Saturday, April 1, 2006

No Free Lunch, but…

No Free Lunch, but…
By Narendra Luther

Thee is a modern American saying that ‘there is nothing like a free lunch.’ But what about water? So far restaurants have not started charging for water unless it is the mineral variety. In fact in India even before taking your order, the bearer plonks a glass of water in front of you, particularly in the South. No body asks you to pay for it in case you change your mind and having slated your thirst, decide not to eat there and walk out.

It used to be a common practice to set up stalls on roadside offering water to general public on festivals and auspicious days, like the birthdays of some Sikh Gurus, and the Muharram procession. That is supposed to earn you spiritual ‘merit’. Thanks to the shortage of water, this tradition is fading now.

For our domestic water supply we pay as a matter of course. The charges keep on increasing every now and then and we submit to it with a murmur. It is called ‘safe’ water supply though most of us either boil water before drinking it or use water purification equipments like ‘Acquaguard’. My wife uses both of them to make sure we don’t suffer from any water-borne disease.

Free Water

But in the countryside water is still free though its safety is not talked about. One can draw water from a river, a lake a well or a pond. Or at least that is what we thought. A screening of a recent film by K.P. Sasi ‘ ‘The Source of Life for Sale’ was an eye-opener. Water is an indisputable source of life. Seven–tenth of earth and two–third (women0 to three-fourth (men) of human body are composed of water. Animals and humans die more of thirst than of hunger. Dehydration is a great cause of death particularly amongst infants who can’t spell out their demand for water. Lack of water causes drought and that results in famine. That in turn leads to suicide by farmers and death for the poor. Thus, water is more important to our life than we imagine.

Sasi’s documentary takes us from Kerala to the North via Chhatisgarh and showcases how water which has been traditionally available free to people is being denied to them.

Rivers in Periyar, Malampuzha. Attapadi, Sheonath and Kelo, and parts of the Ganga Canal have been sold to private firms to make coca cola to be sold in the market. Small, scattered communities including tribals who depended on the water for their crops and for their domestic needs were shown forcefully protesting against it. NGO’s marched in procession raising slogans venting their anger. An old unlettered tribal woman showed a rare degree of eloquence in her denunciation of the deal made by the government. An old man voiced his betrayal by the MLA of the area for his ‘collusion’ with the private party. The firm had thrown a bund across the river to pump out water for its plant. That meant the lower part of the river became dry and the lower riparian habitations went without water. There were accusations of corruption against authorities in deals involving such sales.

The problem of water shortage is compounded by the over- exploitation of ground water as revealed by a recent survey. It has been said that the future wars will be not for oil, but for water. It seems that we already witnessing trailers in the interstate disputes about water in our country.

The Garland Canal Project

The film showed with telling effects what it means to be deprived of water. The sale was described as a part of privatization and globalization. Multinationals come and grab resources that belong to the community, for their private profit. Once we swore by Socialism. Today the pendulum has swung to the other side, to Privatization.

The film also made out a case against the project of the interlinking of rivers – the ‘Garland canal’ system. The eminent engineer, the late Dr. K.L. Rao conceived it long before there was any debate about socialism versus privatization. He believed it would rid the country of the spectacle of simultaneous drought in some areas and flooding in others. The NDA Government approved the massive project in principle and it is understood that preliminary technical studies have been initiated on that. It seems perfectly logical inasmuch as it will ‘even out’ the levels of water in all the rivers in the country. But, the opponents of the proposal argue that it ignores the ecological aspects of the various river systems. Interlinking will entail bunding of rivers and diversion of water at a number of places. That, in turn, will result in diminution, if not denial of water to downstream areas. Damming of rivers will also cause submersion of vast areas displacing communities in different parts of the country. It is against that that prospect that persons like Medha Patekar are agitating.

Wisdom of Tentativeness

I would concede that some of the proposals for new uses of have been made by experts in the genuine belief that they will promote the welfare of the people as they perceive it. That brings us to the crucial point of how much reliance we should place on expert advice. The best of experts sees only his side of the picture. In fact the more the specialization, the more the narrowing of the focus. There is a loss of width of vision in specialization. A specialist does not - indeed cannot – appreciate the opposing point of view. For policy - makers and final decision- takers, it is necessary to integrate the Hegelian thesis and anti-thesis into a synthesis. There is a greater need for debate on such issues than we have today in spite of our legislatures where the party line over rides the need for the examination of the merits of a proposal. The view of the party in power often is nothing but the command of the leader right or wrong. The policy of the Opposition, on the other hand, is based on its obligation to oppose. In how many cases have opposing line being taken on a given issue by the same party depending on whether it is in power or in opposition?

Sitting through the screening of Sasi’s documentary, I felt sorry at the poor attendance in the hall. More so because I saw no bureaucrats and politicians for whom the film would have appeared heretical against the current official dogma. I felt that such films should be screened in the secretariats and before experts and the intelligentsia so that different perspectives can be seen by those who are going to decide the fate of millions of the poor of the country. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Fools are cocksure; wise men are in doubt’. In other words, the need is for an open mind. That will enable us to take a holistic view before taking a final decision.

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