Thursday, November 15, 2007

Water Wars

Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. The rhyme of the ancient mariner sprang to my mind as I hopscotched through Kashmir during my last visit. Vale of my childhood, where water was the last thing people would possibly bother about. We used to throw water on each other at school and the fun was fondly called ‘Aab Jung’ [water war]. But those were innocent years, with only a few residential areas and a lot of farm land. The rivers were overflowing and filled with fish. The Lakes, I remember, meandered around hills and the golden kingfisher would dive in to catch a little trout in its beak. In the years to come, that innocence was gradually lost. It was molested by indifferent times. The fish drowned in the waters. Then there was scarcity.

I think the water problem does not come as a surprise. To make things worse everyone wants a separate home, complete with gardens and flowers and fencing in Kashmir. And a place for keeping that sparkling car. This has lead to a steady shrinkage of agricultural land and a dip in the ground water table. Natural resources are -- naturally -- stretched thin. Private construction is at an all time high – homes in all kinds of concrete shapes are coming up. But everyone complains that winters are too cold now and you want to tell them: Look here, when you use too much concrete and glass – trying to replicate Delhi architecture -- you can’t expect the cosy warmth of a Kashmiri home.

And it results in Water wars of a different kind. I first noticed the desperation when we drove to the Manasbal Lake. There are tiny picaresque villages on the way. The narrow pot-holed road is lined with beautiful orchards full of red, juicy fruit, ready to be plucked. At a bend in the road, near a hamlet called Poshwari [meaning flower meadow – no flowers though], we met with villagers, who were blocking the road. They told us that we cannot go further up because they are protesting the acute water shortage in their area. No mini-bus, car or scooter was allowed to pass. Only the occasional security vehicle whizzed past, because nobody dares stop the ‘military’. The villagers were pretty animated and no excuses worked. So we parked our car to one side and waited.

I knew all my media accreditations – that usually allow me an entry to the Prime ministers’ garden in Delhi -- won’t work with these folks. So I warmed upto a few protesting guys. Why are you troubling people like this? I asked. “Jinab, they shot back [That native naïve way of addressing anyone dressed in city garb] we have resorted to this extreme step because we don’t have a drop of water to drink”. Our women walk five miles to fetch a pail of water and all we can do is sit and watch helplessly. “We couldn’t even take a bath on the Eid day,” a young man added for effect. I noticed dandruff on his shoulder; I guess he was not exaggerating. Do you think anyone will take notice of your peaceful sit-in? I questioned an old man who was snorting his tobacco. “We don’t know – Jinab – but what else can we do. We have tried everything possible,” he said with an exasperated expression.

We finally made our way through the melee but I felt bad for the poor guys. It is hard life for them. We live in a world of contrasts, I often tell myself. Bottled mineral water and 24 hour water supply for some – me included – and nary a drop to drink for others.

[My pals in the US drink Evian water. Direct from Évian-les-Bains, on the south shore of Lake Geneva, a close friend remarked last month].

I broached the issue with a top tourism officer – incharge of Manasbal waterways. Though the guy was smart and knew quite a bit about water sports, he gave me that amused look as I raised the topic. You know Sam, he went on in an avuncular fashion, you are a financial journalist, how can you can’t understand this local, petty stuff. These villagers are illiterate, uncouth and they don’t understand the water schemes the government launches for them from time to time. I couldn’t buy his government-like argument. It was a typical passing-the-buck and blaming-the-aggrieved answer. I looked on.

Two days before I took a flight to Delhi, I went to see Tanseer’s [best buddy] folks. I hired a Tonga [horse carriage, good old way] and we rode off. About half a kilometer from my destination, we were signalled to stop. People were furiously pelting stones at vehicles and the Tonga-Walla [Carriage driver] thought the horse might bolt. I got down and walked the remaining distance. I thought it was a usual demonstration against the security forces but it turned out to be a water protest. This time in the heart of a major township. I am sure the crowd was dispersed some time soon because the gathering was not around when I returned. I am sure no one heard them, let alone the authorities.

Back in Delhi, as I sat covering an international event in a five star hotel days later, I asked for some water. As I waited for the maitre d'hotel to bring me water, I casually asked a second attendant for water. Two bottles of Himmelsberger arrived in the next one minute. German water. The extravagance of our lives. I thought about the peasants in that lovely flower meadow. I know no one ever took care of their necessity.

Villagers blocking the road at Poshwari, Kashmir [Mobile Pic]