I was born in 1984, some years before the liberalization of the Indian economy which was less an exercise in modernization in its true sense and more an exercise of alignment between Indian and western economies and culture. Some of the changes were readily welcome, such as the (slight) loosening of the hold of caste systems on society or more employment and business opportunities. However some were quite unwholesome, such as the change of mindset towards considering everything – humans, land, trees, water – as a ‘resource’. The point here is that a ‘resource’ is stripped of its dignity, its divinity and is arbitrarily ascribed a price in monetary terms. A man was a man before he was an employee. Water was free flowing and largely uncontaminated before it became a ‘resource’.
Until not too long ago, water was something that we could drink from any stream and could ask for in any house. Even now, in smaller Indian towns no one will refuse you water, even if your hosts have to go to considerable efforts to procure that single glass. But step into a McDonald’s or some such modern food outlet and it’s a different picture: to encourage the sale of soft drinks, drinking water is seldom directly available, unless bought in a plastic bottle. Water was free before plastic bottles started polluting the world. There is something deeply wrong in this consumerist worldview. Offering water is a humane act. The life force of water should not be withheld from anyone. By refusing water, these modern companies are telling me that they are not humane, merely inhumane corporations.
And such inhumane corporations have aggressively turned water bodies into dumping grounds for industrial effluents. Take the case of Nirma in Gujarat, where the quest for growth is destroying valuable ecology.
Governments and industries want to ‘control’ and ‘manage’ this resource, but what they fail to see is that water is interconnected with communities, eco systems and cultures. The Narmada Dam is one such attempt in controlling the resource. Somehow, the government in its rhetoric for development discounts the submerged villages and the thousands of displaced people – displaced from their culture, their language, and their dignity.
The only areas untouched by the ravages of development are the big cities. Big cities are very thirsty; thirsty for consumption and thirsty for appropriation. Per capita water availability in India has fallen by 75% in the last 50 years: India was never this thirsty before. Nearly 60 per cent of India’s aquifers have slumped to critical levels over just the last 15 years. As people aggressively bore wells deeper and ever deeper, ground water is depleting at an unprecedented rate. Government committees want to put a limit on the depth of bore wells. They want to privatize water. Yet all their efforts reveal a lack of appreciation of the context. No matter how well the water resource is managed, if people from a multitude of villages and towns continue migrating to a handful of cities, the systems will keep on becoming more and more critical. It is a losing bet.
What we need is a new approach to our world view. We need to develop a new consciousness that incorporates our mountains and our water bodies as part of our larger cultural and social fabric and not just as resources. These things belong to all of us. We must see ourselves as the guardians and respectful users of these things, not as consumers. There have been cases of the successful greening of arid deserts with traditional means. And it was the collective will and collective faith of the community that paved the way to such amazing transformations.