May 30, 2020
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A Drought Of Sense

It’s a chronicle of a calamity foretold, but fresh thinking is needed to avoid future tragedy

A Drought Of Sense

Though Prime Minister Vajpayee has shied away from declaring the drought of 2000 a national calamity, water experts agree the crisis is not only calamitous but also, to a great degree, man-made. Governments have repeatedly ignored warnings of a severe water scarcity and calls for better water harvesting and distribution. The scenario is so grim that in 10 years India could well face a situation where providing even potable water could be nationwide problem.

Says Dr R. Rajagopal, water sector expert at the World Bank: "Droughts are not unforeseen events-cattle don’t start dying in 10 days. The idea is to read warning signs correctly and be prepared. India is reasonably well-stocked in terms of foodgrains but that isn’t true of water. Also, people tend to use water as if it’s an unending source. A patent error...there are parts of the world where water is traded on the stockmarkets as a commodity. It’s that precious."

In fact, a World Bank study on the issue begins with a dire warning: "India faces an increasingly urgent situation; its finite and fragile water resources are stressed and depleting while different sectoral demands are growing rapidly. If India’s aspirations are to be met, fundamental changes in how water is allocated, planned and managed must occur. The situation is already critical at river basin and local levels; six of India’s 20 major river basins have less than 1,000 cubic metres per year and localised shortages are endemic in all."

The government denies all guilt, saying the current arid spell is not man-made. "Inadequate rains have contributed hugely," says Z. Hasan, water resources secretary. But he admits drought-proofing is a must to compensate for climatic vagaries. "We must have huge storage catchments on identified sites to provide for irrigation when there is a bad monsoon," he says. Water experts say the government’s fault is that it just responds to emergencies. Says Dr R.K. Pachauri of the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), "Tankers will be rushed in and relief announced. But the politician does not think ahead. Ad-hocism reigns."

One problem India faces is uneven water availability. A TERI study shows despite a national average of 2,464 cubic metres of water per capita a year, several parts face water scarcity. Take the Brahmaputra valley, where per capita availability is 18,417 cubic metres per annum while it is 411 cubic metres in the basins of the peninsula’s east-flowing rivers. Rainfall too is uneven. India receives an average rainfall of 4,000 cubic metres. But its distribution is such that some regions receive a surplus while others suffer. The per capita renewable freshwater has been steadily declining from 6,006 cubic metres in 1947 to 2,266 in 1997. Says Pachauri: "Unless we do something, we are looking at crisis. In 10 years’ time, cities like Delhi will have no water."

One solution is mega-dams. The idea is to spread the resources equitably so that surplus areas can share with those zones less endowed. But they can’t be the only answer, say experts. Rain harvesting and groundwater recharging is as important. Says Pachauri: "I don’t agree with ngos who say all dams are bad. It’s clear that they’re needed. But I’ll say rain harvesting is as necessary." The World Bank has shifted its funding strategy from specific projects to those that keep the river basin in mind. For, it’s now clear that any project must save the river first. According to a Bank official, a dam might help solve one state’s problem to others’ detriment.

Then there’s groundwater, which accounts for some 70-80 per cent of the value of farm produce attributable to irrigation. The Central Groundwater Board (CGB) says the exploitation level is over 98 per cent in Punjab and 80 per cent in Haryana. In the districts, it becomes acute: in six Punjab districts (Kapurthala, Jalandhar, Sangrur, Patiala, Ludhiana, Amritsar) and three of Haryana (Kurukshetra, Karnal, Mahendargarh), utilisation rate is well above 100 per cent. In other words, use far outstrips the recharging rate. Says Pachauri: "We have to tackle this. Water has to be priced. Since electricity is subsidised, rich farmers waste huge quantities of water."

Indiscriminate groundwater tapping isn’t just a rural problem. In the metros, housing societies and bungalows are notorious for sinking borewells. In Delhi’s Vasant Kunj colony, every sector has its borewell. In upper-rung colonies of Vasant Vihar and Greater Kailash, practically every house has a well. This has led to the lowering of the water table. The cities worst affected thus are Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore, unlike Chennai, where it’s mandatory for house owners to construct rain harvesting facilities. Rainwater harvesting is now seen as a wild dream of the green lobby but it may soon become vital. The lion’s share of Singapore’s drinking water comes from rain harvesting. In India’s metros, where large parts are concrete-paved, precious rainwater runs off.

The indiscriminate tapping of water is what some describe as achieving personal comfort at society’s cost. Strangely, under Indian law surface water is state property but groundwater belongs to the land owner! One easy solution is to discontinue free power to the farmer. But this won’t suffice: the biggest exploiters of groundwater are rich farmers who’ll continue to source water despite a high power tariff. Pachauri speaks of farmers in Haryana and Punjab who leave their pumps on through the night. "This is criminal waste," he says. The CGB estimates 45 per cent of water for irrigation seeps through unlined field channels and another 15 per cent is in excess of what is required. The current drought, for many experts, at one level illustrates the failure of the current model of "water ownership" in India.

There is no dearth of public spending on water though very little is recovered. Says a 1998 report by Prof Om Prakash Mathur of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP): "The water sector is a major component of public expenditure, accounting for 25-58 per cent of total capital expenditure of the states. Significantly, only an infinitesimal percentage of revenue expenditure is recovered through ‘sale’. In 1994-95, irrigation receipts covered no more than 10-15 per cent of revenue expenditure. The uncovered portion is phenomenal and has been rising over the years." The study calls this unsustainable and advocates a rational pricing policy. But only blaming the people is no solution. Legislative laziness, poor planning and rank inefficiency too are rampant. The decade-old Bill for the Regulation of Groundwater is still pending, says Rajagopal.

The pressures of a rapidly-growing population, enhanced lifestyles and economic boom coupled with a lack of awareness adds to the problem. In an informal appraisal of the $3 billion the World Bank has ploughed into India’s water sector since 1993, an official laments that poor delivery systems have meant irrigation projects have had "very mixed results". This, despite the post-1992 emphasis on "a holistic approach." Till the ‘70s, the focus was on infrastructure. Experts now call for a concomitant thrust on immediate management and distribution needs. "In this, both big dams and small community-run water harvesting systems have a place; it is not at all an either-or situation," says Rajagopal. Except that in both rural and urban areas, community support is essential for this.

Last, says Rajagopal, is the "misperception of India as a water-abundant country. Contrary to popular belief, it is not. The scenario in the south and west of the country is particularly bad. It is only the Gangetic plains which can be considered water-abundant and even there, western Uttar Pradesh is not. If there is no change in the situation, by 2025 India will be a water-scarce nation going by UN standards". A dire prognosis for a country known through history as the land of mighty rivers. And should this happen, then the planners and the people will have to share the blame.

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