Case study: Bringing India’s ponds back to life

The World Today
2 minute READ

Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Ajay Kumar's work inspired a film. Photo: India Today Group/Getty Images

Ajay Kumar’s work inspired a film. Photo: India Today Group/Getty Images

While several Indian actors have turned to politics, few politicians have had films made about themselves. Ajay Kumar, MP for Jamshedpur, is an exception. After qualifying as a doctor, he joined the Indian Police Service, rising to Superintendent of Police in a state then renowned for its lawlessness. Through a mixture of ruthlessness and honesty, Kumar cleaned it up and his exploits form the basis for a Bollywood film Gangaajal (Holy Waters).

In 2011, the local MP resigned to become Chief Minister of Jharkhand. A local party, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, asked Kumar to stand in the by-election. He accepted and won.

Water availability is a problem throughout Jharkhand. The villages surrounding Jamshedpur used to rely on ponds for water storage. Over the years these have filled with silt. In addition, during the dry season the ponds, such as they are, dry up.

So Kumar launched the Ponds for Livelihood project which aims to renovate and de-silt 400 ponds in his constituency. Around 2,000 to 3,000 people rely on each pond for their water and the number of beneficiaries is estimated at about one million people. As the benefits from earlier renovations become apparent, public support increased. Thirty ponds were renovated before the monsoon arrived this year. Over the next couple of years the remaining ponds should be fixed.

The local community is involved from the inception of each project and Kumar makes sure the progress of each project is reported regularly on the Ponds for Livelihood website and via Facebook and Twitter. The project is cheap – each pond only costs a few thousand pounds to renovate. Donors with large budgets, meanwhile, focus on bigger projects.

Once the lack of water is solved, however, new problems can arise. In Rajasthan, a similar pond scheme helped bring back to life the Arvari river which had dried up in the 1920s. As the new river became stocked with fish, the local administration sold the fishing rights to a contractor, leaving the local people feeling cheated.

Cashing in like this is commonplace. The village of Sukhomajri near Chandigarh was held up as a model for community-engagement in development projects. While by-andlarge the story is a success, it too has not been without problems.

This story began in the mid-1970s with the residents of Chandigarh complaining that the artificial lake in their city had silted up. The local administration traced the source of the silt to an over-grazed area around Sukhomajri. An embankment to store water that the villagers could use for irrigation was built. In return, the villagers agreed to stop grazing their animals in the over-grazed areas. These were replanted with trees, and the local administration shared profits from the timber with the community. As the community grew richer, the government and contractors it appointed sought to capture this wealth by over-charging for firewood.

The provision of water is a start, but it is not the end. Just as water is linked to food and power, it is also linked to questions of governance. If local communities are to maintain renovated infrastructure, their participation is imperative. This takes time. Getting the local communities to back the projects in Rajasthan and Sukhomajri took years. And their suspicions were not without basis given the subsequent attempts to extract more money from them. Since then, India has taken steps to empower local communities. The success or otherwise of projects such as Ponds for Livelihood will show how effective these steps have been.