Solution#1: Rejuvenating cascading systems of tanks in one set of interconnected of tanks.
What to do and When to do it:
Let’s start with the “When”. The best time to embark on this exercise is right after a major drought. At that time, borewells are likely to be dry, and there will be strong popular support needed to clear encroachments. This is the catalyst.
Rather than embark on a state-wide (or country-wide) desilting of tanks, leaders can start with rejuvenating one set of interconnected tanks. The dearth of institutional capacity and the difficulty of clearing encroachments necessitates starting small. Start where the need is greatest, and then, as the need increases and the approach is fine-tuned, expand geographically. This is the approach Rajendra Singh followed in Alwar, where he and his organization, the Tarun Bharat Sangh, have rejuvenated thousands of tanks and rebirthed over six rivers in the area. Let the impetus of action come from below, when water becomes scarce – that’s the key.
There are several ways to improve the political payoff of this scheme. One is to link the desilting to other schemes like MNREGA and afforestation, ensuring landless labourers and farmers both benefit from the scheme. Another is to link up with corporate CSR programmes as factories in a dry area will also earn goodwill from their local employees when water supply improves. Enlisting an outsider, such as an NGO or a corporate, to coordinate helps bridge difference between different departments, ensuring a holistic solution emerges. Education is particularly important. Many today do not remember all the pieces that once worked together to make tanks effective –choice of crops, sustainable water use, including adoption of drip irrigation (there are already subsidies in many of the states for the same), the role of forests, and community rights and responsibilities are all to be covered to ensure the shift in equilibrium sustains. Education, by helping the voter understand the benefit of somewhat costly actions taken today, makes distant rewards more tangible, and thus more appealing.
Where will this work: Relatively dry, non-flat areas, like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, parts of Maharashtra and Telangana with seasonal rainfall, but importantly, where groundwater is becoming inaccessible, or unpotable.
Why will it work: Groundwater supplies are running out. Rainfall is not going to become less seasonal. Moreover, thousands of farmers have seen the power of cascading tanks being revived. In Madurai, record rainfall in the Western Ghats has translated to lush green paddy fields where the channels have been cleared, and the tanks desilted. The key is not to take up all the tanks, but to identify a set of linkages and use political capital only to clear encroachments and canals on areas where the water shortage is acute, and on upstream tanks and canals first. The bottleneck resource is political capital, use it only where you must, where it will unlock the most value.