What villages can teach Mumbai about saving water

Mumbaikars will rap me at this point in time if I say that rains do not necessarily mean big trouble. But 70-year-old Vinayak Patil, who lives 500 km from here, in dusty Shirdhon, a village in the drought-affected Osmanabad district, and many others living in similar conditions, will definitely agree because my observation is based on their experience.

Lakhs of villagers across the state are voluntarily supporting a project ‘Jalayukta Shivar’ (water sufficient vicinity), CM Devendra Fadnavis’ flagship programme that seeks to conserve water for meeting their agrarian needs and mitigating the perennial drinking water crisis.

The uniqueness of this scheme is that it is not entirely supported by the government. The rich and poor have contributed in terms of both financial and physical support to make it fairly successful. Last week, I met landless labourers and farmers in Latur, Osmanabad, and Solapur districts who have contributed amounts ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 1 lakh to their village projects. The villagers reserve the right to reject the contractor’s bill if the work is not satisfactory.

In this scheme, old water bodies are recharged by way of storing water in de-silted and widened nullahs or ponds; water from upstream flow is diverted to these water bodies. The villagers could not believe their eyes when the first monsoon showers helped them in catching flowing water, which till last year was impossible. Now, they expect the rains they will receive this year – these districts usually get below average rainfall – to help them avoid troubles they have been facing for decades. Expectations run high in the 5,000 villages where 99,000 to 1 lakh such projects were undertaken, of which 66,000 have been completed and the remaining will conclude by next week. Another 5,000 villages will be added next year.

My interaction with villagers, many of whom have never gone to school, made me think of Mumbaikars and the fellow citizens of MMR like Thane, Navi Mumbai, Virar-Vasai, Kalyan and Dombivli, Bhiwandi etc, which get heavy rainfall every year, but are unwilling to harvest water for their own use. The main reason for this unwillingness is easy access to piped water. For instance, Mumbai gets its daily supply of water from exclusive reservoirs, some of which are 100 km from the city. Mumbai is one of very few cities in the country that gets 24x7 water. And yet, we abuse water. We splurge it on prolonged showers, waste huge quantities for flushing toilets and washing cars. We even use drinking water for gardening.

We get restless when the BMC starts calculating its depleting stock in reservoirs and the days remaining ahead of the monsoon. While I’m writing this, the reservoirs that provide us water have not received the massive rainfall that the city witnessed in the last four days.

So, imagine what will happen if the dams’ catchment areas don’t get as much rains to fill your dams this year and thereafter. There have been years when the city faced water cuts and longed for rains. The civic administration even experimented with artificial cloud seeding (they were prepared to do this year, too).

There are people in Mumbai who have realised the seriousness of the issue well before it gets difficult to tackle. Some housing societies and commercial complexes have set examples in rainwater harvesting and recycling of used water with their voluntary efforts. Mumbai’s ground water level is fast turning saline (try drinking some water from local wells) because rainwater does not percolate to the ground, thanks to concretisation and lack of open spaces. Currently, water harvesting is mandatory for upcoming residential projects in the cities, but its monitoring has not been up to the mark.

The time is ripe for CM Fadnavis to initiate ‘Jalayukta Aavar’ (water sufficient premises) in cities. But he will have to tweak the rural format, which is successful because the villagers treat water - their lifeline - with utmost respect, and, hence, have volunteered to support the scheme. Our cities will need legal compulsion because of the apathy of both citizens and their civic managers.

We need a comprehensive policy on urban water conservation, with stringent measures in place to punish violations. Mumbai is the ideal place to launch such a pilot project.

The writer is Political Editor of mid-day

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