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Equity over traditions
By Amitangshu Acharya

While it has become glamorous to talk about revival of traditional water harvesting structures, preference for unaesthetic pipelines over the ephemeral stepwells has more to do with dignity than just convenience.


F1 publicity at a traditional water harvesting site. (Source: Deccan Herald)

When a group of models in red costumes had to pose for cameras to promote the launch of the Indian Formula One Grand Prix in New Delhi, organizers selected Agrasen ki baoli, a picturesque structure that is actually eight centuries old stepwell, as a backdrop.

Women in red, and even blue, green and yellow have not been uncommon around water sources in villages. In fact, in Rajasthan and Gujarat, wells without brightly dressed women around them are a rare sight. For sore eyes, the sensuous F1 may not be eyesores, though many may have already raised eyebrows at this convergence of F1 with a heritage site.

If nothing, such injection of glamour helps draw interest from urban India in traditional water systems. And none can dispute that much of it was achieved at when episode 12 of film star Amir Khan’s TV show Satyameva Jayate discussed traditional water harvesting systems in detail. It helped to bring home the science and wisdom behind these systems to a generation who perhaps never knew of their existence.

This new found “cool” quotient of traditional water harvesting is a result of sweat and toil of grassroots movements, activists, scholars, journalists and practitioners whose torn chappals and worn out kurtas are a stark contrast to the branded red designer wear being sported by our F1 ladies in red. Question is, is this only paradox that traditional water harvesting systems have to deal with?

Not really. There seems to be considerable agreement in scholarly circles that traditional water harvesting has always had a checkered history. However, proponents of traditional water harvesting, for decades, have circulated a black and white narrative to explain the decline of traditional water harvesting systems in India. In short, in a pre-colonial past, people (essentially rural) lived in harmony with each other and nature. Traditional water harvesting was an epitome of collective management of natural resources combined with traditional knowledge. Colonial rule either destroyed or ignored these working systems, and the post colonial state, bent on industrialization, large dams and urban centers, followed suit.

In fact, community owned traditional water systems are sites where difference between men and women and people of different castes are played out and reinforced.

Hence, the centralized “state” is pitted against the decentralized and harmonious community. Broken pipelines symbolize bureaucratic failure while rural stepwell surrounded by women in colorful saris becomes epitome of that wholesome goodness that is rural India. Resultantly, the recipe for revival includes admonishing modernity and exhorting a return to egalitarian and ecological  “village republics”.

Women in search of water in rural Rajasthan. (Source: India Water Portal)

Such romantic idylls catch imaginations quickly, just like a photograph of F1 girls against a baoli. But is the beauty behind such theories skin deep?

A number of researchers, and many of them women, would agree. Some have been scooping out pollens and sediments from the beds of medieval tanks in South India for a decade. Others have analysed folk songs and myths. Though carbon dating and folklores rarely meet, in this case they do, and conclude that sustainability of these systems are a myth. Not only does it show that such traditional water harvesting systems were prone to frequent failures, their cumulative impact, given their scale of construction across vast landscapes, were no less than large dams!

Such damning evidence is followed close on its heels by that of historical exploitation of labour from dalit vodda’s or tank diggers, who were forced to work on these sites for low or no wages.

This new found “cool” quotient of traditional water harvesting is a result of sweat and toil of grassroots movements, activists, scholars, journalists and practitioners.

Such academic research looms like an ominous cloud over traditional water harvesting systems. Like deatheater’s in Harry Potter novels, they seem to suck the life and colour out of the narratives that celebrate their centrality in holding communities together. In many cases, they do exactly the opposite.

In fact, community owned traditional water systems are sites where difference between men and women and people of different castes are played out and reinforced. For example, if a dalit accidentally touched the mouth of the village spring in Uttarakhand, not only was he/she publicly admonished, elaborate puja had to follow to cleanse the water from such polluting touch. Dalits could not collect spring water along with other upper castes. They had to wait for them to finish.

And though women and water are considered as inseparable as a clinging wet sari in the rains, such glossy assumptions hides more than it reveals. Norms of purity and pollution are at their strictest best when it comes to water. Be it a pond in West Bengal, or a stepwell in Rajasthan, sanctions on access applies to menstruating and pregnant women. In fact, traditional water harvesting systems help to brand women as periodically impure.

Hence current use of the F1 girls to brand traditional water harvesting doesn’t allow us to see how for many years, traditional water harvesting has branded women. The poetics of traditional water harvesting has been much more in circulation than its politics.

As more glitz and glamour gets infused into traditional water harvesting, it’s important to be untraditional and discuss the shades of grey that hides behind the red.  Such discussions will reveal the preference for ugly and unaesthetic pipelines over the aesthetic and ephemeral stepwells. It’s not just convenience, but the dignity that comes with it.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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