On the 125th birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar, celebrated in 2016, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, and its minister Uma Bharti, rediscovered Ambedkar also as the “father of water resources sector due to his invaluable contribution in evolving and framing various policies for this sector during pre and post-independence period since 1942 onward”.

In a national seminar on the subject, Marching ahead on Dr Ambedkar’s path of water resources management for inclusive growth, organised by the Central Water Commission, a body of the ministry, Bharti announced the government’s decision to observe April 14 – Ambedkar’s birthday – every year as Water Day. A research project of the Central Water Commission titled, Ambedkar’s Contribution to Water Resources Development, which was initially published in 1993, was also re-launched after more than two decades.

The government’s decision to commemorate Ambedkar is curious. It isn’t clear whether it actually takes note of the leader’s core concerns, and his long and painful water journeys.

Ambedkar and the environment

Even though Ambedkar wrote and spoke extensively on nature, village, land, agriculture, water, community, industry, technology, science, development and modernisation, he has largely been neglected in the field of environment by the government, civil society and leading environmental writers and movements.

One would have expected that Ambedkar’s rise to importance in the political and academic community would have been accompanied by some delineation of his work from an environmental perspective. While Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and even Indira Gandhi have drawn the attention of environment historians and academicians, Ambedkar has been marginalised. In comparison with Gandhi, who has been credited with having an intuitive critique of modern civilisation, Ambedkar has often been criticised for his modernisation plans and visions for India, which it is argued, drew heavily on the West for inspiration.

Contribution to water

Significantly, Ambedkar’s water-views had many strands. Sukhadeo Thorat, an economist and author of several books on Dalits and on the economic-social thought of Ambedkar, has underlined that as a Cabinet minister who was in charge of the labour, irrigation and power portfolio during 1942-’46, Ambedkar was directly involved in framing the objectives and strategy of economic planning, water and electricity policy.

During 1942-’47, his efforts were pioneering in the development of a national policy for water and electricity in the country. It was Ambedkar who sowed the seeds for several new ideas and projects. For example, forming a River Valley Authority to oversee Centre-state issues on irrigation and hydro power; the need for an administrative infrastructure and technical know-how, like the present day Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority, to facilitate the development of irrigation and power projects in the Centre and the states; the concept of regional and multipurpose development of river valley basins; and initiation of some of the well-known river valley projects on the Damodar, Mahanadi and Sone rivers. Such initiatives were far-sighted, bold and innovative in their context, but over time, they have also been critically assessed.

More importantly, Ambedkar perceptively articulated social and cultural aspects of water, and how and why Dalits had to be liberated from the caste of water. He intrinsically realised that water was a deeply contentious issue that intersected with caste in critical ways, producing complex cultural meanings and social hierarchies. Water has been a traditional medium for the exclusion of Dalits in overt and covert ways. For instance, denying Dalits the right over, and access to, water; asserting the monopoly of upper castes over water bodies, including rivers, wells, tanks and taps; constructing casteist water texts in cultural and religious domains; obscuring Dalit narratives and knowledge of water; and rendering thinking and speaking about caste, water and Dalits together as peripheral to discourses on water. Water, for Dalits, has not been a crest of life, but a source of constant pain and segregation.

Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP.

Water and caste

Brahmanical scriptures have deeply coloured water with caste. Ideas of ritual purity and pollution, and daily practices and habits of drinking, bathing, fishing and transportation have been profoundly affected by caste, sanctifying the social order of water. Further, dominant environmental narratives in India are often infused with nostalgic and romantic accounts of traditional knowledge of water management, emphasising its community-based systems and methods. However, they overlook the fact that traditional water management systems have not been equal regarding water culture. Rather they are embedded in deeply structured hierarchies of caste, based on control, power and dominant religious rituals, which are intermeshed in an invisible line of caste pre-suppositions.

Ambedkar was time and again confronted with such beliefs and practices around water. We read a painful and touching account through his biographer Dhananjay Keer:

“From the evening till midnight the boys travelled with their mouths parched with thirst; but nowhere could they get drinking water on the way. Every time people either pointed to the filthy water or asked them to go away. This was the first rude and shattering shock to the budding mind of Bhim. That day he knew that he belonged to a family that was untouchable, degraded to drink and eat filthy things.”

— Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, by Dhananjay Keer, 1954.

The Mahad satyagraha of 1927 was emblematic of Dalits’ and Ambedkar’s struggles with water. At the core of the movement was the assertion of Dalit rights to take water from public water sources. It was one of the defining moments in Ambedkar’s political thought and action. The centrality of water for so-called untouchables, and the abuse and misuse of public water bodies became a converging point for divergent traditions, putting forward a humane theory of democratic agrarianism, combining issues of access and democratic rights, to water, land and common space.

The Buddha and His Dhamma is a monumental work of Ambedkar’s, which took shape after much research on the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. Telling the life of Siddharth in a simple, clear and communicative language, Ambedkar unfolds his dhamma in instructive ways.

In an interesting section on Siddharth Gautama: How a Bodhisatva became the Buddha, Ambedkar narrates in some detail Siddharth’s differences with the Sangh on the issue of river water. Siddharth’s understanding, and stand on water, ultimately became life changing, leading to his departure from the Sangh, kingdom and home “in search of new light”. In a nutshell, the kingdoms of Sakyas and Koliyas were fighting violently over waters of the Rohini river. When the Senapati of Sakyas called a session of the Sakya Sangh to declare war on the Koliyas in order to claim their right to take the water first, it was the Buddha who advocated a peaceful and rational solution to the inter-kingdom water dispute. Siddharth Gautam lost because “the Senapati put his resolution to vote. It was declared carried by an overwhelming majority”. Ambedkar’s Buddha thus takes his first steps towards social conscience by taking a stand against war during a conflict over water rights. Instead, he advocates a thorough investigation on the distribution of water between the two kingdoms. Similarly, the Mahad struggle led by Ambedkar symbolises equal access and right over water, democratisation in the governance of public water-bodies, and making water free of religious and caste sanctions.

A different water perspective

However, we do not find such concerns of Ambedkar reflected in the declaration of April 14 as Water Day. The Union government has emphasised the need to reform water resource management and to restructure flood management. Yet, Ambedkar’s legacy can prepare the ground for a different water perspective – where water cannot be disentangled from the ugliness of caste injustice, where development of waterscapes cannot be disconnected from social relations and structures of power, and where ecology has to confront transitions to democracy. Other than engineering, planning and management issues, Ambedkar’s ideas and interventions on water can be brought together to form a collage of water reforms from peoples’ perspectives.

Mukul Sharma is a writer and author of environmental, labour and human rights issues. His forthcoming book is Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics, being published by the Oxford University Press.