Published: 23rd March 2020
What did we achieve? Here's why Dr S Janakarajan is tired of inaction after decades of climate campaign
Prof Janakarajan did his Post-Doctoral work at the Cornell University and has been a visiting professor at the Oxford University. He is a dedicated climate warrior who continues to bat for the cause
Professor S Janakarajan has had enough. This former professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) admitted that, "I am tired of carrying out more research." This is not because he is mentally or physically tired. He is just tired of inaction. But he is not hanging up his boots just yet. Best known for bringing together farmers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in 2003 during the heightened tension regarding the Cauvery river water dispute, Prof Janakarajan is in climate campaign mode. Apart from being the President of South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs), Hyderabad, his is currently committed to capacities of people engaged in the good fight. We peak into all the work he has done in the past and understand how he wants to accomplish his future goals. Excerpts from an interview:
Tell us what motivated you towards pursuing the path of water and the environment academically. How has this field changed since the time you took it up?
I was basically an economist with lesser acquaintance with natural resource management and with least knowledge on water resource management. My own perceptions on economy and society have changed completely during my PhD days when I had to stay in a village for over 18 months for purposes of data collection through detailed survey. It was during the years 1982-83. My long stay in the village gave me the insight that economic and political power in a village was determined not just by ownership of land but by access to and control over groundwater. Even in those days, there existed a well-organised market for water, in which groundwater was sold for agriculture (by rich well owners) at the cost of one-third of gross output (paddy). A two-acre farmer, by definition a marginal farmer, is respected more if he has better water yielding bore-well. In contrast, a 10-acre farmers, with no access to groundwater is least respected. Since then, situation has changed dramatically due to the fast depleting conditions of groundwater. Today, groundwater has become a potential threat to farmers’ wellbeing. The high incidence of farmers’ suicide deaths, can be, in a large measure, attributed to depleting groundwater conditions and increasing indebtedness. Therefore, my own interest in water, ecology and environment began during my PhD days but since then shifted my focus to many aspects such as water use efficiency, water market, groundwater and electricity nexus and ecological consequences of groundwater depletion, surface and groundwater pollution and environment accounting, urban - peri-urban water dynamics, water conflicts, climate change, climate resilience and adaptation, wetland management, livelihood resilience, delta vulnerability and subsidence, inter-state and trans-boundary water disputes, water rights and water laws and water governance. Today, my biggest concern is climate emergency/climate catastrophe, which leads me to climate campaign.
From Cornell, Oxford, MIDS and now the president of SaciWATERS — can you tell us a little bit about how you ended in SaciWATERS?
SaciWATERs stands for South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies located in Hyderabad. This institution was started in the late 1990s by a Dutch researcher Prof Peter Mollinga with a vision to ‘Contributing towards Water Secure South Asia’. My association with SaciWATERs is almost since the time it became a registered body in 2002. This is basically a policy research organisation focusing on research, capacity building/education, advocacy, implementation and networking with all stakeholders. This institute partners with universities and academic institutions from across global north and south, fundamentally to reshape water resources knowledge systems in South Asia. The key focus areas of research are water policy and governance, peri-urban water security, climate change and water, gender and water, sanitation and hygiene, water quality and networking and capacity building of young water professionals.
River Cauvery | (Pic: Express)
In our opinion, one of your biggest achievements has been when you brought together Karnataka and Tamil Nadu farmers with regards to a dialogue regarding the inter-state water dispute. Tell us more about how you managed this and what ensued?
Yes. It was indeed a challenging task. Organising an inter-state farmer to farmer dialogue was not at all easy. I had to undertake quite a lot of preliminary work before organising the dialogue between farmers of both states: The key step was hydro, agricultural - historical research and documentation. It was necessary to examine and understand the dispute in a socio-economic, historical and cultural perspective. Subsequently, the touring of areas in both states in order to meet, discuss and promote the idea of the dialogue with key leaders of farmers organisations, individuals such as lawyers, retired judges, NGOs, and some political veterans. While research is never ending, touring in the basin areas took almost one full year. This involved visits, individual and group meetings and documentation. The third step was to hold two major meetings of farmers’ (and a few others), one in Chennai (held on April 4-5, 2003 and the other on June 4-5, 2003 in Bengaluru. The Committee of the Cauvery Family emerged after these two meetings with 32 members from both states. This Committee of Cauvery Family many times during the years 2003 to 2012. This Committee had visited different parts of the basin in both states and have also visited different segments of the Cauvery basin area in order to gain some first-hand information for the first time.
The Cauvery water dispute between the riparian states is quite different from other inter-state water disputes such as Krishna, Godavari or Narmada. In the case of the latter, the disputes revolve around the utilisation of the untapped potential, whereas, in the river Cauvery, dispute is around the issue of re-sharing the already utilised water. Distress conditions had often led to violence in the past, the worst form of which was witnessed in December 1991, when thousands of Tamilians and their properties were the target of attack in Karnataka. Whenever tensions erupt between both states, more than Cauvery farmers, the urban middle class and anti-social elements in rural and urban areas took advantage. But unfortunately, political dialogues that had taken place in both major states had only hardened the issue further. The dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka at times seemed to shake even the very foundation of India’s federalism despite the interventions of the Central Government and the Supreme Court. The dispute became deep-rooted, more delicate and bitter. This was the context in which farmers to farmers dialogue was first arranged in April 2003 and continued till 2012.
What did we achieve? I would think bringing together varying interests groups into a common platform during such a tense moment was itself an achievement. The Cauvery Family initiative helped to create greater understanding of the problem among farmers of both states; created an opportunity for farmers to meet in a common platform to share their concerns. This has developed the feeling of brotherhood and camaraderie among farmers and helped to undo the hitherto built up prejudices and heartedness. It helped to redefine issues in the larger socio-economic and cultural perspectives and above all facilitated a process to resolve the dispute by adopting a more scientific approach. A leading daily reported after the sixth meeting of the Cauvery Family (2006) as follows: The mutual visits of farmers’ leaders to the command area in the Cauvery basin, it is learnt, have removed suspicion over the irrigation practices, which have often caused heartburn among the farmers… the mutual visits have helped in clearing the air about the misconception and lack of faith in each other. Nevertheless, the degree of success or failure of dialogue initiatives depends upon active and sustained state support. But, frankly speaking, we got absolutely no state support and the entire show for over eight years was carried out by the resources generated from among the members of the Cauvery Family. Furthermore, there is a need for an untiring facilitator who can carry on with the job of facilitating and arranging a platform for the dialogue to continue. I was playing that role but could not continue beyond 2012 due to various other professional commitments.
Chennai faced a huge water crisis in 2019. Do you think the city, and other cities on the brink of facing a shortage, are ready to bear the brunt of the summer which is descending upon us?
This is a perennial issue for Chennai (perhaps in other parts of the State) not because there is no water or lack of rainfall but due to lack of application mind, commitment and motivation. Just look at this calculation: At 100 liters per capita, for a population of 7.5 crores in Chennai city, we need 750 mld per day plus add another 250 mld towards losses. Therefore, the total we need is 1000 mld or 37.04 MCFT per day or 111.11 mcft per month or 1.111 TMC ft or 13.33 TMC ft per year. Add another 1.67 TMC ft towards evaporation and seepage losses. Thus the total requirement per year is 15 TMC ft. Assuming that the population in the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) is 1.5 crores, the total requirement per year @100 lpcd per capita will be 30 TMC ft. The total number of tanks in the to be extended CMA are around 4,000 which can store easily 100 TMC ft and add to it 4.5 TMC of water already available in the four city reservoirs. And, there is a possibility to double the capacity of each one of these tanks easily in which case we can store more water. Given the fact that the rainfall in this region is around 1,400 mm, the Chennai city and its peri-urban areas should never have a water problem even if there is a persisting drought conditions for two years. In Japan, they store water in the artificially created underground reservoirs but we destroy even those available reservoirs over-ground and complain about the water scarcity and resort to most ecologically unfriendly and energy-intensive seawater desalination plants as solution. In my view, the seawater desalination is the solution for low rainfall regions such as Middle Eastern countries where the rainfall is less than 400 mm. For Chennai, seawater desalination is the most inappropriate solution, to put it mildly.
Professor S Janakarajan | (Pic: Professor S Janakarajan)
We do not have the habit of maintaining rainfall accounting. Unless, we take conscious efforts to store and conserve rainwater, not just for the year 2020, it will be a huge problem for all years to come. Just look at this mind-boggling calculation: In the peak summer trucks are operated to transport water from rural/peri-urban locations to the city. Assuming that 20,000 truck loads (roughly 200 mld) are supplied every day, assuming that they consume 20 liters of diesel per trip, the total consumption of diesel per day turns out to be 4 lakh liters. Just calculate the level of CO2 emission and our contribution to global warming-induced climate change!!
In your point of view, what can the youngsters, the youth of India, do to elevate India from the dire water shortage it will face very soon?
Some of the key issues that we would like to put forward to the younger generation are the following:
Be conscious of the rainfall and monsoon conditions and try and conserve water in all water bodies such as temple tanks, irrigation tanks and so on. In my view, these are most important rainwater harvesting structures. The younger generation should also stress on the criticality of rainfall accounting, water accounting/budgeting and water audit protocols. Furthermore, emphasise the critical need for measuring water footprint for all water users – industries, urban users and farmers. Put pressure on the government and irrigation bureaucracy on enhancing water use efficiency and increase productivity per unit of water used. Most important however is the need for groundwater recharge which can only be done through rejuvenating all small water bodies. It is important for all industries to work towards achieving zero liquid discharge in a finite time. Make every industry aware of the need for recycling the waste water generated (promoting the concept of own your waste) and to emphasise the need for being water-positive. Finally, it is high time, the younger people start calculating their ecological, energy and water footprints.
Corruption, privatisation, lack of planning and industrial and human waste — allegedly, these are the problems leading to the water problem in India. Do you agree? What would be a solution to this problem?
I would like to put your propositions in one sentence. India is a country with very good laws. But what we lack is the law enforcement and monitoring mechanism. There is absolutely no accountability for the huge sum of public money that the government at the Center and various other state governments spend almost every year on various measures such as river rejuvenation/river cleaning, water bodies restoration and more. But the conditions of rivers, water bodies and groundwater are worsening. Who is accountable? Whom should we blame? Unless, someone is made accountable, the ecological future will inevitably be bleak and irredeemable.
What are you currently working on?
I am tired of carrying out more research. I have stopped my fresh research in 2017 mainly because there is so much inaction. For instance, we have enough scientific evidence which suggest that global warming, the pace at which it is spreading and contributing to climate disorder, would result in human catastrophe, more so in vulnerable regions of the globe such as East and West Africa, South Asia, parts of South America and several island nations. What is worse, some impacts of global warming-induced climate change are irreversible such as loss of biodiversity and wetlands. We are already experiencing the severity of global warming-induced climate change conditions such as perennial rivers becoming seasonal, retreat of groundwater table, changing soil moisture conditions, increasing coastal erosion and coastal water bodies becoming part of the sea, shrinking mangroves and most importantly subsidence of deltas. The IPCC and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) have identified coastal deltas and wetland ecosystems as a potential hot spot, prone for very high vulnerability due to sea-level rise; the latest being the huge Amazon fire and extreme dryness leading to unprecedented bushfire in Australia which resulted in half a billion loss of wildlife besides human and huge property loss.
Although the world scientific community has come a long way in building a scientific knowledge on climate change, there exists a huge gap between such a huge knowledge creation and action. International bodies and conventions are either less effective or not effective at all. The best example being the Paris Summit (which gave us lots of hopes) and the COP 25 meeting. Nevertheless, we see only a comprehensive failure leading to misperception, competitive neglect, indecisiveness and inaction. Therefore, I am currently on Climate Campaign mode: What needs to be done urgently? Closing the gap between knowledge and action; bridging the gap between theory and practice; closing the gap between expressions of normative concerns and objective reasoning leading to action. Therefore, the urgent need of the hour is to develop the capacities and capabilities of individuals engaged in different sectors to address the challenges posed by climate change through effective communication. There is also an urgent need to develop the capacities of NGOs who are engaged in developmental programmes. The SDG 13 on climate action developed by the United Nations is an attempt to have an integrated approach in solving pertinent global problems such as Climate Change by involving a range of stakeholders such as governments, private sector, civil society organisations, educational institutes and more. Hence, there is a pressing need for engaging in serious and sustained climate campaign practices at various levels. This needs an integrated framework for drastically reducing greenhouse emission along with measures leading to climate adaptation, mitigation and building resilient strategies: The idea is to take this message forward through a number of young climate leaders as the agents of change. Let us make a loud noise that the climate is changing, but not our politicians and bureaucracy.
River Cauvery | (Pic: Express)
More of his work:
Multi Stakeholders’ Dialogue (MSD) in the Palar basin: My long working experience in the Palar river basin (in the Northern Tamil Nadu comprising areas of Ranipet, Vellore, Pernampet, Ambur and Vaniyambadi) for over 15 years has forced me to enter into experiment interventions towards finding solutions for the long-standing problem of river and groundwater pollution caused due to discharge of untreated and under-treated tannery effluents. Since the existing water and environmental laws are unimplemented despite the Supreme Court’s intervention and since the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board has been grossly ineffective, the problem of pollution was persisting, affecting lives and livelihoods, health and agricultural productivity very severely. Stakeholders’ dialogue is widely advocated and recognised as one of the means to understand the problem further and find solutions through stakeholder consultation. Therefore, I had organised a multi-stakeholders’ meeting of the water users of the Palar river basin in the month of January 2002. As a follow up of this meeting, a committee called Multi-Stakeholders’ Committee of the Palar River Basin was constituted with 25 members drawn from all sectors such as agriculture, tanning industry, domestic users, NGOs, academics, lawyers and doctors. This committee met several times until 2008 and after that, no meetings could be organised due to lack of funds. Nevertheless, the committee was involved in various serious works such as documentation of information pertaining to water and environment in the Palar basin. In particular, the committee spent considerable time in taking stock of available water resources in the basin (both surface and groundwater), the use pattern of water, (competing) demand pattern for water, water flow details in the river, water quality details at different points within the basin, information relating to sand mining from the river bed and so on.
Our ultimate aim was to work towards the reversal of ecology but could not be fulfilled due to a lack of state support and funds. As a follow up of stakeholders’ initiative in the Palar Basin, I could bring out a book in Tamil titled, Aavala Nilayil Thamizhaga Aarugal (published by Kalachuvadu) which was very widely circulated among farmers.
Multi-stakeholders’ dialogue (MSD) experience in the context of Chennai urban and peri-urban water conflicts: Research, followed by stakeholder analysis and then multi-stakeholders’ dialogue process were initiated in the context of Chennai peri-urban area. Research helped to identify various dimensions of city and peri-urban water problems; to document and analyse conflicts. The survey of 64 villages in different segments of the Chennai peri-urban area helped not only to collect data but also to build contacts with various stakeholders within villages. Thus, the MSD process was initiated with a view of negotiating and finding solutions to the city and peri-urban water conflicts in the year 2004. A series of multi-stakeholder meetings have been held from July 2004 to February 2007. MSD workshops were attended by researchers, NGOs, farmers from peri-urban villages and government officials. Many tangible solutions were arrived at but could not proceed further due to the power and aggression of Chennai city expansion.
For more on him, check out saciwaters.org