Sunday, June 21, 2009

Water conservation and tradition - a meandering reflection

India's Farming 'Revolution' Heading For Collapse : NPR
(via SepiaMutiny)

While the world is busy dealing with the global economic recession on the one side and incessant acts of terrorism and patriotic saber-rattling on the other side, things that are far more essential and fundamental to human existence are in great peril. While we can exist without money and we can definitely thrive without terrorism, we will die without food and water.

"hoTTege hiTTilla, juTTige mallige hUvu" (Trans.: No flour for the stomach, but jasmine for the plait) goes a common Kannada proverb. We seem to be so interested in this proverbial jasmine for our hair while we are almost out of stock on the food side.

For me, the biggest problem now and in the next ten years is that of water. We can choose to be ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand but the problem will not go away. All the alarming news that we hear about depleting ground water reserves is not mere propaganda - it is reality. While I have not done a scientific study, my random sampling seems to indicate this trend. For instance, I had seen an abundance of water just fifteen years ago - not just in Bangalore - but in the surrounding rural parts and districts of Karnataka as well. Normal hand wells and borewells were sufficient to get water to people. Effort to get water from the ground would be back breaking work (picture womenfolk having a go at the village hand pumps) - but the water tables themselves seemed at a healthy level - indicated by how easily borewells could be drilled. I fondly remember the well in my neighbor's house in urban Bangalore being filled almost to the brim during the rainy season.

Fast forward to 2004 and beyond and the picture changes drastically. A single example will illustrate my point. A massive apartment complex comes up near Malleshwaram in Bangalore where they sink at least twenty to thirty borewells. And guess what? Forget the open wells; but almost all borewells in the surrounding areas go dry. Plain dry. My old neighbor's well is gone. If you wander in and around old residential areas, remnants of dry hand pumps, many of them sunk during the 1984 drought, call out for attention. However, residents of houses around the same wells, of houses that were modest during that age but have now been replaced by fancy looking multi-storeyed buildings, get water - 24 x 7, mostly from a borewell sunk 400 feet.

A similar state can be seen on the rural side also. At my village, we had a well - which again, like at my Bangalore neighbor's house would be almost full. Now, the well is dry and had to be closed. Each family in the village has dug at least two borewells - sometimes to depths of a thousand feet. Agriculture is not the same as before. Peer pressure adds to the vagaries of rainfall. When other farmers in the area in earlier times would at least lend a helping hand in times of distress, they are too busy counting notes now to help their neighbor. And envy has come as an urban export to rural India. In light of this, what does the sAmAnya farmer do when he sees his neighbor counting money? Take a loan and dig a well to keep up with his neighbor. The arguments about water table levels do not appeal to people whose existence tomorrow might be at risk.

The path to economic might has somehow landed us in ecological peril - not that economic might has been reached either. I sincerely hope that the picture is not as bleak as I see it to be. People are getting educated about rain water harvesting and other areas - but we can only hope for the best.

Tradition has been a vehicle for best known methods of livelihood in its respective geographical locations. However, with colonization and subsequent "modernization", tradition has been pushed back. To understand how traditional ways of water management were very effective and have since been dismantled over the ages, refer to a good research proposal here. Disregarding traditional values and wisdom without due consideration has been a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. India presents a very sorry example for this case.

The plight depicted in the following quartet written over fifty years ago by DVG still affects the world and India, especially. And will probably do so for a longer time to come.

haLeya bhakti-shraddheyaLisihOgive mAsi
suLidillavAva hosa-darshananada hoLapuM
paLagidda mane bidda kuMTa kuruDana teradi
taLamaLisutide lOka - mankutimma

(An apology of a translation - without any intention of belittling our visually and physically challenged brethren):
The ways of tradition fast fading away
And the new Vision yet unseen;
As the lame-blind stumbles about his ruined old home
Mankutimma, does the world bumble away...

The example of the lame-blind is testimony to the keen insight DVG had into the Human psyche. The lame-blind lived in his old home and was used to it with the objects he needed at the right place. He knew for example, how to get to the water pot, where he could get support, which wall he could lean on etc., With his old house ruined - (no commentary on how that happened...) - it fell because it was probably old, he could not rely on his old methods of livelihood and hence spends his time stumbling over the fallen bricks and walls of his old house.

The metaphor is quite apt as the lame-blind has not actually arranged the objects at home as he is not just lame but also blind. He probably started living in an old house built by somebody else. Tradition is similar to an extent that its methods and rules, though they might have been intelligently derived by its originators, are now blindly followed by its adherents, who lack the "legs" to progress forward and the "vision" to see things for what they are. However, tradition was still useful, even to the "blind" and the "lame" - but with it becoming ruined, the blind-lame are left to their stumbling and bumbling ways.

Though the earlier thought is somewhat depressing, the new vision at least according to DVG is still only unseen. It may exist and hopefully, will be seen by us. With that hope, till the next post... take care.