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Friday, June 3, 2016

India Sleepwalking into a Deeper Water Crisis

Water is the basis for all life forms. As the prime mover of economic activities, it has an overwhelming influence on the future of mankind. Fortunately, we are said to be a better endowed country with an annual precipitation of around 4000 BCM and a share of about 4% of the total average annual runoff in the rivers of the world.

But with the rapid growth in population, the per capita availability of water is coming down sharply: it has fallen from a high of 5200 Cu mt in 1951 to a low of 1400 Cu mt. And given the projected rise in population by 2025, no wonder if the per capita water availability further slides to 1000 Cu mt and even less. This is a pretty disturbing phenomenon in the offing, for it is sure to place us in a regime of stress.

Indeed, we are already witnessing the social, political and economic impacts of water scarcity. Around 850 million Indians live in villages and nearly 60% of them depend on farming for their survival. But due to weak monsoon rains during 2014 and 2015, 10 out of 29 states have already declared droughts. Irrigation dams, canals, riverbeds have all gone dry. The indiscriminate pumping out of ground water, that too at an alarming rate, has only lowered the water table further.

The frequency of droughts has indeed been increasing: there were six droughts during 1900 and 1950 as against 12 in the following 50 years, and four droughts have already occurred since the beginning of the 21st century. Severe droughts—dry winds, parched fields, emptied wells, withered crops, dying cattle, hunger deaths—often result in the migration of the poor and the marginalized lot from the countryside to the nearby urban centers for a fistful of food leaving behind everything: their dwellings, relations, their associations, indeed their very roots.

In all this, it is the “people much farther down the economic ladder” that are the worst sufferers. They encounter even starvation deaths, “not because there being not enough to eat”, but more because of their “inability to establish [their] entitlement to enough food.” And that is where the government of the day plays a critical role, but seldom found it rising to the challenge—no wonder, if the Supreme Court has recently made a scathing verdict on the “lack of will” shown by the Center and States in combating drought and saving lives, although a third of the nation is affected by the disaster.

Stare at the picture at the top—the picture of the woman with two vessels on head and one in each hand  while her child is dangling all by him-/her-self  from her arm-pit, which indeed well reflects the plight of women from the country side walking for miles together to fetch a pile of water, that too, even after 60 years of independence— empathize with the women, at least empathize with her  plight … meditate on her fortitude, I am sure you would be reminded of what a poet mused some 50 years back:  Duniya mein hum aaye to jeena hi padega / Jeevan hai agar zehar to peena hi padega”  (If we have come into this world, then live we have to / If life is poison so we have to drink it); Gir gir ke museebat mein sambhalte hi rahenge (Falling again and again in troubles, shall keep going yet) gum jisine diye / gum jisne diye hain whohi gum door karega (Whoever has given us the sadness / Whoever has given us the sadness will also make it vanish).

This lady in the picture and her ilk appears to believe that life is a ‘given’ to them and it is their sacred duty to live it out, come what may! See the gait: there is no trace of any resentment whatsoever or sorrow of her plight on her face—in short, no whine and whimper. On the other hand, her body language reflects an element of nirliptata, detachment— detachment from all the externalities.  There is indeed a spring in her walk—the walk with sun high in the sky and the baking dusty road under her feet plus all that load all over her body—exuding an amazing belief in her own abilities, ability to carry on the life’s caravan on her own. I wonder, if she ever looks for help from anybody in her sojourn on planet earth. This heroic style of her living with whatever has been doled out tells me: “look, bachhu boy, don’t wait hoping that somebody will come someday to serve you, instead carry on your engagement with the life with whatever cards you have been dealt with. She even tells me: “My boy, if there are obstacles on the path, keeping your faith in god, bend down and pull them out/push them away and keep goingthuj ko chalna hoga.” She even trumpets: Duniya mein hum aaye to jeena hi padega / Jeevan hai agar zehar to peena hi padega” 

OH! My god, what an inspiration she is! Won’t you think her heroism puts us all to shame, particularly, the ruling clan, who often keep yelling from rooftops to turn this land of hers into Singapore or, into a paradise, and what not? And no party is exception to this phenomenon—they all project ‘illusion’ before them exhorting to celebrate it. There appears to be no room in the minds of the ‘more-than-the-ordinary' people of this nation for the sufferings of the ‘less-than-the-ordinary’. We take pride in celebrating our successthe success of our lopsided priorities.  What a shame!

There is yet another arena where we witness the glaring failure of our government, both at the Center and States: disputes arising out of sharing water from a common source—the Cauvery river water dispute involving Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala; the Krishna river water dispute involving Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka; disputes between  Punjab, Haryana and Delhi in the  north, etc—are some such examples, though potential enough to challenge the ‘economic-sustainability’ of the zone and the very federal setup of the democratic India, and these are seldom addressed meaningfully, particularly with a sense of urgency to resolve them. Nor is the government of the day—be it from any political setup—has ever been found evincing keen interest in maintaining storage capacities already created: de-silting dams, tanks, canals and repair and maintenance of irrigation canals to arrest leakages and ensuring secured passage of water to the intended purposes is hardly attempted with the kind of enthusiasm that we notice in pursuing newer projects.

As we shift our gaze from quantity to quality of water, the apathy of the governments in providing safe and adequate drinking water to the rural masses turns out to be even more appalling: the sight of people using ground water that is heavily contaminated with hazardous chemicals such as fluoride, arsenic, nitrates that are known to cause serious ailments like crippling bones, renal failure, epileptic seizures, mental retardation, etc., is common in areas like Telangana, Tamil Nadu, etc. 

Unless the government of the day wakes up and collectively with people initiates measures for:
  • conserving water and harvesting rainfall by educating people to adopt simple techniques such as ploughing the land across the slope, digging percolation tanks, injection wells, erecting surface barriers and using these savings to nurture the water table,
  • desilting existing reservoirs to restore their full storage capacity and repairs to the canal system to ensure minimum wastage and maximum reach to the intended destiny.
  • improving utilization of existing water resources by growing crops that are appropriate to a region, preferably using drip irrigation and reviving use of traditional systems such as tanks and huge open wells that could act as mini-storage systems too for harvesting rain water—in short,
  • building harmony between extraction and restoration, and importantly,
  • choosing the right priorities like fixing the drinking water problem in the country-side vs Mars expedition, for allocating the scarce capital, and
  • addressing water crisis as a risk-management practice
India cannot ensure a water-secure future. And unless water problem is solved urgently and effectively, its adverse effects are sure to spill over the national effort to achieve double-digit GDP growth rate too.


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