From Green Revolution to a Parched Nation – Thirsty India

Unless a coherent strategy is evolved at both the Centre & state levels, India may soon become the parched capital of the world.

The imminent scarcity of potable water & depletion of ground water table have assumed alarming proportions. It is about time, the authorities, civil society, water conservationists & corporates all pooled in, using their sense of responsibility &invoked their conscience to save India from becoming a parched land. India today stands at a crucial crossroad: A critical bend of awareness from where we can either responsibly rise to the occasion or be prepared to die of thirst due to our indifference and thoughtlessness. There are disturbing instances where villagers from the affected regions have abandoned their homes, livestock, crops & emotions in search of that elusive water to drink, to bathe & to resuscitate life.

It is a pity that those who would consider the poverty stricken, ignorant & hapless farmers of some of the dryer& arid regions as sitting ducks for furthering their careers &for furthering their political power & relevance, they could not care less about the very dependable who have continued to reel under pain & misery owing to scarce water. The current water crisis is largely man made. Neither the successive governments nor the civil society have responded to their call of duty to use this natural resource judiciously& instead they have either allowed indiscriminate use by farmers, households, factories & other beneficiaries or done precious little about rain water harvesting & nurturing various other sources of water for future use. The problem hasexacerbated due to, first, India’s unrelenting summers &, second, because farmers of UP, Haryana, Punjab & other states use disproportionate quantities of water to replenish their fields resulting in ground water table dwindling each passing day in most of central & western India. 

Failed Missions, Melting Glaciers & Indifferent Administration

From a failed Ganga Action plan mooted by late Rajiv Gandhi to a censored Namami Gange program of the current dispensation, it may still be many summers & winters before we see some tangible results on ground. It is loathsome to find so many unregulated factories, small industries & other polluting units in the plains of UP, Bihar & Bengal that continue to produce & discharge their effluent into the sacred Ganges. Again the authorities have done very little to shut down such polluting units or insisted on tighter regulatory compliances, day to day monitoring, checks & balances &their installing of Sewage treatment plants (STPs).  

A new comprehensive study (Columbia University) shows that the melting of Himalayan glaciers caused by rising temperatures has accelerated dramatically since the start of the 21st century. The analysis, spanning 40 years of satellite observations across India, China, Nepal and Bhutan, indicates that glaciers have been losing the equivalent of more than a vertical foot and half of the ice each year since 2000, double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000. The study is the latest and perhaps most convincing indication that climate change is eating the Himalayas’ glaciers, potentially threatening water supplies for hundreds of millions of people downstream across much of Asia.

Notwithstanding the Jal Shakti (New name for Water Resources ministry) minister’s casual remark about the problem of acute water shortage being nothing but media hype, the issue of clean drinking water to every Indian is a matter of top priority for this government. His remarks must have been a definite source of embarrassment for the Modi – Shah Duo who have laboriously been working to see a positive change in this area. Ironically it is the Jal Shakti ministry that has issued a drought advisory to six states & hence there can’t be a greater fallacy of thought & action prevailing concurrently in the same government. With nearly 50 per cent of India grappling with drought-like conditions, one would have wished to see every arm of this government getting into overdrive to address this severe crisis. 

For this government, water is a top priority. This finds mention in BJP manifesto of 2019. Fittingly then the Modi Sarkar renamed the water resources ministry as Jal Shakti Mantralaya (a new nomenclature that clubs Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation). It has promised that it would ensure potable, piped drinking water to every home by 2024. It is now hoped that by taking the first but not the most important step of creating a special ministry, the government must ensure that it fulfills its most critical obligation towards its people of providing clean drinking water to every household by the stipulated time. 

Collateral damage

Scarcity of water has severely affected food production. In view of errant rainfall density year after year, crop production has taken a hit & that has also contributed to farmer distress & deaths. India’s grain production is vulnerable to climate change, say scientist who have found that the yield of the country’s rice crop can significantly decline during extreme weather conditions.

“By relying more and more on a single crop, rice, India’s food supply is potentially vulnerable to the effects of varying climate,” said Kyle Davis, an environmental data scientist.“Expanding the area planted with these four alternative grains can reduce variations in Indian grain production caused by extreme climate, especially in the many places where their yields are comparable to rice.Doing so will mean that the food supply for the country’s massive and growing population is less in jeopardy during times of drought or extreme weather”said David.

Water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power and 40% thermal power plants are in areas facing high water stress, a recent WRI report says. Even natural recharge during monsoon may not help much if groundwater depletion becomes acute, as rainfall of past several years controls the current groundwater storage levels. India’s over-exploitation of groundwater is contributing to as stated by NITI Aayog “the worst water crisis in its history”. Fifty-four percent of India’s groundwater wells have declined over the past seven years, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of ground water by 2020. 

The groundwater and sand extraction from most river beds and basins has turned unsustainable, according to much government and independent studies. Hundreds of small and seasonal rivers are perishing permanently. Tanks and ponds are encroached upon. And dug-wells and bore wells are constructed with alarming impunity to slide deeper and deeper to suck water from greater depths to satiate the growing demands.

Benjamin Franklin had once said, “When the well is dry, we’ll know the worth of water.” While he meant to use this phrase as a metaphor, this quotation is now truer than ever in its literal sense. Our own Niti Aayog may have already spelled out the priorities for Modi 2.0. When it says that forty per cent of our population or more than one in three will have no access to drinking water by 2030; that more than elucidates the dismal condition, our people, livestock, crops & water bodies are facing currently. When you have people getting stabbed for water, mothers getting molested standing in queues & tanker mafia becoming the new norm, you have already seen disaster in the works. The story is grim & crisis imminent& the days are not far when there would be social unrest & riots over water. 

Drought Hit

Almost all the states in the central region like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Odisha & Telangana are reeling under acute water scarcity. In Chennai, for example, IT companies are asking their employees to work from home because they do not have enough water to sustain operations. In other firms, employees are being asked to bring their own drinking water since employers cannot guarantee drinking water during work. 

People living along the rivers are digging deeper and deeper to extract water from beneath the ground. What is more, the usually ebullient Narmada River that horizontally dissects the country has fallen silent this year and turned into a parking bay for cars of the pilgrims headed to Chandod in Gujarat’s Vadodara district. With little or no water released from the upstream Sardar Sarovar dam, the perennial river that once had an expanse of 300m is now reduced to a 20-feet stream.

Our water bodies are parched & Indians shall be left thirsty within no time. Look around & you shall see a very pathetic scenario unfold in-front of your eyes; Dry wells, deserted ponds, dirty lakes, trickling dead streams, valleys in place of water ways, hundreds of men, women, young & elderly standing in queues for water to be rationed through tanker supplies. These are ominous signs. India cannot afford to simply wish away the problem. Every citizen has to bear this responsibility of saving precious droplets for themselves & for the future generations. We must encourage family members to use water judiciously. We can adopt water-saving techniques that are easily available online. At the office, too, you can ask your employers to use more water- efficient toilet stalls and host awareness sessions for fellow employees. All of these steps may eventually help us win crucial battles and ultimately win the war against drought.

With such a grave scenario, reminiscent of what we saw in the iconic film ‘The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, India can ill –afford to remain indifferent to this humongous problem. Fixing India’s water crisis will need saner policies, meticulous strategy and a massive amount of public participation. The drought did not wait for the elections. It has been here for months anyway. Imagine the plight of a peasant who sees thousands of his large guava plants wilting under unrelenting sun. If there were no drought & there was sufficient water available, he would have earned a decent income. But alas, that was not to be. There are countless others too who are facing the natures wrath & man’s insanity. What more can we expect of a farmer who has put in his blood, sweat & toil apart from converting arid rocky land into a productive multi-crop farm& yet this fetches him nothing but misery.

Who is Responsible?

Providing water for drinking and irrigation is the responsibility of the state, so unless water becomes a union subject, these plans will remain mere plans. And linking rivers is, of course, fraught with ecological and environmental costs. The Waterman of India and Magsaysay award-winner, Rajendra Singh, has repeatedly warned that interlinking of rivers, a promise in the BJP’s 2019 election manifesto is a bad idea. In September 2017, addressing a press conference in Vijayawada, Singh said: “Governments should work not to interlink the rivers, but to link the hearts and minds of the people with the rivers. Only then would the rivers become healthy. A river is not like a road. It has its own rights.”

Nearly all the major perennial rivers are in the doldrums. Take Cauvery, for instance. She or her tributaries haven’t met the ocean for decades’ the upstream dams choke its flows downstream, affecting people in Tamil Nadu. Or the Krishna, which runs dry in her delta region for most parts of the year. Even Godavari is sans water post-monsoon for most of the year, a recurring feature for decades now.

Expert Say

Magsaysay award winner and veteran journalist P. Sainath says there are several kinds of water transfers taking place, turning water distribution and use unequal. “You have water being diverted from food-crops to cash-crops; livelihoods to lifestyles; rural to urban; mismanagement is a bigger reason for the drought.” It’s also the reason why water conflicts between urban and rural masses, regions and states, districts and blocks, and sectors are getting fiercer along with worsening imbalances in water access.

Even when monsoon rains may have set in along the Kerala coast, but water woes are unraveling in many parts of the country. Bengaluru, by all accounts, sits on acute water shortages akin to the ones witnessed by Cape Town in South Africa recently. According to a statement issued by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) ahead of World Water Day in 2017, the water table in the southern metropolis has sunk from 10-12 metres before the surface to 76-91 metres in a mere two decades, while the number of extraction wells went up from 5,000 to 0.45 million in a span of 30 years. The water crisis has also brought many parts of Chennai to a standstill. Tens of thousands of people from the arid Bundelkhand region have long left for cities to escape hunger and water scarcity. There’s no water there. No work.

The CSE report says that “While big dams played a big role in creating a huge irrigation potential, today, the challenge is to effectively utilize this potential, as the water that lies stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. At the same time, groundwater, which truly powered the Green Revolution, faces a crisis of sustainability. Water levels and water quality have both fallen creating a new kind of crisis, where the solution to a problem has become part of the problem itself. The new challenge is to manage our aquifers sustainably so that we can make sure we do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. It warns that if the current pattern of unsustainable water use continues, about half of India’s water demand will be unmet by 2030. India’s water table is falling in most parts; there is fluoride, arsenic, mercury, even uranium in our groundwater.

A recent Water Resources Institute (WRI) report indicated that “water shortages are hurting India’s ability to produce power” and that “40% of the country’s thermal power plants are located in areas facing high water stress, a problem since these plants use water for cooling.” Fourteen of India’s 20 largest thermal utilities experienced at least one shutdown due to water shortage between 2013 and 2016, costing the companies $1.4 billion, the WRI study said. “It’s an issue that’s only poised to worsen unless the country takes action—70% of India’s thermal power plants will face high water stress by 2030, thanks to climate change and increased demands from other sectors.”

But India continues to put water-guzzling industries in water-stressed areas. More than half of Maharashtra’s sugarcane is grown in low-rainfall drought-prone-zone. That in 1999 prompted the Chitale Commission on Irrigation to ask the Maharashtra government to not give permission for a new sugar mill in these areas. Of course, the state and the sugar lobby made sure the report and its recommendations were quietly buried. Due to this history of inaction and lapses, the country continues to flounder with the management of its rivers and under-stress aquifers. In Maharashtra, machines and not humans became the focus of a much-trumpeted program called ‘Jal-Yukta Shivar’ over the last few years. Under the program, a rush to clear bills for the deployment of earthmoving vehicles outweighed the wise calls for holistic water management.

Future Forward 

One possible way to overcome this challenge is by limiting the electricity subsidy offered to farmers and compensating them with a direct cash transfer for every unit they save. This provides farmers an incentive to use groundwater judiciously without any additional cost to the government.

“The foremost law must be to have adequate quantities of water reserved for drinking and livestock before it is earmarked for other purposes,” says Shripad Dharmadhikari, water policy researcher and head of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Pune. “Right to water should mean a high priority to drinking water.”Pradeep Purandare, a retired water policy expert at Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad, says India’s priority must be: 1) to make our irrigation and water (physical /engineering) systems amenable to modern concepts; 2) to complete irrigation and water sector reforms and 3) to implement improved water management, governance and regulation practices. The Maharashtra Integrated State Water Plan (IWSP), a first of its kind integrated plan ratified by the state water council in 2018 is a good beginning, he says. “If we neglect ISWP the way we have neglected our irrigation laws, it will only be a showpiece,” Purandare says. This plan calls for a river basin approach to water management; auditing and accounting of available water; and planning and management of all available resources by integrating legal and statutory provisions. India has so far seen the water sector in terms of irrigation projects or water schemes. “The river has not been our area of attention,” Purandare says. “We need to balance between our water-needs and that of the river itself.”