I’ve been thinking a lot about water.
I have always been aware of conservation, and can tell you the difference between a watershed and an aquifer. I grew up with my father yelling at me if I showered more than five minutes to say “THE FISH ARE DYING IN THE LAKE BECAUSE OF YOU!”
But until recently, l I have never been genuinely concerned about water.
Our college is located downstream from the Mulshi Dam, one of the oldest dams in Maharashtra at nearly one hundred years old. From the campus, you can see the line of the dam creating an unnatural straight horizontal on the horizon. For us, it is something nice to look at – a unique future of the landscape.
But for the communities, the small villages and towns beyond our walls, the dam and the river that flows from it is a lifeline. The agricultural productivity of the land, the festivals, the rhythm of everyday life, depends on the seasonal patterns of the monsoon.
But like many regions around the world, the natural cycle has become anything but natural. The monsoon this year was cut short, and the region is experiencing a difficult drought. When I visited the Northwest regions of Maharashtra last September, I heard many stories of irregular rainfall destroying the hopes of farmers to have a productive year forcing many to commit suicide. Until recently I hadn’t realized that this problem isn’t isolated to a certain area of the state, but one right in front of my eyes.
Last week, I went on an expedition with a small group of students and a few individuals from an NGO based on campus called Akshara, to learn about indigenous seed varieties in the region. Globally, agricultural practices have shifted away from preserving local food crops and instead to high-yielding varieties. This is clear in the market where there are only a select few types of rice available, despite the thousands of unique varieties found worldwide.
We started our journey by travelling to the edge of the Mulshi dam, where a large fence and a guarded entry restrict access down to the lake. A large sign with the ‘TATA” company logo makes evident that the area is not public domain. Surprisingly though, beyond the fence lies one of the few forms of public transport around the Mulshi basin. When the dam was built, a huge area was flooded and many communities were displaced to hilly areas that today surround the lake. The relocation was highly controversial, but the government was uncompromising on their decision to continue the development. In effect, the entire region changed and nearly a century later the negative impacts of the development have not been addressed and thus not overcome.
The local ferry symbolizes the underdeveloped state the communities have been left in. To access the other side of the lake, the drive is close to an hour, whereas a boat across takes . The more efficient option seems clear.
However, the ferry only runs twice a day – when the captain decides to show up. This was realized in our rush to arrive to the ferry for the 8am departure, but when we reached the shore we were told we would have two more hours to wait. There were a few elder men also waiting for the ferry, and as we waited together looking out across the lake, they shared some of their grievances.
The beautiful lake that seems to fit so naturally into the landscape has been a large source of conflict in the region. The Tata Company privatized the water through their ownership over the dam, and they control all entry into the lake (the only unbounded entries to the water are those of cows) and any water extraction from it. There are clear signs around the dam stating that any person who trespasses and enters the lake will either “inevitably die from drowning” or “face prosecution.”
Paradoxically, people are not dying because of the water, but because of a lack of it.The people who have been displaced because of the dam’s construction, are denied the access to use it.
Sitting on the floor of a farmer’s home near to the shore opposite to the wall of the dam, we learn that the drought is only a symptom of larger issues around water and food security.
Our questions to the farmer were about seeds. What kind he sows, which kinds he used to sow, how he collects seeds, the types of fertilizers he uses, and his harvesting methods. He shared with us how as his community changed, the agricultural practices followed suit. The staple foods that they used to grow are no longer in demand, and the high-nutrient local rice and millets have been replaced by carb-filled white rice that occupies the market demand. The norms have changed, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of loss.
And unlike in the past when crops were cultivated during two seasons, monsoon and Rabi, the low-rainfall conditions force farmers to abandon their Rabi crops like wheat and potatoes, which would otherwise provide subsistence for the family during this time of the year. The communities are rationed water for drinking by the Tata Company, but they are not allowed to use the water to irrigate their land. Less than a few hundred meters from the huge water basin, the community is left to wilt.
And with the wilting of the plants, the people left living in the community are aging, and the young people taking any possible opportunity to flee. The older people show a defeated sadness when they share their knowledge that there is no reason for the youth to keep the community alive, when there is nothing to dream to strive for there. So instead, they move to major city centres like Pune and Mumbai. They may get a job in the industrial sector at a factory electrified by the energy provided from the dam. Energy that won’t supply the homes of their parents and grandparents as electricity, but instead it will flow back as money from the departed children.
We are downstream from the problems felt above and around the dam, and the geographical barrier seems to present itself in a way that allows many to disregard their own responsibility to preserve water. Water scarcity is a collective vulnerability, and ignoring the individual responsibility to respond will surely have consequences.
I am lucky that I haven’t faced the problems of the drought, but it is something I have tried to understand as a dependent on the same environment of the many individuals who are facing the consequences. And in my last few months in India, I try to realize how this will influence the person I am at home, where resources appear to be bountiful, and the notions of something such as a drought will not exist. I am perplexed by my role as a consumer and as a student trying to learn about the complexities of development and community perserverance. Is it possible for the two to work together?
I won’t find anwsers to my questions in the next two months, but I will continue to try.