Ponds, integral to the rural landscape, are fast disappearing. Indian govt has no data on these local water bodies
Ponds once dotted the rural hinterland and were integral to the daily lives of villagers, who revered and protected them for both religious and drinking purposes. But, with the advent of handpumps and now piped water supply, these water bodies have been encroached upon by buildings, bhavans, playgrounds or putrefying garbage dumps. With changing climates and increased water stress, protecting and reviving the village ponds has become imperative.
गाँव कनेक्शन 21 April 2022 9:34 AM GMT
A heat wave is sweeping across the country and the monsoon is still about two months away. The pond in Kandhayi Gautam's village is bone dry. Sitting next to the dry waterbody, the 70-year-old villager felt a rush of nostalgia when asked about how the village pond looked in his childhood.
"After playing in the scorching heat of the summer months, my friends and I used to rest near the lush green bank of the pond. I still remember that comforting cool breeze near the talaab," Gautam, a resident of Chheda village in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki, told Gaon Connection. "The area around the pond was hara bhara (lush green) and flowers blossomed there. We used to chase butterflies…," he reminisced.
The pond is now encroached and covered with garbage. There is no green vegetation around it and village children rarely visit it due to its unhealthy surroundings.
"People don't use pond water anymore. There's a hand pump and borewell to meet the water requirements. People dump garbage in it and along with the talaab, the beauty of our village has died too," the frail-looking man lamented.
Like the talaab in Gautam's Chheda village, ponds that once dotted the rural landscape of the country are fast disappearing. Hundreds of thousands of them are already dead and on their dry graves stand buildings, bhavans (buildings), playgrounds or putrefying garbage dumps.
Earlier this month, on April 6, Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested construction of 75 ponds each in each district of the country to mark the 75th year of India's independence. This is important because several national and international reports have warned of the acute water crisis the country is expected to face in the coming decades and the need to safeguard the local water bodies.
"As the temperature is rising continuously, the problem of water scarcity may become more prominent in the coming days. I appeal to all leaders and party workers to perform shramdaan (charitable labour) and construct more and more ponds in their areas," PM Modi said.
Clean water is already a scarce resource in the country. As per the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog's June 2018 report, India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70 per cent of water being contaminated. The report, Composite Water Management Index, adds that critical groundwater resources – which account for 40 per cent of the country's water supply – are being depleted at unsustainable rates.
"India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat. Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water," the 2018 report stated.
"The crisis is only going to get worse. By 2030, the country's water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual ~6% loss in the country's GDP," it added.
"The disappearance of ponds is not merely about losing the scenic beauty of the typical rural hinterland… these water bodies are nature's way of replenishing and purifying the underground aquifers which are the primary source of potable water in the country," Meerut-based environmentalist Raman Kant Tyagi, who has worked on the revival of ponds, told Gaon Connection. "The percolation of water from the ponds is the only way to refill our fast exhausting groundwater reserves," he added.
Disappearing ponds, missing data
Ponds have always been integral to the rural landscape. However, the central government doesn't maintain an official data on the number of ponds in the country.
The Union Ministry of Jal Shakti conducts a census and publishes its census report, which records the number of ponds/tanks that are used for minor irrigation activities across the country. But it misses out on a large number of village ponds that dot the hinterland and may or may not be used for irrigation purposes.
"Minor irrigation census does not count the number of water bodies in the country directly. However, data on water bodies is indirectly compiled from the census; but this information is limited to the number of water bodies in villages used for minor irrigation," mentioned a statement issued by the Press Information Bureau on February 7, 2022.
Interestingly, whereas local villagers complain that ponds are fast disappearing, the government data shows otherwise. As per the findings of the fifth minor irrigation census conducted in 2013-14 and its report published in 2017, a total of 241,715 ponds are used for minor irrigation activities in India.
A decade earlier, the fourth census report published in 2006, had reported a total of 103,878 such ponds in the country.
Statewise data shows Gujarat has registered the sharpest decline in the number of these ponds – from 326 in 2006-07 to 13 in 2013-14. This is followed by West Bengal – 30,152 in 2006 to 13,856 in 2014.
Meanwhile, according to a press statement issued by the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti on February 7 this year, a total of 7,090 water bodies in India are facing an existential threat due to encroachment. But, there is no comprehensive data on the total number of ponds in rural India.
Kandhayi Gautam, a 70-year-old resident of Chheda village in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki complained that illegal encroachments have destroyed water bodies in his village.
"People have built houses on the area which originally belonged to the ponds. There used to be around 27 small and large ponds in our village over 60 years ago, but now only one is left, which also has very little water," he told Gaon Connection.
Meerut-based environmentalist Tyagi pointed out that encroachment of ponds is hard to be brought under law enforcement as the official data maintained by the government reeks of underreporting and the ground situation is far worse than what is registered officially.
"We only maintain records of ponds dug under the MGNREGA works. At village level, panchayat secretaries or pradhans (village heads) are not tasked with maintaining the exact number and status of the village ponds," Amit Shukla, Block Development Officer of Unnao's Bichhiya block told Gaon Connection.
But why are ponds disappearing?
In order to understand how and why these water bodies, which were revered and protected by the rural folks, declined through the decades, Gaon Connection approached Eklavya Prasad, founder of the Megh Pyne Abhiyan, a charitable trust working on the issues of water security and revival of traditional water sources.
"Over the years, the approach of the policymakers has been to shift away from the traditional sources of potable water in the rural areas, such as dugwells and ponds. It also involved conveying the message that age-old, traditional sources like pond water are unhygienic," Prasad told Gaon Connection.
The message was thoroughly received and accepted by the rural folks at large and they began perceiving pond water as dirty and preferred using hand pumps and other techniques to extract groundwater instead of using surface water sources, he added.
"Gradually these ponds became redundant and the rural residents lost the respect which they once had for these water bodies. Encroachments began, people began dumping garbage into these ponds and the entire cultural sanctity, which earlier guaranteed the cleanliness and survival of these ponds vanished," Prasad said.
Garima Tiwari, a 40-year-old resident of Karua village in Lakhimpur Kheri district, narrated how many festivals in the village were once celebrated on the bank of a pond but the fast disappearing ponds pose a threat to the rural culture itself.
"We celebrate a festival called tijiya in which we pray for our brothers at the pond site. Earlier we used the pond water in the rituals but now there's little water in the pond and it is too dirty to be used for religious purposes," said Tiwari. "We now carry water from our homes to the pond in order to perform the rituals. I wonder if the pond will survive long enough for my children to celebrate the tijiya festival," she added.
Rambabu Tiwari, a researcher who is pursuing a research on the social and cultural aspects of ponds in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, told Gaon Connection that the entire present day rural setup leaves little room for ponds to function as they did decades back.
"Here is an old saying – khet talaab se paani peeta hai aur insaan kuen se paani peeta hai [agricultural field drinks from the pond while the humans drink from the wells]," Tiwari said.
"But in the present day, almost every village has installed multiple tube wells and borewells for irrigation and accessing potable water. In such a condition, it is lazy to just take administrative decisions and expect ponds to get revived. What we need to realise is that the rural lifestyle is no longer making it possible for ponds to sustain themselves," he added.
Tyagi echoed Tiwari's concerns and said: "The borewell and supply of piped water to far off areas cannot continue forever. We need to understand that the underground reserves are not infinite especially under the circumstances when it is not getting recharged by natural sources such as ponds and other water bodies," Tyagi, founder of Meerut-based Neer Foundation said. "We need a radical shift in the approach of providing drinking water to the population across the country," he added.
Ponds as waste dumping sites
Gaon Connection visited several villages in the districts of Barabanki, Sitapur, Unnao, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and Satna in Madhya Pradesh to assess the ground situation of village ponds.
Chandra Mohan Trivedi, a resident of Sitapur's Brahmavali village told Gaon Connection that encroachment was the single biggest factor that has destroyed the ecosystem which ensured the maintenance of water level in ponds.
"Illegal encroachment is a double faced threat to the ponds in the villages. Not only does it reduce the size of the pond by cutting off land along its periphery but also wreaks havoc on the catchment area of the pond. It disturbs the slope gradient which is nature's way of ensuring the pond's existence," Ramveer Tanwar, founder of Say Earth, Greater Noida-based non-governmental organisation, told Gaon Connection. "Many tiny drains from the agricultural fields and elsewhere find their way to the pond and help in replenishing it even when there's no rainfall," he added.
Tanwar is a pond conservationist whose efforts were applauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his monthly Mann Ki Baat radio address to the nation on October 24, last year.
"Unlike cities which have some measures to dispose of their waste, there is no such thing as a waste management system in a typical Indian village. In such a situation, the local pond, whose water has anyway been polluted by numerous malpractices, becomes the ideal dumping ground for the villagers," Tanwar said.
The environmental conservationist also highlighted that the nature of waste generated by the rural population has radically changed from what it used to be decades ago.
"It's no longer the organic waste which used to be generated from the rural households earlier. Polythene and plastic wastes have invaded the rural landscape and it gets dumped in the local water bodies," the pond conservationist underlined.
"Illegal encroachment and reckless construction also leads to far more destructive floods during the rainy season than they used to be when the ponds were alive. It is because all routes that led the excess rain water to the pond have been disrupted by construction activities," Tiwari said.
Pradeep Tripathi, founder of the Mumbai-based Green Yatra, an environmental protection NGO, said that rejuvenation of ponds is pivotal in the efforts to solve India's water crisis.
A number of central and state government schemes have been launched to revive rural water bodies. Recently, on April 5, in an official press statement issued by the Uttar Pradesh government, it was mentioned that the government 'has planned to revive the extinct wells and convert them into recharging wells, and at the same time, to bring to life the ponds and establish village forests on their banks'.
A Jal Utsav (water festival) has been marked for the month of April by social workers and NGOs in Uttar Pradesh capital Lucknow to help revive around 2,000 ponds to replenish the water levels in the Gomti river.
Also, the Ghaziabad municipal corporation seeks to revive 28 ponds before the beginning of this year's monsoon season. Officials from the civic body told the press that 38 out of the 41 water bodies that have been identified can be rejuvenated, while the rest have been lost to encroachment for the past several decades.
"The rejuvenation work may not directly help us in getting a drinking water source, but it will definitely help us in the recharging of groundwater resources. Of the 10 water bodies where rejuvenation work is complete, we have handed over eight to the fisheries department so that the clean status can be maintained," MS Tanwar, the municipal commissioner of Ghaziabad was quoted.
Apart from this, a total of 406 water bodies were reported to have been revived under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in Uttar Pradesh's Jhansi in 2020.
"Government efforts can get a pond made but its maintenance isn't something that can be guaranteed without popular support from the community," Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhiyaan said. "The old generation lived with values that almost sanctified the pond as well as its catchment area. However, with the passage of time, these values got corroded and the present generations lack the value system which is crucial for the ponds to exist as they did in the olden times," he highlighted.
Chandra Mohan Trivedi of Brahmavali village isn't impressed with the way ponds are being revived. "Whenever there is a government effort to construct or revive a pond, all they do is set up a flowery area around the pond and fill the water by extracting the groundwater through boring. They also plant flowers and other ornamental plants around the pond which helps in saundaryikaran (beautification) and all this paints a rosy picture but does little for the long term sustainability of the pond," he said.
"It is because there is no effort to guarantee a viable catchment area which is crucial for the pond to replenish its water level. This entire saundaryikaran is short lived and after a few months, the pond again dries up," said the villager. "There is a need to check the illegal encroachments around the ponds that have disturbed the natural recharge ability of these water bodies," he added.
Written by Pratyaksh Srivastava. With inputs from Virendra Singh in Barabanki (Uttar Pradesh), Sachin Tulsa Tripathi in Satna (Madhya Pradesh), Sumit Yadav in Unnao (Uttar Pradesh), and Ramji Mishra in Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh).