Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Road to Shangri La

The River Siang descends from the Tibetan Plateau where it is known as the Yarlung Tsangpo and makes its way through the steep gorges of the lower Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh before hitting the plains at Pasighat, where after it meets with the Lohit, Dibang, Subansiri, Kameng and a host of other rivers that originate in India to become the mighty Brahmaputra.
I recently fulfilled a long standing desire of mine to go up the Siang valley up to the China border to imbibe first hand the legendary beauty of this river about which I had read on the internet. Not only does the river wend its way through spectacularly forested hills but there are many places along it, where it rushes over rapids in a roar of white foam. This is what has made it one of the world's most sought after white water rafting destinations.
The lower Himalayas are not very high and the highest point on our route was the town of Migging at a height of 1000 meters above sea level. Only near this place are there a few snow capped mountains visible. This is a picturesque place with scenically situated villages on hill tops and high valleys in a very sparsely populated landscape that is heavy with vegetation.
The villagers across the river Siang, from the side on which the road is, mostly have to use suspension foot bridges made of steel wires and wooden planks to cross the river and reach the road. Since the span has to be small, the bridges are constructed near the river and so the people have a steep climb to the road above. These bridges sway tantalisingly when one walks on them.
 Initially there was only one suspension bridge across the Siang at a place called Dite Dime about 108 kilometers up the river from Pasighat on which cars and trucks could ply. Then a two lane concrete road bridge was constructed in 2009 at Pasighat. Now, on the day we arrived at Yingkiong, the headquarters of the Upper Siang district, at a distance of 130 kms from Pasighat,  a big two lane suspension bridge was opened at this town named the Byorung bridge. Earlier there was only a suspension footbridge here which can be seen at the side.

The Siang valley is mostly populated by the Adi tribes people who have their own nature worshiping religion known as Donyi Polo which are the Adi names for the sun and the moon. In the upper reaches near the China border there are Pemba tribes who are Buddhists. The people are mostly farmers and hunters. They cultivate rice in terraced fields and live in bamboo and thatch houses on stilts. The thatch is skillfully made of Tok leaves that are weather resistant. These houses stay warm during winter and cool during summer.
They rear pigs in picturesque sties that are also built on stilts and inside their homes there is a hearth that is used for both cooking and warmth. The hearth has two hanging shelves over it on which food and firewood are kept warm. The floors and walls are made of bamboo or wooden planks.
The last administrative town up the Siang valley is Tuting which is 160 kms from Yingkiong. It has an airport for the use of the army which has an extensive setup here. It also has an inspection bungalow where visitors can stay after getting permission from the administrative officer. The town is situated on the banks of the Siang but being hilly it has many levels. The last village on the China border is Gelling which is about 30 Kms from Tuting. On the way there is a fine Buddhist temple in village Bone as these areas are inhabited by the Pemba tribes people who are Buddhists.
Gelling is situated on a hill top high above the Siang and just below the spur of the hill that marks the border between China and India. A few kilometers upstream of Gelling the Siang takes a bend and enters India. Traditionally the houses were built of bamboo and thatch on stilts but like elsewhere in the Siang valley modern construction has made its presence felt in this village also.
The trip up the Siang valley was not just one of enjoying its wild beauty but also about understanding the water flow dynamics of the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra river in recent years has witnessed a peculiar anomaly. While there are huge floods during the monsoons, during the rest of the year the flow becomes limited. I wanted to investigate this. I also wanted to get to the bottom of the claim made by the Indian Government's Water Resource Managers that the damming of the Yarlung Tsangpo by China in Tibet would drastically affect the flows of the Brahmaputra. I had read a research paper once that had on the basis of analysis of satellite imagery concluded that the Yarlung Tsangpo contributed only about 5 per cent of the total annual flow of the Brahmaputra. The trip up the Siang confirmed this. The river is hardly about 150 meters wide and very shallow below Gelling village with a miniscule flow as compared to the flow in the Brahmaputra plains.
Surprisingly, there is no measurement of the flow of the Siang at Gelling where it enters India even though there are flow measurement stations at Tuting, Yingkiang and Pasighat further downstream. Even so the flow measurements from these stations, which are classified data and so are not available to the general public, must clearly be showing that the flow of the Yarlung Tsangpo into India is miniscule compared to that of the Siang in India itself and even less if compared to that of the whole Brahmaputra basin.
The most important data from the measurement of the flow of all the rivers that are tributaries of the Brahamputra is that regarding their contribution to the flood flow of the Brahmaputra during the monsoons which has such a devastating effect annually. Given the steep slopes of the lower Himalayas and the huge deforestation that has taken place, heavy rains in the hilly catchments of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra are the main cause of floods. Thus, it is imperative that both natural and artificial recharge is drastically increased in the Arunachal hills for any worthwhile flood control to be possible. The challenge to implementing artificial recharge measures is the steepness of the slopes and the very sparse population in the area. Nevertheless, thought must be applied and solutions found for this problem. The higher costs involved in this will be compensated many times by the prevention of losses due to floods. Moreover, artificial recharge will ensure that there is a better flow during the lean season and so improve the possibilities of navigation and irrigation in the Brahmaputra valley much more than building dams and dredging will ever do.
The other side of the coin is the diminished lean season flow in the rivers. Whereas the Siang has a good lean season flow due to the snow melt in the Tibetan plateau and upper Himalayas, the other rivers have very low flows. Due to the huge monsoon flows these rivers have very wide beds stretching to a few kilometers in width but just after that they dry up substantially. The Lohit River has the longest road bridge across it at Sadiya measuring 9 kilometers in length while the Dibang River has the third longest at 6.2 kilometers. The Bogibeel bridge across the Brahmaputra has the second longest bridge at 6.4 kilometers. However, when we crossed these bridges on our return from the Siang valley we found the river beds to be mostly dry and in some places covered with vegetation with the water flowing in a small stream.
But the Government Water Resource Managers have turned a blind eye to this and are instead bent on building dams on these rivers ostensibly to control floods but actually to make merry from their construction. The pristine beauty of the Siang valley has no value for these and the profit seeking dam building corporations.
Arunachal Pradesh is inhabited by tribes and and strict rules that prevent people from outside the state from settling or doing business there have kept the place comparatively safe from the depredations of greed based modern development and trade. Those going in for work or tourism have to obtain an inner line permit which is given for only a fortnight and has to be renewed after that. Even then dam building has made its mark in the Subansiri river valley and may some day lay the Siang valley to waste due to the local political leadership being inclined towards it. An interesting thing that I noted was that Hindi has become the lingua franca of the state. Everywhere right up to the China border people speak Hindi and some of them speak very chaste Hindi with good diction and pronunciation. The day we reached Yingkiong there was a big public meeting of the Chief Minister and he was speaking in Hindi because his own tribal language would not be comprehended by the Adi tribes people in the audience!!!
Finally a word about the roads. While the road to Yingkiong is fairly good apart from the stretches where construction work is going on, thereafter, up to Tuting the road is atrocious. We could drive at a an average speed of 15 kilometers and hour and it took us 9 hours to cover the distance. This is indeed a pity because this road is strategically very important and there is heavy army traffic on it most of the time and also because a good road combined with good tourism infrastructure can really open up this beautiful valley which is now visited only by river rafting enthusiasts. However, it is necessary to build these roads so as to cling to the contours as much as possible because the steep slopes get destabilised by the road cutting. While going up on the first day our path up the left bank of the river was blocked by a section where a landslide had taken place and taken the road with it. We had to turn back and return to Pasighat to cross the bridge there and go up the right bank instead. On our return journey also we encountered a land slide but that held us up for only an hour or so. The land slides during the monsoons are even more severe and frequent.
Even though the road situation is poor, there is fairly good mobile connectivity in the towns and also along the route. The road condition delayed my schedule and so at Tuting I had to reschedule my return flight from Guwahati by a day. As there was good mobile connectivity in the town, I could call up the airline and reschedule my flight.
All in all the trip up the Siang turned out to be truly one off the beaten track. The author James Hilton in his novel "Lost Horizon" has written about a mystical valley called Shangri-La where people live harmoniously. The Siang valley comes close to that utopian ideal and the trip was for me the experience of a lifetime.


Monday, December 31, 2018

The Holy Trinity of our Environmentally Sinful Times

Our efforts through the Mahila Jagat Lihaaz Samiti to battle the severe crises that face India on the three crucial environmental fronts of water, energy and agriculture went through more downs than ups primarily due to the inhospitable policy framework that prevails in this country.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the livelihoods of 60 percent of the population of the country yet apart from paying lip service the Government does not do anything to put it on a more sustainable basis by switching subsidies from chemical agriculture to organic agriculture. Consequently, farmers continue to use chemical fertilisers and pesticides to grow hybrid varieties of wheat, maize and cotton in our area even though they hardly yield any income after their harvest. And they consider our efforts to farm organically to be so much balderdash!! Obviously, we are making even more of a loss than they are but that is because there is no subsidy for organic farming whatsoever. Nevertheless, one successful initiative of ours was the cultivation of a special variety of Bajra or pearl millet that has whiskers that prevent birds from eating the ripened grains on the cobs as shown below.
Not only does this variety grow very tall and so it has a high fodder content but is also very high yielding with the cobs between a foot  and a foot and a half in length. The rotis made from this bajra flour are very tasteful. Many farmers have been impressed with this variety and have expressed the desire to buy the seeds to try it out themselves next year. So this is the first successful agricultural extension effort of the MAJLIS.
Associated with the crisis of agriculture is the equally serious problem of water scarcity. Both surface and groundwater availability is going down. The logical thing to do is to promote communitarian soil, water and forest conservation to augment water availability. However, once again the Government is paying only lip service to this. Indeed, in the matter of groundwater, which caters to most of the water needs of the people of this country the Central Ground Water Authority has come up with a farcical and dangerous notification of guidelines recently which has been ably critiqued by Himanshu Thakkar in his blog -

  • The guidelines to come into force from June 1, 2019 (why should it not be immediately implemented?). Groundwater use for Individual households for drinking water use for supply line up to 1 inch diameter supply line (Section 2.2.1) does not require mandatory rainwater harvesting. Installation of digital water meter is not mandatory in this case.
  • Section 2.2.2, applicable to infrastructure projects/ industries/ mining/ public water supply agencies for drinking/ domestic water use upto 12.5 m3/day water. They do not mandatorily require use of recycled/ treated sewage for flushing/ green belt etc. Installation of piezometers not mandatory if extraction below 10 m3/day. Installation of Digital Water Level Recorders shall not be mandatory for projects requiring ground water upto 50 m3/day in safe and semi critical assessment units (no telemetry for water use upto 500 m3/day) and upto 20 m3/day in critical and overexploited assessment units (no telemetry for water use upto 200 m3/day). No condition for compulsory treatment and recycle of sewage.
  • Section 2.3.1 for water use for industries: industries abstracting ground water to the tune of 500 m3/day or more in safe and semi critical and 200 m3/day or more in critical and over-exploited assessment units do not require water audit. Those that require water audit, need to get it done through “CII/ FICCI/ NPC certified auditors”. How can that be credible? It says “industries except those falling in red and orange categories as per CPCB” to implement Rain water harvesting. Why should the red and orange category industries exempt from Rain water harvesting?
  • Major concession: “Existing industries, which have already obtained NOC and have implemented recharge measures as specified in the NOC, shall be exempted from paying WCF. However, if the industry is going for expansion, WCF will have to be paid for the additional quantum of ground water withdrawal as per applicable rates.”
  • Section 2.3.3 for Infrastructure projects: Wastewater treatment and recycle measures not mandatory.
  • Shockingly, no impact assessment, no public consultation, monitoring or compliance mechanism for any of the massive groundwater extraction proposals, in any of the above.
  • Why should monitoring records be retained only for up to two years?
Agriculture water use: “Concerned State Departments (Agriculture/ Irrigation/ Water Resources) shall be required to undertake suitable demand and supply side measures to ensure sustainability of ground water sources. An indicative list of demand side measures is given”. CGWA could have provided more detailed and effective measures, including community governed groundwater regulation. The list given does not even include water saving methods like System of Rice Intensification or such method for other crops. In fact, community driven regulation could have been recommended for all the different user classes.
WCF = Water CON fees? The notification has no restrictions, no banned water use activities even in over exploited and critical areas, where essentially there is no groundwater available for exploitation. Everyone, including bottled water and cold drink manufacturers are allowed to extract as much as they want, even from over exploited areas, as long as they pay WCF! These are clearly not Water Conservation Fees, but Water CON Fees. “Other industries” have to pay just one fifth to one sixth the WCF compared to packaged drinking water units. The “other industries” clearly includes cold drink companies. Mining and infrastructure industries have to pay even lower, upto one third the WCF than “other industries”.
Other conditions include a strange one: “Sale of raw/ unprocessed/ untreated ground water for commercial use by agencies not having valid NOC from CGWA is not permitted.” This means that if you have valid NOC, you can sale the water to others!
The delegation of powers by the notification is clearly not confidence inspiring: “Central Ground Water Authority has appointed the District Magistrate/ District Collector / Sub Divisional Magistrates of each Revenue District and Regional Directors of CGWB through Public Notice as Authorized Officers, who have been delegated the power to monitor compliance, check violations and seal illegal wells, launch prosecution against offenders etc. including grievance redressal related to ground water.” These agencies have not succeeded in achieving regulation of groundwater, how that is going to change? What is required is a dedicated groundwater regulation mechanism at aquifer/ gram sabha/ block/ district level where at least 50% members are independent people from outside government.
When this is the kind of blindness displayed by the apex body tasked with ensuring a more sustainable use of water resources then one can easily imagine that the country is going to slide even further along the path to water doom. MAJLIS has with its limited resources initiated soil and water conservation work on the farms of farmers as shown below. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a very good programme for doing this work on a large scale but these days it has become moribund. The money is mostly spent is supplementing the Prime Minister's Rural Housing Scheme and so brick and concrete houses are getting built while the crucial work of soil and water conservation is being neglected.
Farmers in our area faced with diminishing returns on their farms are forced to migrate elsewhere for work to augment their incomes. The few farmers who are being benefited by our soil and water conservation programme are happy but there are many others who are beseeching us to initiate the work on their farms also but given the paucity of funds this is not possible. 
We also built a rain water harvesting tank in our office in Indore. We had been recharging all the rain water into the ground before. However, with the increasing withdrawal of ground water by others nearby our borewell water level has gone down and with rains being less and less the water level will go down further. Water recharged into the ground by a single house is not enough in the absence of others doing the same. So we built the tank to store water to be used in the crucial summer months when the borewell supply goes down. Our neighbours came and saw the massive tank being built underground below the car garage and said that it would be better to collectively urge the municipal corporation to extend the supply of the Narmada water to our residential layout!! Water is pumped up from the Narmada river over 50 kms away up a height of 500 meters at great expense for Indore and it is a highly unsustainable system both economically and environmentally. But since there is no effort on the part of the Government to encourage people to harvest, recharge and reuse water, an unsustainable system continues to be used.
Finally, the energy doldrums continue. The Government has refused to reimburse MAJLIS the 30 per cent of the cost of installing a solar power system in its office in Indore making one pretext or another. The solar system installed at the field centre also was refused subsidy at the outset itself. So we designed it in such a way that we could get the maximum use from a lesser deployment of panels and so cost. The big problem with solar power for irrigation is that the initial torque of the submersible pumps is very high and so requires a high starting current. While the solar panel system we had designed takes care of this current requirement between the months of February and June it begins to create problems in the rest of the year either because of cloud cover during the monsoons or due to less insolation from October to January. So we have had to replace the submersible pump with a compressor pump which requires much lesser starting current. This also was a project in itself as Indore doesn't have outlets selling compressor pumps and so it had to be sourced all the way from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Once again due to the high cost of solar power installation, the lack of maintenance support and subsidy from the Government there is very little movement on this front also. Poor farmers can't imagine deploying solar power.
Thus, despite Water, Energy and Agriculture having become the Holy Trinity of our Environmentally Sinful Times, there is very little effort on the part of the Government to stop their abuse and initiate more sustainable policies that can avert the impending doom that faces us.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Lust for Life

Long years ago I made a tryst with destiny and arrived in Alirajpur district among the Bhil Adivasis to work as a grassroots activist to redeem the pledge!! The person who facilitated this was Khemraj Choudhary who had gone there in 1982 to work for the rights of the Bhil Adivasis and had already been beaten up by the Forest Department for doing so. Khemraj hails from a marginal farmer family in Rajasthan but pursued higher education and became a student activist while in college. After that he joined the Social Work and Research Centre, which has now become the Barefoot College, in Ajmer district of Rajasthan, as a social activist. He led campaigns against the enduring problem of caste oppression of Dalits while working for the Barefoot College. However, he wanted to take on greater challenges and so he left for Alirajpur because he had heard that the Bhil Adivasis living there were very oppressed. He began organising them to fight for their rights by living among them and doing farm and labour work. That's when I met him when I reached the Barefoot College in search of my mission and after hearing his description of the work he was doing decided to tag along with him and that is how my life among the Adivasis of western India was decided.
Khemraj moved out of Alirajpur in the late 1980s deciding to return to his village in Chittor and starting work there among the Adivasis who worked as labourers in the stone quarries. Since then he has taken up many a struggle of the Adivasis and Dalits in Chittor district including the famous Khat Campaign. The casteist oppression was such in the rural areas that Adivasis and Dalits could not sit on their cots in front of their houses and had to take off their shoes when they passed in front of the houses of the dominant castes. So Khemraj launched a mass movement to stop these abhorrent practices which was very successful.
Last month Subhadra and I went to Chittor to hold one of our reproductive health camps in Khemraj's area of work and that is how I met him again face to face after more than a decade. Things had changed for the worse in the meanwhile. A few months back he was diagnosed with colon cancer which had metastasised onto his liver. Luckily immediate chemotherapy has resulted in the cancer being contained and he is in good spirits again. However, the ravages of the chemotherapy are there to be seen and he has lost his earlier strength. Yet he continues even at the advanced age of 65 to go on his daily morning walk followed by the rounds of the villages to distribute clothes and money to destitute families like a real life Santa Claus. He has not only spent his whole adult life fighting for the rights of under privileged people but is now running a hostel for Adivasi and Dalit girls to educate them and prevent them from getting married as child marriage is rampant in Rajasthan.
However, our close encounters with the village scene in the course of organising the reproductive health camp showed to what extent people like Khemraj and activists in general are marginalised given the huge barriers to justice and equality in the society and the economy. Try as we might we could not get a gynaecologist for our health camp. All the gynaecologists in the town of Chittor area engaged in private practice including the ones serving in Government hospitals. They are busy in doing caesarian sections to deliver babies or in in vitro fertilisation to make it possible for childless couples to have babies. Eventually we had to rope in a general practitioner lady doctor who had some gynaecological experience and somehow hold the camp. Casteism too is rampant as the laboratory staff who came to collect the samples refused to eat in the Bhil Adivasi home in which we had organised the camp saying that he would be ostracised by his caste if he did so. As is usual, the camp revealed that the women are mostly anaemic and suffering from various gynaecological problems. What is even more disturbing is that a large number of women tested positive for chronic typhoid. The women go to private quacks and get a few tablets and injections which do not solve their problems apart from giving them temporary relief. Thus, casteism, patriarchy and class rule all combine to keep the Adivasis and Dalits downtrodden and Khemraj's and my life long missions haven't made much of a difference.
Khemraj soldiers on regardless. He said he had initially been very depressed to learn that he had cancer. However, the huge support that he got in the form of friends coming to help him with the treatment and other contributing financially, which resulted in the cancer abating fast has filled him with greater energy to carry on he says. When in college I had read the book "Lust for Life" written by Irving Stone on the life and work of the Dutch post impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh had battled mental problems to live life to the full and paint some exhilarating pictures like the famous one below that even today light up our lives. Khemraj too displays a similar lust for life

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Whither Right to Education

According to the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act), all children in India are entitled to free quality education upto class eight and it is compulsory to ensure this for both the parents and the Government. Since in the case of the vast majority of people in this country it is not possible to expend substantial sums of money on the education of their children, the responsibility devolves in their case on the Government. Since education is primarily the responsibility of State Governments under the seventh schedule of the Indian Constitution, it is these that have to provide most of the funds to implement the RTE Act with support from the Central Government.
The Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala (RKJS) in Kakrana village in Alirajpur district is a residential school run by the Kalpantar Shikshan Kendra that is associated with the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS). The school was set up in 2000 as an alternative to the moribund Government school system which despite all the efforts of KMCS could not be improved because of the severe lack of will on the part of the Government to increase investments in school education. There was some hope that things would improve after the passage of the RTE Act in 2009, as there was considerable hype at that time that the Central Government would augment the meagre resources being allocated by the State Governments to school education. However, those hopes have been belied and as the Annual Status of Education Reports of the NGO Pratham have consistently shown the quality of education is continually going down, especially in Madhya Pradesh.
Recently, the RKJS conducted a quick survey of 14 schools in its vicinity including itself, 8 primary with teaching up to class five and 6 middle with teaching up to class 8. Two schools among these were comparatively better funded. One was the special Government middle school cum hostel for girls in the Tehsil headquarters, Sondwa and the other the RKJS itself. While these two schools met most of the parameters stipulated in the RTE Act with regard to facilities and teacher qualifications and numbers, the situation of the others is pathetic with lack of properly maintained classrooms, toilets, playgrounds and qualified teachers. In most cases the schools are not running regularly.
What was even more disconcerting is that the data from the RKJS survey did not tally with that in the District Information System for Education (DISE) database maintained by the Central Government for these schools which latter was hopelessly wrong. The DISE website has this to say about the reliability of the data on it - "The School Data reported on this website is submitted by the School Head Master/Head Teacher through the District and State level authorities. Before data is submitted to the national level authorities, it is supposed to be first checked at the cluster level by the Cluster Resource Centre Coordinator. The MIS In-charge at the district level was then supposed to run the consistency module to check the inconsistency in the data before it is transmitted to State level authorities."  This means that the teachers are submitting false data and this is not being checked by the higher authorities before being posted on the DISE. When the data itself is wrong then there is no question of proper implementation of the RTE as the shortcomings will not surface and so will not be addressed. Thus, the DISE has a huge amount of false data on the basis of which higher level statistical analysis is done and the status of public primary education in this country continues to be moribund.
The RKJS has fairly good facilities including a library and video projection facilities in addition to the standard requirements and spends about Rs 15,000 a year per child on their education and the parents of the children spend about another Rs 5000 a year on their food. This is a very shoe string budget as the teachers and other staff work on minimum wages and the food is very simple.

Consequently, the education provided could be better if more funds were available. Yet it is one of the best schools in Alirajpur district and admission to it is much sought after by Adivasi parents who mostly migrate to Gujarat and are fed up with the dysfunctional Government school system. But this kind of one off effort by a people's organisation is not really the answer to the country's huge primary education needs which the Government should be fulfilling and isn't.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Sardar and the Dead Narmada

The Statue of Sardar Patel in the Narmada River like the Sardar Sarovar dam earlier has been constructed in violation of many social and environmental parameters. While in the case of the latter there was at least a long legal battle, in the case of the former the courts did not even see fit to entertain the petitions filed enumerating these violations. This is of course of a piece with much of the gigantic developmental follies, the so called temples of modern India, that have been erected in this country with total disregard for their social and environmental consequences. However, as a combined result of all these follies, what is going to happen is, that the Sardar from his impressive height of 182 meters is going to look on to a dead Narmada river.

When Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam with much fanfare in September 2017, he had not thought that within a few months it would prove to be a gigantic folly as predicted all along by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. There is now not enough water in the dam and the river has become dead downstream of it. A year later as he once again indulges in fanfare to inaugurate another huge folly, he will yet again be ignorant of the extent of the blunder and its future deleterious consequences.  The roots of these follies lie in the history of the faulty planning of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
A bitter dispute over the sharing of the water in the Narmada between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat eventually resulted in a political agreement  in 1974 that the annual yield of the river available at Navagam, the site of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, should be taken as 34.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) at seventy five percent dependability. Of this 0.31 bcm was to be allotted to Maharashtra, 0.62 bcm to Rajasthan, 11.1 bcm to Gujarat and 22.5 bcm to Madhya Pradesh.  This political settlement estimated the annual yield of the Narmada at Navagam at seventy five percent dependability at a value well above the assessment by the technical experts of 27.4 bcm. Due to paucity of river flow measurement data even this lower technical estimate of yield of the Narmada river at Navagam was flawed because it was based on arbitrary assumptions for the values of the surface runoff, evaporation losses at reservoirs, return flow from upstream storages and from the groundwater aquifers and the carryover storages without doing any detailed sampling and simulation studies to properly estimate these values. 
Today, the actual flow in the river Narmada is even less. Due to secrecy maintained by the Central Water Commission about the flow measurement that it is doing, it is not possible to independently estimate what is the current flow. Given the massive deforestation that has taken place and the heavy development of groundwater irrigation in the catchment area, the flow in the river has decreased considerably from that prevailing earlier. So even though the full reservoir level of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is 138.7 m, the actual water level at the end of the monsoons is only 127 m. Thus, the dam is only half full. This was the case last year also and is likely to be the case in future too, given the much lower actual flow in the river compared to the design flow. As the flow in the canal starts for providing water to farms, industries and towns, the water level will quickly come down to the minimum drawdown level of 110.6 m and there will be little water flowing in the canal leaving the farmers in Gujarat literally high and dry. Like last year they can only look apprehensively towards a spring and summer of discontent.
What is of much greater concern is that there will be very little water flowing in the river downstream of the dam. The many dams in Madhya Pradesh upstream of the Sardar Sarovar have stored up most of the flow and that state is saying that since it is not getting the stipulated 22.5 bcm that is allotted to it, there is no question of releasing water to Gujarat!! Consequently there is almost no flow in the river below the Sardar Sarovar dam once the monsoons are over apart from the little that flows through the river bed power house after generating electricity. 
So first a huge dam is built based on unrealistic flow estimates and then a huge statue is built based on misplaced priorities and the compounded folly leads to the Sardar left surveying a dead river.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The End of A Dream

One of the last bastions of Adivasi anarchism in Alirajpur has finally fallen!! Khodamba village which had been isolated in its hilly terrain without road and electricity connectivity is now on the road map of India thanks to the Prime Minister's Rural Roads Programme. Even though the last few kilometers to the village from Vakner village still require to be topped with macadam it is possible to drive to the village on the base of the road that has already been built. Last week I drove to the village in our Tata Safari to find that grid electricity had also finally reached the village. With this has come to an end the dreams that we in the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath had once had in the late 1980s of developing Khodamba as a liberated anarchist zone standing defiantly against the ravages of centralised capitalist development.
Three decades ago both we the activists, who had renounced modern development and the people of Khodamba village, who had not seen much of it and were instead sufferers of its negativities, pledged to develop the village as a bulwark against this development based on a mixture of Adivasi and theoretical anarchism!! Those were the days when we walked on foot, had no bank accounts, had no computers and rarely visited the towns and cities unless it was to hold some protest or rally. Once we walked seventy kilometers from the banks of the Narmada River to Alirajpur to organise a sit in.
Fighting the state as we were against its unjust forest laws and the forced displacement of people for the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River it was not long before we faced the hard hand of the state's repression and were summarily dumped into prisons time and again. This by itself was not very disconcerting but what followed was. We had to fight numerous cases, sometimes all the way up to the High and Supreme Court and this cost money. Also this continuous fight against repression distracted us from our efforts to build up an alternative anarchist economy based on sustainable agriculture and village industry.
So by the mid 1990s while the villagers of Khodamba began to migrate to Gujarat seasonally to work as agricultural and construction labourers to earn more money, we activists had to use computers to do consultancies for the very capitalist system that we so loathed to get funds to defray the increasing expenses of the organisation and in the process we got bank accounts, motorised vehicles and also began living in cities. All the utopian fervour of the early years of KMCS went up in the smoke of the capitalist onslaught what with the economy being opened up for neo-liberal development from the early 1990s.
Yet, I continued to harbour the dream that one day we would be able to develop our anarchist utopia in Khodamba and the villages nearby because they continued to be cut off from the mainstream due to lack of roads and electricity. However, over the years this dream was there only in my heart as the people of Khodamba slowly became enthusiastic votaries of the fruits of modern development. Possibly if I had stayed in Alirajpur we might still have swung it in a modified way. But residing as I did in Indore all of 250 kilometers away it was not possible to initiate decentralised rural development in Khodamba.
When I drove my car to the village the other day I found the people there very kicked that the road and electricity had reached Khodamba. They were enthusiastically making plans for irrigating their lands. Like many other villages in the area, the shallow aquifer does not have much water but the deep aquifer is abundant. Now that the road had reached their village they would be able to bring in a boring machine to sink deep tubewells and then draw water from them with submersible pumps run by electricity. Mobile connectivity is still not there but one can climb up on one of the many hills surrounding the village to get that also. There were not many people around in the village except the elder ones like the old war horse Inder Singh who had grown up along with me from youth to old age. All the young people had gone off to Gujarat to labour and earn money.
Coming back from the village all the memories of those heady years of the late 1980s crowded my mind. Many young people who would come to the KMCS as interns were sent to this village to teach the children there and we used to land up from time to time to see if everything was going alright or not. The walk through the hills from Vakner used to be very picturesque. The village itself was an idyllic heaven as shown in the picture below.

 All that is now gone with the wind of modern development. It is not long before the ugly box like modern brick and concrete architecture will come to dominate this idyllic scenario now that the road has reached the village. I had ofcourse left Alirajpur two decades back and become immersed in modern living in Indore despite my dreams but the people of Khodamba had perforce remained cut off from the mainstream and so fed my utopian dreams. Now justice has been done and they too are enjoying the benefits of modern connectivity!! 

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Sky is the Limit

Amidst the hullabaloo of this October 2nd being the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi it has been generally forgotten that this is also the 150th birth anniversary of his wife Kasturba who too had fought valiantly for India's freedom and died in prison in 1944. Not only Kasturba but many other women fought against the British. One example is that of Preetilata Wadadar who along with Surya Sen carried out the famous Chittagong Armoury raid in 1930. Once again recently when a meme on Surya Sen became viral on Facebook there was little mention of Preetilata. This neglect of the contribution of women is a part and parcel of the patriarchal structure of society.
So on this anniversary day of Gandhi I decided to celebrate Kasturba's legacy instead by attending a meeting of a group of girls and women who were discussing the huge patriarchal obstacles to the emancipation and empowerment of women organised by the NGO Eka in the Aishbag area of Bhopal.
 This meeting is one among many that are regularly held under the name "Hamara Aasmaan" Our Sky attended by adolescent girls and women who are survivors of gender based violence within and without the home. I was asked to deliver a speech as a guest. Its been a long time since I have stopped giving speeches and so I did what I generally do when asked to speak. I asked questions and cleverly brought the discussion round to patriarchy!!
Then the dam broke as women and then girls began to speak about the barriers to women's freedom and empowerment. Most of the women and girls were from the Muslim community where generally they are married off early and then have to spend their lives as home makers. Yet in this small group at least there was a huge desire to break out and do something. Eka's work is centred around providing an opportunity to these women and girls to break out of their confines and dream big. It was heartening to see so much vibrancy among the participants and especially the adolescent girls with the latter daring to dream big. A few well educated and working Muslim women gave talks on how they had broken out of the home and pursued their own careers to inspire the girls.
It has been my case for quite some time now that the biggest blunder that our policy makers and planners committed after independence was in not tackling patriarchy. Even today despite so much talk of women's liberation and empowerment, the situation of women and girls remains pathetic due to rampant patriarchal oppression. So it is great that some women and girls feel that only the sky is the limit.  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Should We Laugh Or Cry?

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been given the prestigious "Champion of the Earth" Award for this year by the United Nations Environment Programme jointly with the French President Emmanuel Macron for launching the International Solar Alliance. He has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Bharatiya Janata Party member from Tamil Nadu for launching the world's largest public health insurance programme - Ayushman Bharat. Are these two programmes indeed game changers as claimed to merit such high recognition? Let us find out what the reality is.
The foundation of a successful public health programme is its primary health outreach. Most illnesses start as primary health problems and need to be tackled at the initial stage itself to prevent them from escalating into immediate or chronic health problems of a serious nature. Unfortunately, the government primary health infrastructure and servicese in this country, especially in the rural areas, is woefully inadequate and dysfunctional. Consequently, most people have to rely on quacks and tradtional medicine men for their primary health problems with devastating consequences. Both these categories of health service providers practice irrational medicine and complicate rather than cure people. We try to provide rational health care, which also includes advising people to change their diet to make it more nutritious, but the hold of irrational food intake and healthcare is so strong on the minds of the people, promoted in no small part by the fast food and pharma industry, that we do not make much headway.
One lady who stays just across the road from our field centre in Pandutalab village and who had seen us cure many people, some in her own family, steadfastly refused to follow our advice. She would alternately go to a quack to get intravenous drips and visit the traditional medicine men to shoo away the evil spirits that had allegedly made their home in her. In between, her father in law expired. This gentleman too had disregarded our advice and despite being a diabetic and sufferer of hyperacidity and hypertension, refused to take proper treatment and relied on traditional healers and quacks instead. As the woman's condition deteriorated further, the traditional medicine men said that her late father in law's spirit had entered her and given the fact that she and her father in law had had quite a few tiffs while he as alive, he was now taking vengeance.
Then one day her husband called me saying that the lady was in very bad shape and getting spasms and would have to be admitted to hospital. This is not the first time that we had got such calls from people in dire medical distress and so I told him to bring her to our office in Indore. We took her to a senior general practitioner doctor and after examining her he said that she was suffering from a combination of hyper acidity and anxiety related problems which had become severe due to long neglect and mistreatment. She was given an injection of an anxiety relaxant drug and prescribed a course of anti acidity and anti anxiety treatment. Within a week she was cured of the severity of her illness and has recovered so much that she is able to work. The treatment is continuing because it will take at least three months to clear the ill effects of the long neglect completely.
Her two sisters in law, who live with her in the same house but in different rooms, also are suffering from various ailments and they too practice the same combination of cure from quacks and traditional medicine men. One of these women has recently become ill and she says that since her sister in law has been cured, the father in law's spirit has now moved into her and is causing her problems.
There is not only a need for providing extensive rational primary health care free of cost to the people but also a massive information and education campaign to convince people to follow proper nutritional diets, sanitation and hygiene practice. Innumerable studies have shown that public investment in primary health care is recovered many times through taxes from a population that is much more productive due to being healthy. Yet the "Ayushman Bharat" programme has bypassed this important basic foundation of a public health programme and instead targeted the secondary and tertiary health problems which require hospitalisation. So far the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana has not been able to adequately provide for even this hospitalisation care as the costs incurred by the people is much more than the insurance cover in most cases. This will plague the new programme also which while making bold to cover the world's largest number of people through insurance has made a financial provision of just Rs 200 per person for this. Which in effect means that those being hospitalised will get very little actual support. So this neglect of primary health care combined with a measly provision for secondary and tertiary health care will result in the Ayushman Bharat programme coming a cropper and belying its Nobel Prize winning rhetoric of being the world's biggest public health programme.
What about the claims of the International Solar Alliance (ISA)? It has been set up primarily to ensure that countries lying within the two tropics, which have greater solar insolation, the "sunshine countries", utilise fully their solar potential and so reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To this end a financial target of 1 trillion dollars has been targeted to be raised from developed countries which are mostly out of the tropical zone but which have both the financial and technical resources to give a big push to solar energy. To this end the ISA has roped in the old warhorse of many such grandiose development plans, the World Bank, to achieve its goals. Specific to India the goal is to have 100 GW of solar power by 2022. Given that the current installed capacity of solar power is only 23 GW this looks a far fetched dream. What is of greater concern however, is that the thrust of the solar policy in India is towards the installation of mega solar parks instead of towards greater decentralised generation through the involvement of communities and individuals. Thus, the subsidies for solar power are going to big corporations which are setting up huge solar parks and not so much to the poor to encourage them to set up rooftop systems. A vast number of households throughout the country in rural areas is without reliable supply of electricity and even today kerosene lamps are being used and post harvest processing is a serious problem. Rural industries are not being able to take off due to lack of electricity. This is to be contrasted with Germany where 90 per cent of the solar energy comes from rooftop decentralised units. Under the circumstances just making grandiose announcements in international fora and then involving the World Bank, which has consistently funded anti-people development, is a well orchestrated farce like the Ayushman Bharat programme.
Often, I have wondered about what I have achieved in all these years, slogging it out in the field to try and bring some people centric sense into development in this country. When I see the ground reality of people living in adverse circumstances due to a combination of ignorance and faulty planning and the grandstanding of policy makers beating their chests about initiating more such faulty planning I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.   

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Water, Water Everywhere Not a Drop to Drink

Every time there is a huge flood in India with massive loss of lives and extensive physical damage, there is a hue and cry. Especially if this takes place in an area not normally prone to such floods. Assam and Bihar for instance are regularly laid waste by floods and so there is not much agitation over that anymore. But when there were sudden unprecedented floods in Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Chennai and Mumbai a few years back and now recently in Kerala, there is a massive outpouring of wrath and a severe blame game begins. In the instance of Kerala, one particular allegation has been that the many dams that are there in the state were almost full to capacity before the torrential rains began in late August and so they did not have much of a flood cushion to absorb the higher runoff coming into them and had to release this excess water downstream creating havoc. Stung to the quick by this allegation that began to be repeatedly made, the usually secretive Central Water Commission (CWC) did what it normally does not do - opened its mouth and revealed its data even if partially!!

The Central Water Commission has published a report in which it has analysed the data regarding the various river basins of Kerala and the impact of the dams on the floods there. The crucial data that needs to be understood is that regarding the river flows at the major dams and at the hydrological stations in the plains close to the sea where the floods mostly had devastating effect in the urban areas. However, the CWC has given this data only for the biggest river Periyar which also has 47 percent of the live storage capacity of all the dams in Kerala. Even though there is data regarding the total runoff and the total flow in the river along with the amounts impounded in the dams, for all the basins that have been analysed by the CWC, this does not give us an understanding as to the force of the floods at their peak. Therefore, the CWC's report is still deficient in this respect.
The Periyar basin has three major dams, the Mulla Periyar followed by the Idukki on the main stem of the river and another on the Idamalayar tributary. The peak flood discharge in the river at the Neeleshwaram measuring site of the CWC in the plains near the sea during the height of the flood was 8800 cubic meters per second (cumecs). The outflow at the Idukki dam then was 1500 cumecs. The flood cushion that was there in the dam resulted in about 1000 cumecs being absorbed. However, if a greater flood cushion had been created by releasing water from the dam in phases earlier in the month, then another 1000 cumecs could have been absorbed. The Idamalayar dam on the tributary of the Periyar released another 1500 cumec at its peak despite being a smaller dam as it had very little flood cushion. Being a smaller dam it could have absorbed another 500 cumecs if there had been more free live storage space in the dam. In other words the flood flow at Neeleshwaram would have been 7300 cumecs if these dams had been properly operated. This is more or less the case with the other smaller basins also as even if they had kept a flood cushion, given their much smaller live storage capacity as compared to the huge runoffs coming into them, they would not have been able to absorb much of this. The CWC of course goes overboard with this data and says that the lack of a designed flood cushion resulted in only a "miniscule" increase in the flood impact even though the increase is actually about 20 per cent which is quite significant.
The important conclusion that comes from this analysis is that the dams in general have limited flood protection capacities, especially when faced with rainfall that is of such huge proportions ranging from 100 to 250 percent more than the normal for the month occurring in just three days. Even though proper operation of the dams by following the rule curve which prescribes the level of water to be kept at the reservoir at different times of the year so as to provide a flood cushion, would have reduced the flood impact a little but that would not have averted the disaster. Actually, the imperative of producing hydropower, which is the primary aim of the biggest Idukki dam and most other dams in Kerala, led the dam operators to err on the side of keeping the reservoir levels high and failing to provide a substantial flood cushion.
The main reason for the floods in Kerala having been so devastating, is the huge deforestation that has taken place in the Western Ghats along with quarrying for stones and minerals as is evident from the graphic below.

This has been compounded by construction in paddy fields whose area has gone down from 8.5 lakh hectares earlier to just 2 lakh hectares now. The wetlands and the floodplains of rivers have also been encroached on. All this has together increased the runoff and also decreased the water holding capacity of the hills and the plains. The Vembanad Lake, which is a protected Ramsar site, into which several rivers drain has been encroached and its capacity to hold water has been drastically reduced because of the huge urbanisation that has taken place around it. Consequently it did not have the capacity to hold the huge runoff coming into it and overflowed and submerged the urban areas around it.
This massive deforestation and mining combined with indiscriminate construction in floodplains and fields is indeed the reason for floods in the Himalayas and their foothills and plains also from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh whenever there is an extreme weather event resulting in concentrated precipitation in a short period of time.
Flood control, not only in Kerala but throughout the country, thus, has to be brought about by greater soil and water conservation measures to increase artificial recharge and stabilisation of steep hill slopes and afforestation to increase natural recharge and reduce runoff. This will also have the benefit of sequestering carbon and preventing global warming and increase the availability of groundwater. Indeed in the aftermath of the floods Kerala is facing a drinking water crisis because many of the wells and tubewells have been packed with mud and debris. Even though repeated floods over the past few years in various places have shown that business as usual will not do, yet we do not seem to learn. The Madhav Gadgil headed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel had specifically said that the Western Ghats and especially the steeper section in Kerala and Tamil Nadu should be conserved as an ecologically sensitive zone by banning construction activity all of four years ago. Their recommendations were vehemently opposed by all and sundry and the report was consigned to the wastepaper basket and the consequences are there for all to see.
The CWC in its report typically concentrates only on the dams. While exonerating these dams by saying that they even by design did not have the capacity to mitigate floods resulting from such a heavy downpour, it takes the blinkered approach of suggesting that some more dams should be built solely for the purpose of flood control and completely ignores the need for augmenting artificial and natural recharge as it has in other areas also. For instance in the Brahmaputra basin, the flow from the Tsangpo in China contributes only 5 per cent of the total flow in the basin and so if intensive soil and water conservation measures and afforestation are undertaken in the catchments of the Indian Rivers of the basin then flood control, maintenance of environmental flow and drought proofing can easily be done. However, the CWC once again advocates only dams and creates the false bogey of China either withholding and diverting or releasing excess water from the Tsangpo to create droughts and floods in India. Massive decentralised soil, water and afforestation programmes conducted through the local governance bodies will also provide huge employment and create a flourishing natural resource base for sustainable development.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Not by Teachers Alone

Teachers day it is but teachers alone cannot do much to stem the tide of impending disaster facing humanity unless the syllabus and pedagogy are tuned to equity and sustainability. Late capitalism is sending us all to our doom because it has our education - syllabus, pedagogy and teachers all combined, selling us the myth that industrial development will improve our lives endlessly. Therefore, if we are to challenge the malevolent domination of capitalism then we have to devise our own syllabi and pedagogy of equity and sustainability and our own teachers to teach them in our own schools and colleges. While there are a few such schools, colleges are much fewer. As far as I know there is only one - Swaraj University in Udaipur in Rajasthan.
However, for initiating youth into activism on the ground what is required is a more rooted training given by activists that can analyse the dominance of capitalism and its malevolent effects by discussing mass struggles against it. Most grassroots movements against capitalist development have their in house training arrangements for their cadre but in the heat of the struggle often it is not possible to organise systematic training programmes. Therefore, the activists of mass movements for equity and sustainability across the country welcomed the setting up of the Sambhaavnaa Institute in Kandbari village in Palampur in Himachal Pradesh by the Kumud Bhushan Trust in 2010 for providing training programmes to youth and activists on various issues and strategies of grassroots mass mobilisation. The moving force behind the setting up of the institute is Prashant Bhushan, the people's lawyer par excellence who is both an activist and lawyer fighting for justice and sustainability but it was supported by a huge cross section of mass movements around the country as it fulfilled a felt need. Over time this institute has evolved into a fantastic training centre with a range of training programmes for activists and youth. While some activists work full time there anchoring the institute, the syllabus and the pedagogy is fluid and is often decided by activists from the field who are invited as teachers.
Last winter in December, Subhadra and I were invited to contribute as teachers to one training workshop for college going youth on development. Even though as anarchist activists soldiering on alone among the Bhil Adivasis we are always hard pressed for time and winter is not exactly the best time to be in the snow capped Dhauladhar ranges of Himachal for people who are more accustomed to the searing hot summers and mild winters of the Malwa plateau, we agreed to go simply because the idea of Sambhaavnaa is so good.
The first view of Sambhaavnaa is itself an education because the campus and the buildings in it have been designed and built with local architecture, materials and construction techniques by Didi Contractor, the eco-architect of the Kangra Valley. As a water conservationist what I liked most is the exquisitely designed water tank for the whole campus shown below.
The villagers in these parts are pretty ingenious and have designed over time an irrigation system called the Kuhl which diverts waters from the hilly streams into the farms for irrigation by gravity without the use of any pumps. The Sambhaavnaa campus used to be a farm before it was bought and converted into a training centre. The farm plots are still there with the kuhl running through them and the buildings built on the hillocks surrounding the farms. Thus, the trainees can work on the farm along with their training in equity and sustainability studies and strategies.
Its been a long time since the Alirajpur days upto the early 1990s  that I have undertaken long trainings. So it was a great experience that made me nostalgically remember those exhilarating years of my own youth when we used to think we would overcome capitalism. Subhadra and I had to comment on the presentations that the trainees made on the various people's movements in the country. This they had to do after first going through a training on the political economy of development. This is a very good pedagogy. The youth get a solid practical perspective on various aspects of capitalist development and the movements against it from activists in the field. In political activism today there is a big difference between theory and practice, much more than there was earlier. So it is necessary to bring this grassroots perspective into the training. The youth who came to the training unanimously said that while they had some idea of the theoretical critiques of capitalist development earlier, they had very little knowledge of the nitty gritties of actual ground level activism.
Obviously we need more such institutes across the country if the mass challenge to the madness of capitalism is to gain critical mass but till that happens one has to be thankful that we have at least one such institute in this country.