Jalyatra juxtaposes the current rot in managing and governing water with the practices of yesteryear when these systems not only catered to the material requirements of water for drinking and agriculture, but were centres of the community's social and cultural lives. India has a vast heritage of highly evolved and diverse water management systems. Each system is different from the other as each has been shaped by local topography, climate, vegetation and other factors. These systems are not merely technologies or techniques but have their own complex management structures rooted in the social organizations of the community. These are both managed by and accountable to the local population.
The book takes readers from the coastal areas of Goa in the west, to the hills of Meghalaya in the East, from Chambal and Shekhawati in Rajasthan in the west to Uttarakhand in the North, to Tamil Nadu in the south through Bundelkhand in central India. It describes the specifics of the main traditional water systems in these areas: How they evolved in sync with the local geo-climatic conditions, and the intricate management institutions that developed simultaneously. It shows how interference by the British and then our own rulers led to the slow but steady deterioration of these systems. Among the root causes, the book points out, is the alienation of the systems from the local communities by taking away their control on them, at the same time, by promising that the government will take care of their water needs, relieve local communities from the sense of responsibility that was the key to keeping these systems running. The result is decay and degeneration.
The book lays out in fascinating detail and insight the intricacies of these systems. For example, the eris of Tamil Nadu - the crescent shaped water tanks that provide water for irrigation and have been around since the 3rd century BC with an average age of 700 years!
The book describes the techniques in Meghalaya where bamboo is the material of choice for transporting water from source to plantations of betelnut in the lower reaches of the Khasi and Jaintia hills. It tells the story of how former bandits in the Chambal area have turned water conservators and now have taken the lead in many villages to build checkdams. It documents the water management systems of Delhi, the only city with a continuous history of some 2000 years and traces the growth of the city, linked to its water systems.
Written as an ecological travelogue, Jalyatra is full of detailed descriptions of local events, history and legend, to build the context and create an ambience. The book is a welcome addition to the literature on water systems in India, it should bring attention to the traditional systems and the key principles behind them - decentralisation, heterogeneity, diverse technologies to suit differing local conditions and management institutions that are controlled by and accountable to the people.
The book helps draw attention once more to this valuable heritage of water management and generates a debate over what is appropriate, and what is not, in India's quest for water and food security. This is important as India's traditional water systems - and the principles on which they were organised - are among the elements that hold greatest promise to provide answers to modern India's water problems, water needs and water crises.
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About the Author
Nitya has researched and written on water and environment for several years. This book Jalyatra is an result of his interest and was first published by Penguin India in 2008. He is one of five Indian contributors to the a UN sponsored publication, Water Voices from Around the World, rated as one of the few books that could change the world. He has also brought out several publications that document the changing face of rural India in the 21st Century, that cover the role of youth in governance and the growth of community radio.
He is the Head of Policy with WaterAid, a UK Charity. Earlier, he lead the water programme at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi. As a journalist, Nitya worked in print, television and multimedia for 12 years. He has written on business, politics and the environment.
Nitya has worked to revive the water heritage of Delhi especially its ponds that formed part of a historic water system. Along with others, he has ensured these ponds come back to live and are protected from encroachment.