In this epic drought year in India, water is scarce, but not opinions. From newsprint to TV studios, perhaps more words have been either written or spoken than the total rainfall in Latur till now. Oddly enough, while one part of the nation had been reeling from water stress and agrarian crises for decades, the other part has willfully chosen to ignore it. So what led to this sudden spurt of interest in drought, water scarcity and tanker mafia?
Playing ostrich during a water crisis has been easy for India’s upper middle class. By cornering a bulk of subsidised urban water supply, bribing water utility linesman and meter readers and throwing money at private tankers, living in a bubble has not been difficult. The infamous PIL against the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket matches may have finally burst it.
When the Bombay High Court decided to hit IPL for a six, stinging opprobrium reached fever pitch. In a country where cricket is the opium of the people, the judgement was a stone thrown at the hornet’s nest of upper middle class “tax paying” privileges. The best and brightest came up with googlies that promised to stop the anti-IPL lobby dead on its tracks. With numbers on their side, they argued that banning IPL would only serve as a token act of pious indignation. As evidence, a laundry list of water-wasting habits and practices was provided, which consume more water than a few cricket matches in a water-starved state.
But then, the nation would want to know, that if IPL is a red herring, then who is the villain? The answer is available closer home in cities, than the parched farmlands of Marathwada and Vidharbha. We consume on an average almost 19 kg per capita of raw sugar per year. It is expected to grow to 35 kg by 2030. Adding to raw sugar consumption is the growth of the sugar-sweetened beverages industry. Soft drink manufacturers, bakeries, hotels and restaurants, and confection manufacturers consume 65% of the total sugar that is consumed in the country. As the demand for sugar increases, supply will follow. Farmers cannot be blamed for responding to subsidies and market signals that promise prosperity.
In Bangalore and Delhi, tanker bookings are literally an auction. Desperate associations fight among themselves to be the highest bidder. The hard fought water is then used for swimming pools, greening lawns and washing cars. While money for satsangs and kitty parties are available at the drop of a hat, not a rupee is spent on conserving a drop of water. Such irresponsibility gets systematically rewarded. In order to celebrate its first year in power, AAP in Delhi waived 25% on water bills for all property owners in upmarket areas. This birthday bash was well received by Delhi’s urban rich.
Fizzy drinks, malls, golf courses, swimming pools or IPL, all these symbols of excess virtual water consumption touch a raw nerve. Calls for frugality gets mocked. There is little doubt that many other things consume more water than a few IPL matches. But it finally ushered in the reality of drought and thirst into air-conditioned bedrooms. Pointing at sugarcane, weak water governance and tanker mafia is ducking under the bouncer of an inconvenient truth. With their lifestyle and consumption, the urban rich are a part of India’s water mafia.
Amitangshu Acharya is a development professional
The views expressed are personal