Water Crisis in West Bengal
21 Apr 2016

In the state of West Bengal, numerous water commons existed in all villages in the form of ponds, tanks, wells, springs and stretches of rivers that were maintained by village communities. Various stringent rules of use and taboos on over harvesting living and nonliving resources from the water bodies prevailed. These customary rules of community management began to erode with the beginning of British colonial governance. Over the past two centuries, the agenda of colonial development systematically dismantled the old conditions of life in the colonies and created new conditions so as to supplant the old with new forms of life. However, even after 56 years of Independence the governmentality, pivoted on establishing the state authority on all common property resources prevails. Traditional water bodies still exist, and people continue to use these water resources, but they tend to lose their “common property” value, as the customary rules of management are now replaced by rules imposed by the state agencies. With the onset of the processes of globalisation, fostering a regime of market liberalization, the state is preparing to hand the management over to private capitalist interests. Moreover, as a result of the state-sponsored program of filling up the wetlands for the sake of industrial and real estate development, the water commons are now facing a deep crisis of existence.

To understand the condition of the water commons, a small survey was conducted in four districts of West Bengal – Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri in the northern part of State. Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri, the abundant rainfall abates the perception of water crisis. Moreover, the widespread traditional use of surface water for irrigation purpose has kept the pressure on the groundwater considerably low. Nevertheless, the use of tubewells and pumps is becoming popular in many places in North Bengal, and many households have reported scarcity of drinking water.

In the southern districts, where industrial and real estate development has been rampant over the past few decades, water scarcity is a common problem. With the spread of boro (summer rice) cultivation, the demand for water for irrigation has increased several-fold. Excessive groundwater withdrawal has resulted in arsenic contamination of groundwater in the southern districts. In addition, incidents of gastric and hepatic ailments have increased owing likely to pesticide contamination of water and crops. However, villagers are unable to report if their water and foods are contaminated with any chemicals or heavy metals. There is an urgent need to conduct a statewide survey in this regard.

With a few exceptions, both the quantity of water and time spent for collecting the water from the source – mostly tube wells – has increased over the decade (1994-2004). Intensification of agriculture is the principal cause of the increased requirement of water everywhere. In the southern districts, the major reason for a longer time spent to collect the water is that a large number of wetlands (ponds and tanks) have been filled up. In North Bengal districts, privatization of many ponds for pisciculture has closed access of the neighbourhood to the water for drinking and washing.

In some cases, however, the quantity of water requirement has decreased, because the family size has become reduced after splitting. A comparative survey covering all the split families and the ‘joint families’ with regard to water use is necessary to examine whether any statistically significant change has occurred. Prima facie, while the absolute requirement of water for a nuclear family is smaller than that of a large joint family, the larger families are likely to use water more efficiently and require less proportion of water for different household uses than do a nuclear family.

What is most striking is that no women in the surveyed communities have any say in controlling access to, and management of, the water commons. In all the districts, the water commons have ceased to exist, and become open-access resources, with hardly anyone responsible to take care of the resource. In North Bengal, some women reported they had opinions regarding the use of the water body, but their importance in management decisions is cipher. The absence of the community from the management of the water resources is indeed a tragedy, because now the resources are at the mercy of either the market or government officials.

Whenever a commercial enterprise appears more profitable than community use, a water body will either disappear or be enclosed. On the other hand, the stroke of a bureaucratic pen may nullify the customary use of the ponds and utilize the water body to maximize revenue. Thus, the customary care and concern of the community toward the water commons have lost value. Earlier, a few selected ponds were strictly maintained for drinking water alone. In these ponds, no other use of the pond was permitted. Today, with the spread of tube wells, the need to protect the drinking water ponds has disappeared. However, when the same tube wells are pumped for withdrawing groundwater for irrigation, arsenic contamination and subsidence of the water table become an endemic community problem, which could have been avoided if the community had used surface water.

On the eve of water privatization, the community in all the study areas feels that water management must not be in the hands of MNCs. Women’s unequivocal response to the question. “Who should water belong to” was “the community” (which of course would include themselves). To the questions, “Who should decide water use” and “Who should decide cost of water”, some decided it is the government, while others thought the community would be the appropriate agency.

A majority of the women’s answer to “Who should decide preservation of the commons” was “the government”. This indicates the loss of the women’s confidence in the capability of the community to preserve the commons. This in turn is a result of the erosion of the community’s value and power to execute decisions on customary management of the commons. The ‘community’ in these areas consists of the Gram Panchayats, which function as appendages of the ruling party. The strengthening of the political elite and a concomitant debilitation of the traditional authority of the community has resulted in an ignorance of the community’s role in conserving the commons. A few vanishing examples of the community conserving the water commons are given in the case studies.

Dum Dum Park Tanks, Kolkata.

Situated at Dum Dum Park, in the northeastern part of the city of Kolkota, there are five large tanks (ranging in size from 1 to 2 acres). All these tanks are managed and maintained by the Park’s resident community.

Members of the community formed Krishnapur Cooperative Society in the year 1950. The society made a series of construction work to protect the tanks, namely, concretize the tank margins, erect fences around each tank, and build concrete benches around the tanks. The society also laid out a set of rules of using the tanks. These rules included :-

a) No Toxic waste to be disposed of in the tank water:
b) Fishing will be restricted.
i) No fishing by outsiders is permitted:
ii) People willing to pursue the hobby of angling must possess a card issued and endorsed by the Executive Committee of the Society. This card will cost Rs. 100 for every angling expedition.
iii) Every two or three months, a fisherman will be called in to net the fish from one of the tanks; the fish will be sold only to the residents. Each resident family owning a house will be issued a membership card that will enable them to buy the fish.
iv) Fish spawn will be released into the tanks for rearing and culturing every six months.
c) No washing of clothes, utensils, cars or cattle is permitted.
d) The tanks will be periodically cleaned.

The society put up notice boards by the side of each tank, displaying prohibitions on polluting the tank water.

All residents used the tank water for cooking; some also used the water for drinking. To prevent pollution of the water, Sri Sunil Mukherjee, the Secretary of the Cooperative Society keeps constant vigil over the tanks.

Violations of the rules to keep the tanks unpolluted began in the early 1980s. Three factors may be identified to have triggered such violations. (a) The municipal tap water supply cut down the importance of the tanks as the source of water for household needs, thereby reducing the significance of structures for maintaining the purity of the tank waters; (b) An influx of new resident families, who were unfamiliar and unrespectful of the community rules, eventually eroded the communitarian values. Earlier, most of the user community consisted of middle class and low-income families, including slum dwellers. In the early 1980s and afterwards, rich families arrived and bought lands and flats from real estate developers. The traditional community and its rules mattered little to this new group of the wealthy residents, who tend to justify their abuse of the tanks by the power of money: (c) After the death of Mrs. Jyotirmoyee Mukherjee in 1983, the constant watch over the tanks ceased. Furthermore, residents of an expanding bustee population in the neighbourhood use the tanks for bathing and washing, which the society finds difficult to stop.

Today, bathing and clothes washing are common. The tank water is cleaned annually by the application of lime. Plastic bags are sometimes seen floating on the tank waters. Even cars are kept on the tanks side and washed with the tank water. Nevertheless, the society continues to clean up the tanks periodically; fish spawn are released in the tanks two times a year; the fishing cards are still issued, land maintained; washing cattle and utensils are still prohibited; dumping of filth is still not allowed.

Women seem to oppose polluting the water of the tanks, and in general support the Society’s rule to maintain the health of the tanks. A majority of residents feel content with, and even proud of, the tanks they maintain, and are eager to maintain them in the condition as they were a generation ago. In a regime where the city’s wetlands are constantly endangered by real estate developers in collusion with politicians, the Dum Dum Park tanks are an exceptional example of how community involvement could conserve the commons in a metropolis.

Baneswar Temple Pond, Cooch behar.

In the town of Coochbehar in North Bengal, local people observe taboos against polluting a pond attached to the Nuileswar temple. The Siva (Baneswar) temple was built by the king of Coochbehar in the 16th century. The temple and the pond are maintained by a Trust body, which has in the year 2003 welded the pond margins with concrete.

A unique feature of the temple pond is that it houses a population of Indian soft shell turtle (Aspideretus ganeticus). Two of them are at least two centuries old, and come to the shore at the call of temple devotees who feed them with sweets. Tiny balls of sweets made of pulses and rice are sold at nearby shops. Devotees buy these balls and feed the turtles, as they believe the act is a virtue.

There is a strict taboo on killing anything in the sacred pond. The pond also contains a population of Indian major carps, which are also fed. During the ruining flood of 1994, the pond had overflowed, and a number of turtles and fish escaped with the floodwater. However, a few days later, when the flood subsided, people caught the turtles and brought them back to the pond. It was not possible to recognize the fish from the sacred pond, so they were not brought back.

Washing anything in the pond is forbidden. A small number of devotees, however, take bath standing on the bank of the pond on a few religious occasions. Otherwise, there is no scope of inflow of any pollutive matter into the pond.

The Scared Pond in Jainti Forest, Jalpaiguri.

Situated in the midst of a protected Terai forest, the Jainti sacred pond is a site of pilgrimage for Buddist and local Hindu villagers. There is no shrine, nor temple, nor any image of any deity at the pond.

Surrounded by ancient trees and lianas of the moist deciduous forest, the pond is consecrated to an abstract Pokhri Mai (pond goddess), and is religiously protected from any pollutive use of the water. People from forest-fringe villages visit the pond almost every day, but the big festival takes place only once a year – on the full moon day of Baisakh, the Buddha Day. Buddhists from distant villages surrounding the forest, and also from Bhutan and Sikkim gather around the pond. Local Hindu people also gather on the same day to observe some rituals by the pond. The two groups of pilgrims camp separately by the pond, and organize a fair. The fair runs for a couple of days, and pilgrims use the pond water for cooking.

The Sacred Pond of Belboni, Bankura.

Attached to an ancient sacred grove, a large sacred pond is devoutly maintained by villagers of Belboni in the district of Bankura. The pond lies on the side of Beliatore – Bankura highway. Both the grove and the pond are consecrated to the goddess Manasa. This pond is traditionally used as the only source of drinking water for people from three villages. Although there are numerous tube wells and ring wells in these villages, people collect only the pond water for drinking and cooking.

Villagers protect the pond from all types of pollution. Bathing and washing are strictly forbidden. A popular legend is that in the year 2000, a car driver had stopped by the pondand tried to drive into the pond to wash it, but the car got stuck mid-way by the curse of the goddess. The driver was unable to get the car out of the pond until he apologized and worshipped the goddess. After that incident, every household in Belboni village contributed a sum to put a barbed-wire fence around the pond. They also put up a notice board which reads in Bengali “Drinking Water Pond, Don’t Pollute”.

According to the old people’s memory, the pond never was infested by weeds, nor was there any algal bloom. There is a periodic occurrence of lotus. The pond bottom is sandy and does not contain any macrobenthic animals. A two year long study on the pond revealed that the pond water houses a large number of phyto-and zoo-plankton, and a few predatory insects that destroy mosquito larva. Rare frogs like Limnonectes limnocherys and Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis, and a couple of otter live in the pond.

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