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India’s water table is slowing down to a mere trickle

The Water Week, which begins on April 4, must introspect on conservation and also governance issues relating to water

analysis Updated: Apr 01, 2016 22:24 IST
Due to acute shortage of water, authorities in Maharashtra’s Latur district have clamped Section 144 of CrPC as a preventive measure to tackle possible violence over water.
Due to acute shortage of water, authorities in Maharashtra’s Latur district have clamped Section 144 of CrPC as a preventive measure to tackle possible violence over water.(Arijit Sen/ HT Photo)

The World Water Day was on March 22, and Holi followed only two days later. You could call that a week of irony. While revellers ushered in spring in the national capital with water pistols, in the parched lands of interior Maharashtra, farmers sighed at the sky as they marked one of their worst droughts in almost four decades.

Water scarcity has been showing symptoms of being a national malaise in news trickling in from across the country. The Central Water Commission said this week that India’s major dams were at just 27% of their capacity and well short of the 10-year average, and 91 reservoirs were 30% below last year’s levels. Both kharif crops and hydroelectricity may fall victims to the shortage.Understandably, the theme for this year’s Water Week (April 4-8) is, ‘Water for all: Striving Together’.

Two consecutive drought years and three crop failures later, farm families in 12 drought-hit states are facing a severe shortage of water. Between depleting ground water tables and somewhat indifferent authorities at both central and state levels, the choices are tough.

Read | Marathwada: A land of dried up farms, dreams

Relief measures remain largely on paper or take too long to reach distressed families. Faulty crop planning and skewed water utilisation is eating into the ground and surface water resources, a key source of irrigation for India’s farms. The situation, according to the CWC, is particularly grim in the south-west parts of country, including Maharasthra’s Marathwada and Vidarbha areas. Strangely, Marathwada’s large irrigation projects have been merrily serving the water-guzzling sugarcane crops and industry, even as 15,000 villages in the region go dry. Surely there is a case to check skewed use of water — or should one say, abuse.

Read | On the edge of a desert: Riot-like situation stares at Marathwada

It is no surprise that Section 144 was imposed in Latur to avoid water riots. On March 18, the Punjab assembly passed a resolution against the construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal that would share waters from the Ravi and Beas rivers with neighbouring Haryana. Not surprisingly, the move is backed by Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal ahead of next year’s Punjab elections. Such politics over a basic resource of livelihood provides a disturbing addition to the sombre mood.

The water situation in Delhi reflects India’s urban water crisis in a microcosmic way. Rapid population growth is undermining the capital’s sustainability. Per-capita availability of fresh water is down to 1,1213 cubic metres from 3,000 cubic metres over the past 50 years. The water mafia is exploiting slum dwellers while the government’s scattered piped water supply splutters. The illegal trade in water sucked from the ground water table is a long-term negative.

Read | The water diviner in Beed

Water resources minister Uma Bharti recently spoke about the government encouraging farmers to buy treated water for irrigation ‘recycled’ by industries in order to conserve fresh water. This is more an outcome of the problem than a solution in itself. Rural expert P. Sainath warned a decade ago about the danger of privatising rivers, streams and canals in the context of what he called “corporatisation of agriculture”.

Whatever the detail, there is certainly an urgent need to look at the big picture from the crop mix to warped policies that favour more elite users of water than the truly needy. India can ill-afford a simple pay-and-use model in a nation where two-thirds of the irrigation comes from truant monsoons.

Read | Plugging leaks around your home, one tap at a time

This Water Week may just be the right occasion for some serious introspection on a range of issues including conservation, augmentation of groundwater, and management and governance issues relating to water.