We have lost 22 lakh ponds since independence. Let that sink in

As per an estimate, the country had about 24 lakh ponds during independence. Looking at the 5th Minor Irrigation Census (2013-14), one would find only 2.41 lakh ponds registered now in the official records. It means that we have lost about 22 lakh ponds since Independence. But how?

Ranvijay SinghRanvijay Singh   7 Oct 2019 10:24 AM GMT

We have lost 22 lakh ponds since independence. Let that sink in

"I am 85. Previously my village had three ponds. With time the ponds disappeared. Now only one pond remains and even that had been encroached upon," says Ramasrey Singh, showing the well beside his house.

Residing in Lucknow's Himmatpur village, Ramasrey Singh had been a teacher by profession. He has been constantly urging the officials in order to save the only pond of the village. He alleges increasing encroachment of the pond and that his complaints are going unheeded. He fears that soon even the last pond would also cease to exist.

Not only in Himmatpur, this is the plight of several thousand other ponds in the country. We are gobbling up the ponds to erect buildings and do cultivation in their place. As per an estimate, the country had about 24 lakh ponds during independence. Looking at the 5TH Minor Irrigation Census (2013-14) one would find only 2.41 lakh ponds registered now in the official records. It means that we have lost about 22 lakh ponds since independence.

Madhya Pradesh's Jabalpur too had several ponds once most of which have already disappeared due to urbanization and to the land-mafia racket. Remembering these ponds, 80-year-old Krishna Gopal Vyas said: "So far as I know, Jabalpur had 52 ponds once upon a time. Now only 20 remain. Ponds have died beneath colonies, shops and sport complexes. All this has happened before my very own eyes. However, their names are alive as they have been adopted by the respective colonies such as Rani Tal, Hathi Tal etc." Krishna Dev Vyas has been working towards conservation of the ponds. He has also served as an advisor to Madhya Pradesh government's Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission.

Nathu talaab in Pukhriya, Kanpur. Pic credit: Neetu Singh

The same is the story of rural Kanpur's Pukhrayan. It is said that this village derived its name from the word 'pokhar' which means pond in Hindi because of its numerous ponds. Local social worker Sandeep Bansal, 45, informed, "Previously this place had over 50 ponds out of which only three or four remain now." Sandeep showed Nathu Pond which was covered with garbage. He complained, "This pond where people used to bathe once has now been reduced to a dumping ground. We have complained several times that the locality has a pond which needs conservation, but no one paid any heed."

Many ponds like Nathu Pond in Pukhrayan are slowly disappearing. The remaining ponds are in a sorry state. Uttar Pradesh's Dharauli Gram Panchayat of Barabanki district has one such pond called Pucca Talab which is filled with filthy water and hyacinth and emanates deep foul smell.

Sharing his memories associated with Pucca Talab, Sanjay Tiwari, 55, said: "I remember when I used to bathe here as a kid. People used to throng here in the evenings, it being the only pucca pond of the locality. But as time passed, its state worsened. Today even sewage and drainage are being directed to this pond." Sanjay informs that many ponds in Barabanki are on the verge of extinction such as Dhanokhar pond, Lakadiya pond, Patel Panchayati pond etc. Many local ponds suffer from steady encroachments.

The Pukka Talaab in Dharauli gram panchayat in Barabanki

Why are the ponds disappearing?

Such a situation raises the question as to why this all is happening and where exactly the problem arises towards the ponds' conservation. Seeking an answer, the Gaon Connection team met up with some pradhans and ex-pradhans. Subsequently, the team met up with Dharamraj Jaiswal, 78, ex-Pradhan of Chandwara village in Uttar Pradesh's Barabanki district. When asked why pradhans are not able to remove encroachments, he replied by saying, "It is quite simple. Pradhans have to preserve their votes also. Suppose if pradhan's own supporter is the encroacher, how would he be evacuated? Villages are a close-knit society with everybody knowing everyone else so it is not considered wise to take such steps. No one would like to demolish another's home by the police force, especially if one knows that it had been built with so much toil by the owner."

Dharamraj added: "When in 1984 I was the village pradhan, there were 250 houses in the village today there are 858. With the land supply remaining the same as ever the houses continue to be constructed. With the settlement increasing people resorted to cover up even ponds." It is evident from Dharamraj's views that pradhans too avoid confronting the encroachers due to their personal relations and other such reasons. So far as the maintenance of gram panchayat's land is concerned, it is the responsibility of the Land Management Committee of which the head remains the pradhan. So, a pradhan is the first direct link towards saving the ponds on the land belonging to the gram samaj.

Chandwara village's present pradhan, Prakashini Jaiswal suggested a way towards saving the ponds. She said: "Once under MGNREGA ponds are cleaned, the funds for next cleaning come only after five years. This gap is too big and should be reduced down to three years because in five years the ponds get too dirty and filled with silt. This dries out the ponds and encourages encroachment which proves impossible to uproot. Ponds will never dry out if cleaned regularly."

A "pond" in Dharauli gram panchayat in Barabanki

Samar Bahadur Singh, Pradhan of Barabanki's Lakadia Gram Panchayat has his own take on the issue. He said: "The government does not have a clear policy on pond-conservation. Everyone is out there to look after one's own back. Suppose one pond is facing encroachment and we report it to the authorities there still would be no action taken. Instead, we would be told no to indulge in such matters as they would cause us bother. So, ponds don't stand a chance."

This opinion of Samar Bahadur Singh is proven by an incident in Chuharpur village of Uttar Pradesh's Gautam Buddha Nagar. In the Revenue Department, Khasra no. 718 and 719 G, have been marked as ponds. This land area was captured by Rajkumar, a resident of the village who had even built a house upon it and given it on rent. When the villagers complained about it to the district magistrate, an order was issued to evacuate the land, but follow up action was taken up thereafter.

Another resident of Chuhadpur village Dharmendra Bhati said: "The incident entails a recovery order of Rs 33 lakh. Also, the Allahabad High Court had ordered a probe into the matter, but no order has been executed so far. The pond remains encroached as before. One can well assess the speed of order-execution by the fact that the district magistrate had ordered in 2017 thereafter other DMs have come and gone, but the encroachment persists. We have now given up all hope."

Ramveer Tanwar, 26, a resident of Gautam Buddha Nagar, has been working towards the restoration of the ponds. He said: "One can forget about follow-up action for the complaints. I came upon several such incidents of encroachments when I set out to conserve the ponds. I too have complained regarding numerous ponds but to no avail. Actually, reporting the matter only creates hassles for the complainant who is constantly harassed."

Dr Venkatesh Dutta, an expert at water resources management residing in Lucknow informed, "So far as the disappearance of the ponds goes if the registrar and tehsildar so please a pond can be wiped off easily from the map. Capturing ponds proves easy because their land not coming under common people's purview no objection can be reported by them on the issue."

He added: "In 2011, I was working on a project with the Indian Space Research Organisation. During that time, we had learned about the ponds in Lucknow from the Revenue Department. We came to know that Lucknow has 13,037 ponds with a total area of 4,928 hectares. That time we came to know that more than half of these have already been captured. About 3,800 hectares area has already been captured. This information was shocking!"

Encroachment at Himmatpur village in Lucknow

How can the ponds be rescued?

Matters like Lucknow have been reported across the country. It is now commonplace to hear of hear of encroachment of ponds' area and their pitiful state. One would therefore be curious to know about the measure being adopted to rescue the ponds. Krishna Gopal Vyas opined, "Before one sets out to conserve the ponds, one has to learn of their importance for if we do so we would automatically be motivated towards their conservation. The primary cause of the present situation is apathy. The government has not taken any serious measures to protect the ponds. For example, how much effective is the process of digging up of ponds under MGNREGA, is anyone's guess."

He added: "The need of the hour is to create a directory of the ponds so as to provide the location of each and every pond. This will facilitate further remedial action. At the same time, one has to break away from the trend of creating a smaller structure under MGNREGA. Often, we end up with structure so small that it fails to meet our requirements. So instead of smaller ponds, big ponds must be constructed to hold more water."

A pond dung under MGNREGA

Ramveer Tanwar, a pond conservationist, said: "Before conserving the pond it is crucial to save its catchment area. Furthermore, people must be made aware of ponds' importance. Only if people feel connected with the ponds and realize their importance, they will endeavor saving them." He concluded, "Some time ago, there were even talks of a dedicated pond authority but the matter was dropped. Pond authority should be worked out because it is the need of the hour."

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