A waterbody is a public good and like all public goods it also suffers from the classical economics problem of “tragedy of the commons”. Herein, all actors behave in their self-interest and consume a public good excessively. This results in exploitation and depletion of the common resource. Recent events such as ‘zero water day’ in the South African capital and the acute water crisis in Chennai was evident of the problem, writes A Vikranth Raja IAS, Secretary to the Chief Minister, Union Territory of Puducherry.
Sustainable development was defined for the first time in the Brundtland Commission Report 1987 titled ‘Our Common Future’. It is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Sustainable water management should focus on conserving available water bodies and other surface and groundwater resources, the revival of lost and polluted water bodies and afforestation. ‘Jal Shakti Mission’ of the Ministry of Jal Shakti, rightly identified the above issues and addresses the same.
Our efforts of sustainable water management will yield results only if we address the tragedy of the commons. Homo Economicus and his narrow rationality cannot offer the solutions we need. We need to turn to “Behavioural Economics”, and the idea that people can be nudged towards working for the collective good. India is known for efficient water management since ancient times and our water usage practice is integrated with our way of life. By positioning wasting water as a ‘sin’, our ancestors brought in ‘behavioural change’ in us. Water was considered sacred. Then, as wells came up, we forgot tanks, lakes, and rivers. When hand pumps came up, we forgot wells. And today, with piped water supply, hand pumps are being consigned to history.
With all these changes we forgot the source of water and took abundance for granted. Won’t our pattern of consumption change with our knowledge of actual availability? We don’t make the effort to carry a half-empty water bottle from a restaurant but we carry a bottle even with only a few millilitres of water left during our trek. As individuals, we take abundance for granted and we refuse to regulate the use of a commodity whose source we cannot see or measure in real-time, like underground water.
To address this issue, we need to make people feel a sense of identity and ownership towards their local water bodies. In Karaikal district of Puducherry, a waterbody conservation movement, ‘Nam Neer’ meaning ‘Our Water’ was launched. By naming it thus, we could create a sense of ownership among the people. The scheme was run through localized social mobilization and crowdfunding. MGNREGS was used as an important tool to promote water conservation. In every worksite, before work was undertaken a small speech was delivered to the gathering to emotionally connect them with the work to be carried out. One question posed to the people was, “how many among you know how to swim?”. In response, almost everyone put up their hands. “Where did you learn to swim?” was the following question. Everyone’s answer was: “in the village pond”. Ironically in most places, the pond in which they learnt to swim is either not in existence or polluted and used as a dumpsite. The next question was, “How many of your children know how to swim?”. Most of them replied, “no”. The final question was, “How many among you will be ready to engage in reviving the pond so your children can learn swimming?”. “All of us!” was the resounding answer.
This act helped to nudge the villagers to see MGNREGS not only as an employment opportunity but also an opportunity to create public spaces for their village. The behavioural change has helped to conserve the revived water body and prevented it from turning into a waste dumping site. It is no more a village pond, it is a landmark in the village, where people and cattle gather to generate incomes and to make merry. It is “Our water!”. Thanks to river Cauvery and monsoon, now we see their children swimming, cattle drinking and people using it for bathing. This has generated ownership and has given them gratification for the work done. Humans value instant gratification more than distant greater benefit, this is called “Hyperbolic Discounting”. Small innovate nudges can make people overcome Hyperbolic Discounting.
Karaikal district administration also involved government offices in water conservation. We started “Employee Social Responsibility (ESR)” by which each government office could voluntarily adopt a pond and de-silt and maintain it. To initiate this activity, District Collectorate sent a circular requesting all government offices to support ESR and the last line of the circular read as, “As a first initiative, the staff of Collectorate have decided to revamp and rejuvenate the Vaithu Kalam at Keezhakasakudy” (in italics). This line acted as a nudge to other government offices to adopt a pond. Now each government office has a pond in their name and there exists Revenue Kulam, Commercial Tax Kulam, so on (Kulam is the Tamil term for Pond). During field inspections, Officials joyfully point to their Kulam. Conservation is ensured by the association of pride and ownership with the water body.
Under the ‘Nam Neer’ scheme, in Karaikal District, through such simple innovations, nudging and public participation, 178 ponds were revived, four wells were brought back to public use, 80.9 km of major channels were de-silted, 640 km of minor channels were de-silted and connected to revived water bodies and 25,000 tree saplings were planted in the bunds and roadsides. All this was possible in a very short time because it was not just a government scheme, it was a matter of pride for the participating officials and the public. Everyone in Karaikal owned the scheme and they own their water now. “Tragedy of commons”, an outcome of no one owning a public good, can be addressed by making everyone own their water bodies. Such behavioural change can be wrought by forging the modern principles of behavioural economics with our time tested traditions.
Sustainable water management is not a new concept in India. Water conservation is in our way of life, but somewhere in our blind rush towards modernity, it has lost its significance. Now the time has revealed to us the great wisdom informing our traditions. With gentle nudging, we can bring back our traditional reverence for water. Let us own “Our Water”