Here’s an article by my pal
Amitangshu Acharya, which first appeared in the Deccan Herald. Amitangshu warns that there is much to learn
about water harvesting technologies of the past, it is dangerous to romanticise
group of models in red had to pose for cameras to promote the launch of the
recently concluded Indian Formula One Grand Prix in New Delhi, organisers
selected Agrasen ki Baoli, a picturesque structure that is actually eight
centuries old step well, as a backdrop.
Women in red, and even blue, green and yellow have not been uncommon around
water sources in villages. In fact, in Rajasthan and Gujarat, wells without
brightly dressed women around them are a rare sight. For sore eyes, the
sensuous F1 may not be eyesores, though many may have already raised eyebrows
at this convergence of F1 with a heritage site.
If nothing, such injection of glamour helps draw interest from urban India to
traditional water systems.
none can dispute that much of it was achieved when episode 12 of ‘Satyameva
Jayate’ discussed traditional water harvesting systems in detail. It helped to
bring home the science and wisdom behind these systems to a generation who
perhaps never knew of their existence.
This new found
“cool” quotient of traditional water harvesting is a result of
sweat and toil of grassroots movements, activists, scholars, journalists and
practitioners whose torn chappals and worn out khadi kurtas are a stark
contrast to the branded red designer wear being sported by our F1 ladies in
is, is this only paradox that traditional water harvesting systems have to deal
with? Not really. There seems to be considerable agreement in scholarly circles
that traditional water harvesting has always had a chequered history.
proponents of traditional water harvesting, for decades, have circulated a
black and white narrative to explain the decline of traditional water
harvesting systems in India.
In short, in a pre-colonial past, people (essentially rural) lived in harmony
with each other and nature. Traditional water harvesting was an epitome of
collective management of natural resources combined with traditional knowledge.
rule either destroyed or ignored these working systems, and the post colonial
state, bent on industrialisation, large dams and urban centers, followed suit.
Hence, the centralised ‘state’ is pitted against the decentralised and
harmonious community. Broken pipelines symbolise bureaucratic in failure while
rural step well surrounded by women in colourful saris becomes epitome of that
wholesome goodness that is rural India.
the recipe for revival includes admonishing modernity and exhorting a return to
egalitarian and ecological ‘village republics.’
Such romantic idylls catch imaginations quickly, just like a photograph of F1
girls against a baoli. But is the beauty behind such theories skin deep? A
number of researchers, and many of them women, would agree. Some have been
scooping out pollens and sediments from the beds of medieval tanks in South
India for a decade.
have analysed folk songs and myths. Though carbon dating and folklores rarely
meet, in this case they do, and conclude that sustainability of these systems
are a myth. Not only does it show that such traditional water harvesting
systems were prone to frequent failures, their cumulative impact, given their
scale of construction across vast landscapes, were no less than large dams!
Such damning evidence is followed close on its heels by that of historical
exploitation of labour from dalit vodda’s or tank diggers, who were forced to
work on these sites for low or no wages. Such academic research looms like an
ominous cloud over traditional water harvesting systems.
deatheater’s in Harry Potter novels, they seem to suck the life and colour out
of the narratives that celebrate their centrality in holding communities
together. In many cases, they do exactly the opposite.
In fact, community owned traditional water systems are sites where difference
between men and women and people of different castes are played out and
reinforced. For example, if a dalit accidentally touched the mouth of the
village spring in Uttarakhand, not only was he/she publicly admonished,
elaborate puja had to follow to cleanse the water from such polluting touch.
Dalits could not collect spring water along with other upper castes. They had
to wait for them to finish.
And though women and water are considered as inseparable as a clinging wet sari
in the rains, such glossy assumptions hides more than it reveals. Norms of
purity and pollution are at their strictest best when it comes to water.
it a pond in West Bengal, or a step well in Rajasthan, sanctions on access
applies to menstruating and pregnant women. In fact, traditional water
harvesting systems help to brand women as periodically impure.
Hence current use of the F1 girls to brand traditional water harvesting doesn’t
allow us to see how for many years, traditional water harvesting has branded
women. The poetics of traditional water harvesting has been much more in
circulation than its politics.
As more glitz and glamour gets infused into traditional water harvesting, it’s
important to be untraditional and discuss the shades of grey that hides behind
the red. Such discussions will reveal the preference for ugly and unaesthetic
pipelines over the aesthetic and ephemeral step wells. It’s not just
convenience, but the dignity that comes with it.
Post a Comment