On June 18, 2014 the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further cut-offs in Detroit (http://www.canadians.org/blog/violations-right-water-detroit). In their submission they say that Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic human rights – right to water, in this case. Residents of Detroit city, the United States and the United Nations have been grappling with this issue for the last couple of months. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. (For more on this see http://www.democracynow.org/2014/6/24/water_is_a_human_right_detroit).
This act is being considered a violation of the human right to water with the argument that the U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water. Activists are now putting pressure on the United Nations to put pressure on the Federal Government and through them on the State of Michigan to take action.
As I was reading this I was thinking about the right to water in India and the associated inequity. Millions of urban and rural poor do not have access to drinking water on a daily basis irrespective of whether the country has had a good monsoon or not. No water (both in cities and villages) is a general condition. Standing in long queues to get 2 pots of water is normal for the vast majority of Indians. Why is it that nobody in India has challenged the Government on behalf of these people?
In our corner of Rayalseema, like in many other villages, drinking water is just not available in the summer months. Over the last 3 months people have been receiving water in tankers probably once in 3-4 days and each home can fill only 3-5 pots of water which they have to use for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and for personal hygiene. There are not enough water sources available to fill the tankers. People approach the Panchayat which had no funds till a week ago. The Water Supply and Sanitation Department which is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation to the villages Panchayat does not seem to think this is really an important issue…but considers it a routine matter that has to be dealt with in the course of time. Desperate some families try and get water from the agricultural borewells of neighbours who provide the water as an act of compassion at no cost! When these agricultural borewells started failing several people from some of the villages marched to the local Mandal Development Officer and expressed their anger and frustration. A special officer who has been posted to manage watershed development in the area took action last week which has provided some relief to some of the villages. Why is it that these small farmers, who produce 50% of the food in India, have to work so hard chasing the Government functionaries to get what is a human right?
This begs the question for India and particularly its poor….do we not consider access to water to be a human right? Why are we not demanding this of our Government? Maybe it is time for all of us to appeal to the United Nations to help us help our urban and rural poor to assert their right to water.
Two recent events triggered this question in my mind…….
The first was a recent discussion, that I was a part of, on livestock dependent livelihoods. This was held under the auspices of the Centre for Economic and Social Sciences in Hyderabad. The discussion was very rich since it brought in experiences of indigenous communities and pastoralists and small farmers from the rural plains….experiences related in people’s own voices. While the focus was on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) the heart of the deliberations was the increasing severing of the inextricable linkage between animals, agriculture and people (so much more lyrically expressed as paadi-pashu-panta in Telugu) that has been brought about by industrial farming and the supportive legislation and policies. People’s experiences, be they adivasis, dalits, pastoralists, was the same! Obfuscation, ambiguity, confusion reigned supreme in the legislation and its implementation. On one hand a progressive legislation (the FRA) was enacted by Parliament with a stirring Preamble raising the hopes of millions of marginalised people for whom justice would finally be served. This legislation would also enable communities to practice traditional livelihoods which had co-evolved with the surrounding ecosystem. On the other hand, in implementing this law, Government Departments were pointing fingers at each other saying the law was not clear, they were not sure who it was applicable to, refusing to review submitted documentation, harassing people when they field documentation to assert their rights etc.
Having heard these stories which emerged from a research study facilitated by CESS the question now is what is the next step? How do research studies such as these, done by think tanks across the country, translate to action? Are policy makers even interested in these studies? Is there a proactive role that such think tanks can play? Will the Planning Commission or the Ministry of Rural Development (through its flagship programme NRLM) take cognizance of such findings before allocating and spending crores of rupees in designing and implementing yet another “livelihood” programme?
The discussion also showed us how the issues are distinctly different for forest-dwelling adivasis compared to forest-dependent pastoralists. The challenges faced by pastoralists (with sheep) dependent on grasslands is a different story. Sheep rearing programmes (as a livelihood promotion effort) cannot be thrust upon adivasis who live in forests and do not have access to grasslands. Ecosystems are different across this diverse country and dwellers native to each ecosystem require different policies and programmes. Not appreciating this difference and diversity has resulted in thrusting exotic cows on dalit families living in dry deciduous ecosystems (e.g. Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh) and sheep on adivasis living in tropical rainforests. The resultant ecological and livelihood crises is there for all to see across the length and breadth of this country.
The second was a moving account titled When the Ganga descends…(http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/when-the-ganga-descends/article4857510.ece) by Chitra Padmanabhan of the unfolding tragedy in Uttarakhand. Once again, an apalling lack of connection between policy and several decades of grassroots action by the local communities against a destructive development paradigm that does not understand the local ecosystem.
How much more ecological and human devastation and how much more proof of the absolute inequity and social injustice do we need to see before we realise that there is a need to recognise Ecosystem Specific Governance? Grassroots action, wisdom and knowledge needs to find a place in policy making and not merely be maintained as studies.
The irony of Government (which is supposed to work for the common good) never fails to surprise me. An Act of Parliament has recognised the rights of access of traditional forest dwellers to forests. In spite of this the Union Minister of Tribal Affairs V Kishore Chandra Deo has to urge CMs (http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/cms-urged-to-implement-forest-rights-act-sincerely/article4605291.ece) to implement the FRA sincerely! This appeal had to be made after the Act has been diluted significantly with the recent amendment through which “linear” infrastructure projects will be exempted from Gram Sabha decisions under the FRA. Juxtapose this appeal from the Union Minister with the creation of the National Investment Board (NIB) or a Cabinet Committee on Investments (as it is now being called) and then the comment by the Prime Minister about making development sustainable. The cherry on this flipflop, schizophrenic doublespeak is the rolling out of the NRLM programme by the Ministry of Rural Development while the same Government is rapidly moving forward to sign the FTA with the EU. How can livelihoods be promoted if common pool resources are not provided access to, conserved and regenerated? Can a Government that is talking about carte blanche environmental clearances also protect livelihoods?
In the face of all this doublespeak small and marginal communities in various pockets across the country are forging their own futures using their traditional community networks. A small community of pastoralists have been asserting their rights of access to grazing and minor forest produce in our corner of Rayalseema since 2009. They did this by organising themselves into a sangha with a little help from a few of us. This exercising of rights has slowly spread to other communities within a radius of over 100 km through family connections, word of mouth etc. The strength that it has given them has spurred other pastoralists to stand up and assert their rights. The pastoralists in our area are now coaching and counselling others on the provisions of the FRA and how to put together documentation. The only question that keeps coming back to me is how did all these communities suddenly come together? Why did they come together 3-4 years after the enactment of the FRA? Nobody communicated the Act to all these communities. Information was shared with one community by a few of us which then spread like wildfire. I think it was more effective because those who experienced the freedom that comes with asserting one’s rights were able to share their personal experience. It made me think of Ostrom, Wade, and the theories of collective governance. There are many questions that have emerged from this experience. Now that the rights have been asserted will the responsibility of taking care and regenerating these commons come with it? At one of the meetings a fire guard (working as a contractor for the Forest Department) who is from the same village asked a question “Why do they not come when I call them to put out the fire inspite of offering them Rs. 150 per head?” “What is the guarantee that they will protect the forest now?” The community’s response was “we pay those Forest Dept. guards one lamb / kid and Rs. 50 per animal so they should protect the forest. Why should we?” “But now when we don’t pay the Forest Dept., it is our responsibility to care of the forest and we will” Decades of a governance system that has eroded a sense of ownership from the communities cannot be fixed with the stroke of a pen but there is hope that once the oppression is lifted through the assertion of rights the ownership will come!
In this era of climate change all of us behave like the English – we discuss the weather a lot, more specifically the monsoon. The south-west monsoon which has been playing truant this year has decided to drench some parts of the country and pass others by leaving communities reeling in drought. In our part of the world the monsoon has been watering our land like the proverbial gardner – rain-fed crops like groundnut and millets seem happy but we are not sure what our potable water situation is going to be like for the next month. Borewells continue to dry up even as new ones are being drilled. Small and marginal farmers are spending anywhere from Rs. 1-2 lakhs to drill a borewell hoping and praying that it will not turn up dry…..sucking them further into the quicksand of debt while they continue to look for that elusive groundwater that they hope will help pay off their debt.
Communities in search of alternatives to the drying public potable water wells either take water from obliging neighbours who have borewells that are still yielding water or are at the mercy of the Government. Rural water supply departments try and drill yet another borewell as an emergency source of water. The well hits water and everyone is happy. A precariously rigged up electrical connection provides much needed electricity to power the motor that draws water from the well. This is where the question of the real value of water needs to be asked. As the water comes gushing out of the ground people queue up to fill their pots and pans while the erratic electrical supply lasts. Between successive pots the water flows onto the street wasted! The Government or the community does not even consider setting up a holding tank to collect this flowing water that in this water scarce area is like blood pouring from an open wound. It is nobody’s problem. Who will pay to set up some sort of temporary storage? Every solution is adhoc and temporary till the next emergency!! Why can’t we have prescribed guidelines and pre-cast systems to make water available efficiently in water scarce areas? The Government’s norms and guidelines for water supply and sanitation have detailed drawings of toilets, rooftop rainwater harvesting systems….why not groundwater based emergency rural water supply systems? Do we not have the wherewithal or technology to supply water under drought condition without it gushing out of a borewell into drains? As communities we come together when we don’t have water. What will it take for us to come together to set up a simple solution to stop this precious resource from flowing away? The new borewell dries up and the story is repeated.
This time around there is another option – water tankers to tide over the emergency condition. What is the cost of this tanker of water – Rs. 280 for a 5000 litre tanker. How can water be sold at such a low price when we are in a drought condition? Nobody has a real answer. Mango orchard farmers in Chittoor have high yielding borewells and they are able to provide their surplus water for tankers OR Not sure where the water is coming from OR How does it matter, let’s just be happy that we are getting this water now. Once we have a good rain the water situation will improve. How long will it be before what is an “emergency condition” today becomes the norm?
A new Water Policy has been drafted in 2012 for the country with very little attention being paid to groundwater and its management. Groundwater is the main source of water for most of our rural and urban areas – definitely the only source of water for rain-fed agricultural areas. When will we as a country and a society realise the real value of water? When will we collectively rise up and empower ourselves to treat this resource as it should be?
The Dravidian Goddess Gangamma is believed to be the symbol of water and is the chief goddess of the shepherd. Water shapes land and life in the Rishi Valley as it does everywhere in the world where lives and livelihoods are close to the elements. So when the rain gods desert us or when the monsoon plays truant as it has been this year, Gangamma is called upon by her believers more often than the once a year “jatra”. She speaks through her oracle, directing her believers to take action that will appease the elements and bring rain. Sometimes it can mean realigning rocks and at other times it could require shifting the location of a deity’s shrine. In a land where water was, is and always will be the defining resource, these dictates of Gangamma are taken very seriously.
What is interesting is that we urban “visitors” in this rural landscape (even if some of us have lived here for more than 30 years) , we who consider ourselves rationalists find our lives intertwined with that of our neighbours in this “thirst” for water and the rain. Gangamma recently directed her believers to shift the location of a deity outside the valley if we were to be blessed with rain. After much deliberation the decision was made to shift the deity and this would cost money. Some of the women farmers with whom I was having a rambling conversation about life, the universe and everything else remarked that they will have to collect contributions. To which I said that when they were already in debt because of poor rains where would they find the money for this and why not use the money for something else that would bring food into their home. The response was – we know these are superstitions but it is our superstition! Let us appease Gangamma. Lo and behold the next day we had our first set of showers! and the faith in Gangamma becomes stronger.
The goddess reigns supreme, mobile phone toting shepherds graze their flock on hillocks and in its midst is a rationalist philosophy driven urban community. Life in this rural corner of Rayalseema continues with never a dull moment. What a microcosm of India this is……
This blog was triggered by the challenges in the daily life of a goatherd. This is a community that was wiped off the face of “mainstream” rural India with the stroke of a colonial legislation. A legislation that entrenched a deep-rooted belief in society – educated and uneducated alike – that goatherding as a livelihood must be eradicated if the forests of this country are to be saved! When the Forest Rights Act, 2006 was enacted, a ray of hope appeared in the horizon for goatherds….BUT paens have been written on the challenges of implementing this legislation and once again goatherds are being targeted.
Of course, given the inextricable link of goatherds with pastures, forests and other commons this blog will meander into all these areas…..”the Moving Finger writes” and having been unsheathed will ramble about the pleasures and challenges of living and working among pastoralists, farmers and of course the very urban community – the Rishi Valley Education Centre – in land that is ancient, strewn with rocks and formations that are over a billion years old and livelihoods that can be traced to the earliest modes of existence……land that has been shaped by water which is the most precious resource in this part of the Rayalseema region.
I started writing the blog as a diary of the goatherd and the goat (calling them the subaltern) living at one end of the Rayalseema region. As the blog evolved there were several other stories that needed to be told which were not voices of only the subaltern…..but rather slices of life and more so my perspectives of life in the area I call home for the moment.