Reforms in water sector is biased towards favoring the rich: Ranjan Panda

Ranjan-Panda-2Ranjan Panda was crowned as the NDTV-Toyata Green hero in December 2010 for his contribution toward environment protection by way of renovation of the traditional water harvesting techniques in Western Odisha districts like Sambalpur and Bargarh. He was earlier profiled as a Climate Crusader by NDTV and is the writer of a book on Traditional Water Harvesting Practices of Western Odisha. He is the convener of Water Initiative Odisha and founder of Organsiation Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (MASS). Panda , known as the Waterman of Odisha, speaks exclusively to Pradeep Baisakh, Senior Editor, on the traditional water harvesting techniques, the agro-industry conflict, water distribution and the ADB promoted water reforms plan in Odisha.

Orissadiary:You have won the NDTV-TOYATA Green Hero award, a prestigious award for work on environment. What is your reaction?

Ranjan Panda: An award is a recognition and responsibility at the same time. I am happy not only because I got this first ever national green awards launched by NDTV, but also because this is where our work has been recognized by an independent group after following us and our work for several years. At a time, when many awards are in reality lobbied for, this is a recognition you get without even applying for it or knowing that you were being tracked for years. Responsibility, I say, because the work that people like us are doing is getting rare by the day. We are in a world where environmentalism is increasingly being seen in parlance with naxalism and terrorism. If you seriously talk and work for environment the entire human race, which has forgotten its root of existence and its responsibility towards the mother earth, will consider that you are actually committing a crime. If you become the voice of the alive but dumb ecology, you will be crushed in several ways. We are happy blindly urbanizing and discriminately industrializing; and in the process, eating up all other species and beings on earth. Ironically, we are eating up our own future and call ourselves educated! So, this award is a responsibility to keep on to the difficult task of siding with the environment and fighting against the deadly human race.

Orissadiary: Can you very briefly narrate us your work on water harvesting?
Ranjan Panda: In fact our work goes beyond water harvesting; towards creating water secure communities for now and future. In 1988, when I was a student of Sociology in the Sambalpur University, I got an opportunity to visit remote rural and tribal villages. I was astounded to see the rich ecological knowledge and value system that existed in these villages and the communities. They understood forests, water and food management much better than anyone I had talked or interacted so far. But they lived in abject poverty, neglected by the state and other development machineries. The invasion of external cultures and knowledge systems, all in the name of development, had made them so weak that they had lost their confidence in their own skills and traditional know-how. Thus they had turned from prospering villages, which fought drought successfully just a century ago, to perishing villages which had become dependent on external support. We tried to revert this and spent several years to make the people regain their confidence on the wonderful traditional knowledge they had; to build and manage water harvesting structures and systems. After years of persuasion and strategic efforts we achieved success in reviving water harvesting culture in several villages. People, who had abandoned their crop lands for decades and were migrating out, started returning and converting these human-made deserts into green fields again. To add to their local and traditional skills and knowledge we provided some inputs that would make locally and ecologically sustainable value additions. We motivated them to manage the water they harvested through different types and sizes of structures like Bandh, Kata, Muda, Chahala, Chua, Paenghara, etc. Once the water security was achieved, cropping systems were reworked so that food and nutrition security could be achieved through out the year. Different villages had different levels of successes depending on the resources they could mobilise and other factors. However, the culture of water and food security came back to the main agenda of the village communities and they found back the lost dignity of their traditional knowledge and technology.

Orissadiary: Drought is quite recurrent in Odisha, mostly in the western part of it. Is the state traditionally a drought prone area? And will your magic formula of water harvesting solve the problem?

Ranjan Panda: Yes, drought is now the other name of western Odisha. But this was not the same just about a century ago. The communities here were better water planners and managers than the modern day engineers. This area supplied food relief to the Bengal famine victims. Records hold it that this was agriculturally one of the most prosperous regions of the erstwhile central provinces. However, this sustainable system of water harvesting and management started decaying during the British Raj and more so after we got independence. We bet for large dams, canal irrigation and everything else that involved concrete constructions. We ignored the people and the systems that had worked for centuries. Deprived of any support, the once prosperous agrarian communities had no options but to take to what the govt. officials and engineers prescribed them. Unfortunately, the external engineering based water management systems failed miserably and hence the area got converted to a drought prone region. The need is therefore to revert to the traditional decentralized systems of water harvesting that does not only talk about structures but systems of ecological integration. Things can only improve then. The engineers and govt. departments and even civil societies should come up with solutions that can fit into the already existing systems of the people so that they can own the process and be managers of their own water. This works. We have proved it. More so, this is no magic formula. We have just learned from the people and have given it back to them with some modern day inputs. This has helped them fight drought with success, yet again.

Orissadiary: The state supplies cheap labour to other states. Is it because the agriculture has failed to meet the livelihood need of people? Shall water harvesting help on this front?

Ranjan Panda: Water harvesting alone is not the solution to all woes agriculture faces now. While agriculture has been neglected by successive governments, the process has got accelerated ever since the new economic reforms started in the early 90s. All support in the name of agriculture is benefiting the rich and industrialists; agriculture land is being indiscriminately being diverted for industries; and effective irrigation is shrinking. A cumulative result of this is reflected in the growing marginalization of the farming communities who are now gaining a new identity of ‘wage laborers’, be it in the roads, constructions, industries or even in urban areas. There is been a systematic conspiracy to weaken all support systems for the farmers and as a result, while the income of almost all other people in the country has grown by manifold (even hundreds and thousands of times), that of the farmers has actually declined drastically. As a run up to the Bali climate convention we carried out an exercise to build a people’s agenda for climate change. You would be surprised to note that most of the farmers said that they want the agriculture department to be shut down if the farmers’ plight is any concern of the govt. They said this in frustration as they feel while the agriculture department officials and ministers have grown richer, the farmers have turned paupers. This is a serious aspect and needs to be looked in with utmost urgency. Farmers have to fight against all evils like poverty, climate change and money lenders’ vagaries to grow crops for the nation and then fight on streets to fetch a ‘minimum’ support price. Even if they can get the minimum support price for some of the main products like paddy, that never comes in handy to buy a dignified life in an economy where everything including education, health care and drinking water have to be bought with cash, which keeps escalating by the day. They are being impoverished by design and are triply murdered in the way I have described above. Is it not an irony that the same farmer who grows food for us has to depend on the Rs.2 or Rs.3 kilo rice for quenching his hunger!! While water harvesting is an urgent need, there is plethora of issues to be addressed if we are serious about development of this agrarian state.

Orissadiary: Recent days have witnessed the conflict of water distribution between industries and agriculture. How real is such a conflict? Does the government have any proper plan to meet the water requirement of several industries coming in the state (State has signed 79 MoUs steel, alumina and power companies etc) without bringing pressure on agriculture?

Ranjan Panda: In my opinion the debate over water distribution has gone beyond just industries versus agriculture. Water is now being diverted for everything else for industries and urban areas and be sure we are heading towards a disaster. Our state has been proactively marketing itself as a water surplus state to attract investments and in that blind move it has completely ignored both logical and scientific principles of water resources management. We have already warned that we may in fact turn to a ‘water stressed’ state just in another five to seven years. Time is now for the state to learn the basics of water; that it is a finite ecological resource and not an abundant gift of nature that can be exploited just to attract private sector investment. We are dooming our state and ripping the people and ecology of their water future, just for profit of a few private pockets. See, even we cannot provide water to all the industries we have signed agreement with, in about a decade’s time. Take it as my word. And if we do, be sure you will witness bloody battles all around the state, I warn.

Orissadiary: Now international aid agencies like World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB) are suggesting water sector reforms in the state of Odisha. How far such recommendations going to help the state’s farmers and industries?

Ranjan Panda: This is nothing new. In the neo-liberal economic era, reforms are the mantra of the elitist economists who keep pushing for it without caring about monitoring the results. And, our greedy political classes, who assume mastership of our fate as soon as they get elected, get easily swayed by the glitzy promises of the so called reforms. In reality, reforms have widened the gap between the rich and poor further. Access to water is one of the glaring indicators of this. The so called reforms agenda that is being propagated in water sector is biased towards favoring the rich. Putting a price on water is the single fundamental principle of this. So, while in the name of economic growth, you are free to push water sucking urbanization and industrialization, you propose for reforms in the management of the available water resources. You eat up the water, pollute it and alienate the people and species that are dependent on it for their survival and basic livelihood. And as water goes scarce for products of your ‘reforms’ you ask the people to behave and in the name of management you grab the remaining water resources by putting a price on it and giving entry to private entities to manage it. Neither the poor can pay the price nor can they hold private bodies accountable. So, they lose out on their survival. More farmers will end their lives in our state if such reforms continue.

Orissadiary: Water is a community property. Do you visualize a situation in any point of time in future where water is managed by the community at large? Is practically possible? Do you have any quick suggestions for it?

Ranjan Panda: We have appointed our government exactly for that. They have not been elected by the people to work at behest of the corporates. The water resources and other related departments and institutions have been created to serve the people. The people are the owners of the resources and the institutions; and instruments created in the form of such departments and bodies are to ensure that the ownership remains in the people. That is the basic sense of democracy and this is what government should be. We are going the opposite way. Rather, in the name of community participation, we are creating institutions to alienate the communities from planning and decision making. The Pani Panchayats are a case in point. It’s only when you have a good officer or committed politician that you get to find some positive things happening. Or it’s only when the farmers or people can show up their courage and power enough to exert control over such institutions. What I intend to say is, it’s very much possible if such good officers and politicians and civil society players combine to revert the trend; and make the system serve the people, not become owners of them.

Orissadiary: Finally, have you taken any initiative in persuading the government for accepting your plans of water management in the state policy; and with what results?

Ranjan Panda: Yes, if you have kept a track of what we have been doing, you can find that we have been trying to persuade the government to be people’s representatives and not that of corporates’. We have been constantly urging upon them to take the communities into confidence and give people their due right over the water and other natural resources. Its only when the people of the state are closely and constantly involved in water resources planning and management that we can ensure a better water future for ourselves. Corporate, at whose behest most of the water management planning is being done at the moment, are here only for profit and they will go away as soon as our resources are exhausted. This should be considered while taking decisions and devising management plans. We have recently objected to the inclusion of corporate representatives in proposed river basin organisations. According to us, they are at best consumers and hence can never be part of the decision making bodies in the name of stakeholder participation. The first and foremost stakeholder in water management of the state is its people. We have proposed inclusion of farmers, fisher folks, women, panchayat representatives in decision making bodies. The govt. officials and other technical bodies can provide the advisory and technical supports. Time the govt. takes serious note of it and changes its attitude and culture of alienating people from water and its management.

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