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Scientific tempter and explorations with water diviner: Debate around anecdotal reports

By Gagan Sethi* 

In 1990s, Janvikas built partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to involve women in watershed development in Kutch. Janvikas set up an ecology cell, now known as Sahjeevan, in order to tackle the problem of drinking water. The aim was to build a reserve in village water bodies, such that they could withstand at least one drought year. This required that women should plan and supervise, through a committee, the earthwork that was needed to be done, so that all rainwater within the village boundary could be nudged to common recharge wells and ponds.
While this meant that part of the private land would also be used for earthwork, it also required negotiations at every level. To implement the programme, women talk over with men. In some villages they succeeded, in others there was an impasse!
Watershed-based development has become a national programme, which has found support from many NGOs, many of whom are doing painstaking work of building community ownership, but there some who just work as civil subcontractors.
Be that as it may, the anecdote I’m narrating here is about our experience of a sort of counterpoint to what we often consider as scientific way to deal with the problem of drinking water.
Even as our engagement with communities and training women to take charge was underway, some friends from SDC told us about a Swiss water diviner, Hans-Anton Rieder, who was interested in helping us find water bodies in Kutch. We were told that Rieder had found water bodies in sub-African Sahara and the Alps.
There was a big debate among us whether we should ever embark on such a journey of working with water diviners, which would have no scientific logic, and spend public money on such exploration. The risk-takers among us thought it might unravel something.
We invited this old man, who came armed with two metal rods and some geological meters.
He was taken around the desert region of Banni. He would ask us about the history of the place, looking around the geology, sometimes using the meter he had. And when he would earmark an area, he would circle the place with his rods, and at a point his body would start reacting. He would turn red, with the rods violently shaking. Suddenly, he would take a stick and hit the ground, declaring, “Here!” At the end of the whole exercise, he would be fully drained!
Of the four sites he gave us, we were able to strike water at three. What a magic it was. We were told the technique is called dowsing.
Despite many anecdotal reports of its success, dowsing has never been shown to work in controlled scientific tests. That’s not to say the dowsing rods didn’t move. They did.
The explanation for what happens when people dowse is that “ideomotor movements” – muscle movements caused by subconscious mental activity – make anything held in hands move and movements do look involuntary.
People were overjoyed: They’d got drinking water! Later, we were told the technique in some form was used in India, too – by none other than Bhuvas, locally found in many parts of India. Villagers would successfully use their services to identify drinking water sites.
I still wonder if one could call a phenomenon like this an intersection of scientific temper, wisdom and faith, and if it could be used for human development. The fact remains, it taught me not to disbelieve in anything just because it doesn’t fit into my urban Anglo-Saxon-trained frame. There are a lot of imponderables which may sound ridiculous, but they do work.
Post-earthquake, when there was a need to quickly identify water sites in Kutch, we again invited Rieder and his assistant Roland Frutig. Their work in Kutch and Rajasthan can be read here: www.swissinfo.ch/eng/dowsers-offer-divine-solution…water…/2351498.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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