For those who'd like to read the original, here it is.
This article has its origins during a weekend spent in a village called Thakursahi, on the shores of the lake that balloons behind the Pawana dam near Kamshet and off the Bombay-Pune highway. Raju, a young Thakursahi man, told me that his family had been displaced by the dam. Their fertile farmland now lay at the bottom of the lake. Just like that.
In India, this is no unfamiliar tale. But Raju also told the other familiar, and sorry, tale: the utter absence of adequate compensation or rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R).
These are tales I have now heard so often that they are routine, and that routine quality is itself a commentary on the way India has approached the building of its dams.
But then Raju said something more. Apparently the Sahara conglomerate, which is building opulent townships ("Amby Valley") in the hills on the other side of the Pawana lake, have proposed raising the height of the Pawana dam. This, because they need large supplies of water for their townships.
And if they raise the height of the dam, Raju and his village buddies will be displaced once more.
Why is it, I thought as we talked, that this sort of story has become so routine? That we think it's OK for some people to have their lives turned inside out, sometimes twice or thrice over, so that some other and always much fancier people can live well? What is it about water, specifically -- after all, dams are essentially a way to use water -- that leads to these situations?
And when thinking about water like that, the thing to remember is this: it is a political tool, simple. End of story.
What does this mean? That actually addressing the thirst of people, or the needs of the displaced, is a low priority for those who deal with water. Am I alleging that they are callous, heartless beasts? No, what I'm saying is that they understand the political power in water today, and they don't shrink from using it. (And in fact, by itself there's nothing wrong there: politics is fundamental to the way we deal with each other).
This is why, for example, the Narmada dams have become such an article of faith in Gujarat, the one issue on which every party agrees. Criticising the dams in Gujarat is rather like talking of Kashmir seceding from India: not something to do lightly, not something that will be taken kindly. Every political leader has understood well the benefit of conflating Narmada with Gujarat's sense of itself -- a sort of Gujarati patriotism, if you will.
Yet such conflation only drowns out -- excuse the watery pun -- any debate. Which, of course, it is intended to do. But is such drowning acceptable?
This is not a tirade against Gujarat. Really. The view of water as political football is widespread, and in other countries too. (Read Marc Reisner's excellent "Cadillac Desert" to get a sense of water policy and politics in the USA). But it is telling, nevertheless, and it forces us to face a simple truth: water issues, water policy, have always been and will always be addressed through politics.
The challenge, then, is to use politics for the good of all: Sahara's clients, but Raju as well. This is not such an fanciful idea, once you give it some thought. Keeping it in mind, let me suggest here three directions along which the use of water must be decided.
First, a balloon to be pricked. That's the one that says, some people must sacrifice so that some others can benefit. For too long, this homily has been proffered as a justification for the shabby treatment of people displaced by dams, among others. It has an uncanny ability to shut off questions -- perhaps because it just sounds so reasonable, so logical. No gain without pain, everything has a price, the benefits outweigh the costs -- familiar mantras like those reinforce the seeming sense in this call for "some people" to sacrifice.
Yet after so many years, I wonder: who are these "some people"? Why are they always off in some forgotten spot? Why are they invariably weak, politically? Why do some, like Raju, sacrifice not once, but twice or more? Why does it never happen that people in cities, so often the beneficiaries of water projects, are asked to sacrifice?
What if we altered that homily to say this: you want benefits, you've got to sacrifice. Or, if you're being asked to sacrifice, you will be the first to get benefits. Suppose Sahara's clients were told: you will get water, sure, but first give up your home to someone losing his, like Raju. Or what if someone being uprooted is told: sacrifice your home for this dam, and you will be resettled right away in its command area. You will benefit from the water from the dam before anyone else does.
Why is water distribution never considered this way? Yet, as water gets scarcer and its use more negotiated, it seems to me it will have to be considered like this. The politics of water will have to start from this point: Those who use, pay. Those who pay, use. (And by "pay" I mean every sense of the word: sacrifices made by displaced people as well as a fair price charged to farmers).
Second, which may be related, water is a resource that belongs to all. Again for too long, it has been supplied freely to two groups of people in particular: the urban upper- and middle-classes, who can pay for it; and farmers who need irrigation, who -- we are told -- are too poor to pay for it. This has led to perversities that are visible all over this country. Slum families must queue up for water, often at a single tap. In villages, families throng at the lone hand pump for the stuff: this is a sight that is so invariant in India that you might be forgiven for thinking hand pumps go back to Vedic times. Yet high-rise buildings always have water, flowing out of multiple taps in each flat. So, I have no doubt, will the gorgeous homes in Sahara's Amby Valley.
I'd like to suggest this: that water must be considered to be like air. Common to all. Certainly it exists in less abundance than air does, which means its use must be negotiated and regulated. But with that constraint, everyone on this planet must have equal access to it. This is not an easy concept to get widely accepted, but that's what skilled politicians exist for. Unequal access to water will lead us to disputes and war, and heading off that spectre is also what skilled politicians exist for.
Which brings me to ...
Third, politics and politicians. Much as we have learned to be distrustful of our politicians, there's really no need to shy away from politics. There are indeed skilful, sincere politicians too, and they have been known to negotiate hard for things they believe in.
In fact, to me this much is clear: the only way people like Raju will ever be treated fairly is if their rights are negotiated for politically, though always sincerely.
And that's why it is important: those who want water use to be fairer than it is must take, with enthusiasm and adrenalin, to politics. No need at all to shy away.