International organisations like the World Bank and even the UN have been pushing hard for sweeping changes in the way the world uses water. In order to do so, they have concluded at high-level international meets, that water is a human need, not a universal human right. This distinction is not cosmetic, but is rather crucial. By arguing that water is a ‘need’, these bodies claim that the market should be given the right and responsibility to meet this need on a profit basis. Whereas if water were recognised as a right, the State would be deemed responsible for ensuring equal access to all on a non-profit basis. These organisations have been aggressively peddling the policy of corporatisation of water (despite meeting with stiff resistance in several parts of the world). In India , we find that our Governments are only too eager to hand over water resources and infrastructure to multi-national corporates. The previous NDA Government decided to invite the private sector in India in water management and its distribution. In an agricultural country like India , 70% of water is used for agricultural work. So this policy will mostly affect the farmers.
We carry below some analyses and experiences – of the impact of water privatisation in an urban centre – India’s capital Delhi; of an experiment celebrated by the World Bank in rural Bihar; about the impact of the Uttaranchal Government’s water policies on the rivers and the people of the hill state.
World Bank’s ‘Participatory Model’
Investigation into the Paliganj Distributary Canal Farmers’ Committee
The World Bank Report on Bihar (see commentary in Liberation , August 2005), claims that despite its dismal development, Bihar has some “examples of excellence”. One such ‘model’ is said to be the Paliganj Distributary Canal Farmers’ Committee of the Sone Canal Network. Below, we present the real picture of this ‘model’, prepared by Kamlesh Sharma and Kumar Anil on the basis of an intensive tour to dozens of villages in that area, and discussions with common peasants as well as with village level officials of the Committee.
The World Bank hails the Paliganj experience as a pioneer in ‘community driven’ development models. While the Central Government’s National Water Policy and Bihar Government’s water policy of 1993 had advocated “turning over of irrigation management duties from the public sector to the water users themselves”, this model was put in place in Paliganj on a World Bank initiative in 1987 itself, “well before the official policy intent was announced in the State”. (The Paliganj Distributary, part of the Sone Canal Network built in 1869-1875, serves 56 villages covering 5500 hectares.)
The World Bank implicitly recognises that this attempt by the Government to abdicate its responsibility for irrigation, that too by overriding an elected Government’s official policy, met with resistance by peasants. However, it claims that the WALMI (Water and Land Management Institute) funded by the United States Agency for International Development (US AID), “gained the support of the initially hostile farmers”, by promising that the system would remove “obstructions by farmers in the upper reaches” and more even access to water.
In 1997, an MoU was signed between the Government and the Farmers’ Committee, officially transferring responsibility for operation, maintenance and collection of water tax to the Farmers’ Committee rather than the Government. The Farmers’ Committee would collect water charges, and retain 70% for operation and maintenance, while 30% was to be deposited in the Government treasury.
Referring to an evaluation by an independent agency in 2000, the report tells us that the transfer of management resulted in an increase in irrigated area from 4000 hectares to 6000 hectares, increase in the capacity of distributary canals from 100 cusecs to 180 cusecs, decrease in the number of breaches and obstructions in the canal and greater confidence in the timely availability of water. The World Bank speculates that poverty, too, must have reduced as a result – and the report declares the need to “document the extent of its poverty reducing impact”. It also states the need for “further investigation of the factors determining the extent of cooperation between village members, especially those differentiated socially and spatially across the distribution system. Significantly, despite the fact that the World Bank was in fact bypassing the democratic process of decision making by elected and accountable people’s representatives, it is very appreciative of the “overall political backing” that its scheme received. It is also all praise for the “low level of court cases” which served to “lower the resistance” to “innovations” like the “Paliganj Management Transfer”!
The Report concludes that “the experiment has been one that the Government of Bihar is justifiably proud of”. The report suggests that the same model should be adopted in health, education and sanitation as well.
The Farmers’ Committee was to include at least 60% of peasants, while village level committees would comprise of local landholders of irrigated areas in all the villagers of the command area. Gradually, these village committees were meant to include 100% peasants of the village. There were various provisions for the accountability, transparency and representative character of the committees. Dalits, small and marginal peasants, and landholding women were to be included in the committees at all levels, and women were to be included in the water tax procurement and maintenance teams even if they did not hold land.
Tall Claims, False Boasts
Now, let us see how the system actually works on the ground. Let us first visit Siyarampur, the village of Balmiki Sharma , who has been Secretary of the Paliganj Distributary Farmers' Committee since its formation. According to Ram Naresh Sharma, former mukhia of this village, no elections to the Committee have ever taken place. The canal itself is in bad shape; its western flank is broken at 6 points, and it is in the worst condition right in front of Balmiki Sharma's house. Due to flaws in construction (the mouth is higher than the actual level of flow) the irrigation problem persists despite no shortage of water in the canal. Modernisation of the canal was meant to ensure that water reached villages right up to the lowest reaches of the canal. But modernisation has only spelt loot and corruption. Other villagers say that Balmiki Sharma is a powerful man, who has gained in status since President Kalam's visit to the Distributary at Paliganj. But Balmiki Sharma rarely visits the village and cares little for the canal.
In village after village all along the length of the canal, villages testified to the fact that there have been no elections to the committees at any level, no regular meetings, and no regular tax collection or proper accounts of collection. Balmiki Sharma has appointed collectors who take a 5% commission in return for collecting the tax.
Ram Kumar Varma, the Secretary of the Bara village committee commented that it was common knowledge that Balmiki Sharma had lost interest in the canal, being busy with the TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting and Analysis Council), which pays him Rs. 4 lakh a year as well as other privileges. Baleshwar Prasad Singh of the same village tells us that until 1998, there was 100% collection of water tax; it has now slipped to 70%. The villagers' reluctance to pay taxes is largely due to their apprehension that the taxes do not really reach the Government, but are pocketed by corrupt people.
Let us now visit the villages at the lower end of the canal. Shripati Rai of Harpura village was one Vice-President of the Distributary-level committee, but fell foul of Balmiki Sharma when he questioned the corrupt practices in the committee. He tells us that initially the peasants were quite enthusiastic about the Committee, but later became disillusioned when irrigation facilities failed to improve. Before the committee was formed, water reached only up to Alipur; now, it reaches only marginally further, till Badki Khadwa. The water does not reach the lower-level villages when it is actually needed – as a result the rice cannot be harvested and wheat cannot be sown on time. Instead, the water reaches these villages late – in October-November – when it is in fact a curse, resulting in water logging of the fields.
Interestingly, many peasants told us that earlier, when the onus for irrigation lay with the Government, they often succeeded in pressurising officials into making water reach their villages; now the strongmen and sycophants who surround Balimiki Sharma deter peasants from raising their voices in protest.
We were told that that in the name of modernisation, the distributary is in fact being destroyed, because of rampant corruption. At Alipur, we were told, a field channel was built at the cost of Rs. 2,65,000 but it has been destroyed because third grade bricks and very little cement went into its construction. At Badki Khadwa, a field channel was built costing Rs. 2,25,000, but the channel is higher than the level of the canal, and so water cannot reach it. Peasants tried to point this out even while the channel was being built, but to no avail – and now it is useless. There are endless cases of corruption – at Bhimani Chowk, Rs. 3,65,000 has been allocated for pucca construction, despite the fact that the canal here has lain non-functional for the last 10 years; the contractor happens to be a close relative of Balmiki Sharma!
Mocking at the World Bank prescription that the Paliganj system is a model to be replicated all over he country, Chandrama Tiwari, the President of the village committee of Milki, said that the Paliganj canal stands ruined and if it is replicated, all canals all over the country will be ruined likewise.
Peasant leader Madheshwar Sharma says that the PIM system goes against the poor, small peasants and women – he points out that there is not a single woman on the Committee, and that the entire PIM is in the hands of a nexus of contractors, criminals and political leaders.
According to Madan Mohan Prasad, leader of the Bihar State Irrigation Employees Union, the Government is all set to privatise the PIM system, which is already in the hands of powerful people. There is an arrear of 450 crores pending against the peasants; to collect this huge sum, 5000 collectors are needed, while only 354 are actually employed as per the departmental letter no. 436/17.5.05. During the Employees’ movement, the Minister of the concerned department Jagadanand Singh declared a decision to end the system of ‘seasonal’ recruitment. Seasonal employees thought this would mean regularisation of their jobs; instead they were retrenched! When the canal was handed over to the farmers’ committee, employees engaged in maintenance, tax-fixation and collection were declared surplus, and were retrenched without being adjusted in other departments. 6024 seasonal tax collectors were retrenched in 1998 – and this trend continues even today.
Loot in the Name of Modernisation
The World Bank provided a heavy loan for modernisation of the 125-year-old Sone Canal . The estimate for modernisation of the Paliganj Distributary alone was Rs. 2,62,00,000, and the work was completed in 2001. The tenders were issued by the Irrigation Department and contracts were bagged mostly by leaders of different political parties with a long criminal record - including RJD leader from Bikram Block Shyamdev Singh, BJP’s State level leader Sugan Singh and leader of the notorious Pandav Gang and LJP candidate in the last polls, Sanjay Singh. There are also reports of CPI(Maoist) leaders extorting commissions as well.
Canal-side Peasants and Laloo Rule
On the eve of assembly elections on December 30, 1989 , Jagannath Mishra’s Congress Government declared a moratorium on the collection of water tax and waived all arrears. But the Congress was routed in the polls and Laloo Yadav came to power. On March 30, 1990 , Commissioner IC Kumar of the State Water Resources Department sent a secret memo proposing that the decisions of the outgoing Government be reversed. It said that the Govt. would lose 3414.08 lakhs as arrears and Rs. 1000 annually. In addition, the problem of accommodating 4068 permanent and 6012 temporary employees of the Irrigation Revenue Organisation would also arise.
The Laloo Government renewed the collection of water tax. But ironically, of those 4068 employees who, in 1990, were cited as a pretext for renewing water tax, have been reduced to 354 by 2005! Seasonal employees were dismissed without any prior notice.
By 2005, the Paliganj Distributary Farmers’ Committee owed Rs. 22,02,720 to the Government. Revenue collection is falling though water taxes are rising (a fact even the World Bank admits).
What of the democratic representation of the weaker sections as anticipated by the World Bank? Out of a 11-member Executive, 4 have more than 40 bighas of land. Among the 56-member distributary committee, there are 125 Bhumihars, 12 Yadavs, 12 Kushwahas, 3 Brahmins, 3 Rajputs and just one Dalit – and no women at all.
Despite the glaring lack of transparency and the blatant violation of all the norms, why was the 5-year contract renewed? The State government must scrap the contract with the Paliganj Farmers’ Committee, and an enquiry should be set up to enquire into the financial irregularities. Also, it must take all aspects of irrigation back into State hands, appoint the requisite tax collection employees and properly constitute vigilance committees including panchayat institutions and peasant organisations.