells and neglect of shallow sources. The number of tube-wells bored has increased from around 5,000 per year in the 1950s to around 2, 00,000 per year today. Because of this, the water table has decline in many parts of India and open wells have dried up. The Central Water Board has identified 645 blocs where this has reached serious proportions.

Low Access To Water By The Majority

One finds that the over exploitation of water and of forest has combined to reduce the access to water by the poor and by the women.

Since many more tube-wells are bored, the water table has gone down considerably. Consequently open wells and tanks are drying up. At the same time, also the village tanks previously maintained by the panchayat are neglected. Most of the panchayat leaders were big farmers, who can afford their own tube-wells. As a result, they have lost the vested interest in the maintenance of the local drinking water and irrigation systems. As a result the poor do not have access not only to irrigation but also in many cases even to drinking water.

It was assumed by the policy-makers that productivity and justice could be combined. However, priority has been given to productivity and the policies have gone in favor of the big earners. Around two-thirds of the Indian farmers are engaged in dry farming and irrigation-based farming. This has resulted in a decline in overall agricultural productivity.

Displacement: Who pays the Price?

The big earners and the better-off classes have gained access to water, and in the process, have deprived the small farmers, the poor and the housewives of access to the resource. The price of the big dams has been paid by the rural poor, particularly the tribal, the Scheduled Castes and the other landless category of people. They have paid the price in terms of their dislocation and consequent dispossession in the event of meager compensation by the State for their losses. The exact figures of the numbers displaced are not available. But preliminary estimates indicate that around 140 lakh persons have been displaced by dams alone between 1951 and 1990. And, out of 845 Million people, it comprises 1.66 per cent of the country’s total population in 1991.

The displaced are rarely the beneficiaries of the schemes. More than 40 per cent of those displaced by these schemes are the tribal, who form only 7.85 per cent of the total population of the country. Another 40 per cent are from the scheduled castes and other landless categories. None of them benefits from the dams and other development schemes that has come to displace them It is not merely that they do not get the benefit of these schemes but also that their situation deteriorates. All these studies indicate that fewer than 30 per cent of the persons displaced by these schemes have been rehabilitated even 30 years after their displacement. Most of them are forced to rehabilitate themselves.

Some of them do it by resorting to environmentally destructive practices, such as, cutting trees for sale as firewood, for charcoal and timber. Many others migrate to the cities to fill the slums and are exploited further. A large number of them become bonded laborers. It is estimated that such bonded laborers form more than quarter of the 5 million construction workers in the country. Thus those who pay the price of the development are deprived not merely of access to water, but also of their freedom and of their right to live as human beings

Strategy for the strong

When it comes to planning a strategy, its concentration seems to be primarily on irrigation and hydropower, i.e. on what the British called “scientific management” of water whose benefits have till now reached only the powerful. The policy statement speaks of the needs to exchange water between the rivers, and to utilize the existing resource to the maximum. Not once are women mentioned in the statement. Though, in the division of labor in the country, they are responsible for ensuring the regular supply of water to the family.

Similarly, focus is on irrigation dams, most of which will be in the forest areas, particularly in those areas inhabited by the tribal. While passing references made to the need, to give priority to the development of the tribal no concrete policy has been worked out either in this document or elsewhere for the rehabilitation of the displaced persons. Finally, the policy statement does not give any importance to dry and arid zones. Water utilization is, thus, only for those who can afford irrigated lands.

Possible Alternatives

Alternative to this situation of marginalization are possible. Only the Western model of sophisticated technology and engineering marvels is so far taken as the norm in planning development strategies in India. Dams are thought of as the only possible source of water. Consequently, the tribal and other rural poor are displaced in order to supply irrigation. Water to the farmer in the coastal area, to the industry and for household consumption in cities. The following are some of the suggestions.

i)  Desalinization of water explanation

A suggestion is that as India has a 6,000 km. long coast-line, it should be possible to desalinate water for use in the coastal areas or even in its immediate hinterland. The present desalination technology is extremely expensive because it belongs to the 1950s. There is no reason why research should not be done on new low-priced technology for desalination which can solve the water problem of most of the coastal areas and several other regions in the hinterland.

ii) Increase Use of Solar Energy

Similarly, another suggestion is that most regions in India have 300 days of sunshine in a year. But the solar energy has only marginal importance in today’s energy policy today. People are displaced since the electric power is generated through hydel dams and thermal plants. The present solar technology is expensive. In fact, in 1988 the creation of the infrastructure for 1 megawatt (mw) of solar electric power coast Rs 4 crores as against Rs 3 crores for thermal plants and Rs 2 crores for hydel power. But very little research is being done on solar technology meant for the 1990s. What we have belongs to the 1970s. Instead of displacing more people and depriving the poor of access to water and livelihood itself, it is importent to invest on energy saving devices such as, solar power.

iii) Diversion of Polluted Water as Fertilizer

The pollution of water, too, is preventable. The industrial, as well as, human wastes are diverted to rivers and to the sea, thus, polluting the water that human beings need for their survival. Instead, it can be treated and use as fertilizer, resulting in both savings of foreign exchange and unpolluted water.

Quite a bit of the foreign currency wasted for importing fertilizers either in its finish form or as raw material can thus be saved while reducing water pollution.

iv) Ban on wastage of Water

Much water that can be made available to the poor is wasted in the cities to water its gardens, to clean middle class houses, etc electric power is wasted for street lighting. Do not think that we are against watering a garden, cleaning a house or lighting a street. All this is necessary and must be done. They suggest that it should be done in a more environment-conscious manner. One sees no reason why sewage treatment plants, should not become the norm, why biogas thus produced should not light the city street. All this is necessary and must be done.

Tipaimukh and Barak River (Ruonglevaisuo & Tuiruong River) as we all know that, the proposed Tipaimukh Dam would be a hungry lion, the people inhabiting the Hmar Area would, automatically be victimized by the construction of the Dam. The Barak River (Tuiruong) is the life line and their mother who gives them all domestic needs in season and out of season.

For the Hmars and other tribes living on the bank of this river for the last more than 200 years or so, the river has been the carrier of uncountable source of income and wealth to the people, and in return this river carries away poverty. As then Nile serves Egypt, Thames in England, the Barak serves the Hmar Area and it can rightly be called ‘the Gift of the Hmar Area’. The people sell their agricultural products in Silchar and carry their domestic needs through this river; their economic activity entirely depends on this river. Therefore, the construction of Tipaimukh Dam means the destruction of the economy of the Hmars.

The MoU was signed between the Government of Manipur and the NEEPCO, Shillong on January 9, 2003, another MoU with NHPC in 2010. Some people living the Barak valley specially enlightened and educated groups know the fact that they should face a big problem, but they cannot stand against the strong current of the Barak River. Above everything what concerns the Hmars most is the treasured land  ‘Hmar Area ‘ which  is inhabited by their forefathers from time immemorial.

The Government’s final decision for the construction of the Tipaimukh Dam is really a knell to the affected people of Tipaimukh Sub Division. Economically or politically, the Hmars, inhabitants of Tipaimukh Sub-Division will certainly be exploited by the outsiders who are more advanced.  Half of the population will leave the place for some economic and political reasons, almost half of the land, orchards, gardens and public jhum land will either be submerged by water or will be acquired for township, colonies or other types of construction.

The people in Tipaimukh Sub-Division fear that most of the jobs thus generated will be technical in nature which requires special skill which they do not possess. After a lapse of maybe 20 years, people in this area will be economically or politically exploited by the influx of the outsiders who are more advanced than them. Thangsawihmang, Adviser, Affected Area Committee and Writer said that, “This would certainly take place as rain comes in June every Year. This prediction to the Hmars is not probability but certainty. Once again if the concerned company neglected who the victims are, the Tipaimukh Dam Project will not succeed. Even happening in the same District the Khuga Dam Affected people do not get proper compensation likewise is the future of the inhabitant of Tipaimukh. So, the said company and the victim to be should have a proper common understanding, since it is partly based on the people living in the area.

*The article is written by Timothy Z Zote

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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*The Sangai Express- Largest Circulated News Paper In Manipur
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