The political response to India’s water emergency is tepid
This water emergency, however, is not just about the lack of availability of the natural resource. It is much more severe than that: Our rivers are polluted, traditional water harvesting systems are gone, catchments are deforested, groundwater water levels are depleting and ponds and lakes are disappearing at an alarming pace.
Indore, Madhya Pradesh: The state government has ordered police escort for water tankers and guards at all water sources.
Chennai, Tamil Nadu: Twelve tech companies have asked employees to work from home because they don’t have water to sustain operations.
Beed, Maharashtra: Almost entire villages are deserted as residents have started migrating in search of water.
These are just a few examples of the crisis India is facing. This water emergency, however, is not just about the lack of availability of the natural resource. It is much more severe than that. Our rivers are polluted, traditional water harvesting systems are gone, catchments are deforested, groundwater levels are depleting and ponds and lakes are disappearing at an alarming pace.
India has over 18% of the world’s population but just 4% of its freshwater resources. A 2018 report of the NITI Aayog also mentioned that the country is “suffering from the worst water crisis in its history”. Despite such warnings, unfortunately, the political and public response on the issue has been tepid. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition Congress did not raise the issue during their pre-election rallies as much as required, though their manifestos had water-related promises. The BJP said it will provide piped water to every household by 2024 and the Congress had promised providing universal access to drinking water. Politicians were able to get away with very little focus on the water crisis because the voters did not demand answers even though many of them are severely affected by this crisis.
The first proactive efforts at tackling the calamity was seen after the new government took over on May 30 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiling the Jal Shakti ministry, which has been formed by merging the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and ministry of drinking water and sanitation. This raised hopes but many were shocked when the new minister, Gajendra Shekhawat, on June 11, said: “The water crisis is not as bad as the hype created by the media.” The comment comes a month after the Centre issued a “drought advisory” to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, asking them to use water judiciously.
Even if the minister thinks that the situation is under control, his ministry has a long laundry list. First, the water sector is confronted with the lack of credible “water information”, that is, information about water storage, groundwater, water flows and, in some cases, even rainfall and snowfall levels. This problem has also been acknowledged by the NITI Aayog. “Access to accurate water information could help one understand the risks and urgency of the situation and steer towards informed decisions,” writes Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, in Economic & Political Weekly (Challenges in Water Governance, April 13, 2019).
Second, the PM has promised piped water for all by 2024. This is an important step but the government also needs to spell out how it plans to protect the sources of water, stop the overconsumption, wastage and intense overexploitation of groundwater and strengthen (and in many cases re-establish) the link between groundwater and surface water.
Third, this is also the right time to talk about the country’s water governance structure. There is, as the Mihir Shah Committee report (2016) mentions, an express need to rehaul the Central Water Commission, Central Ground Water Board, Central Ground Water Authority, State Pollution Control Boards and Central Pollution Control Board, among others. “These institutes,” writes Thakkar, “may have a different evolution trajectory, but they show a typical top-down, bureaucratic, unaccountable, non-transparent and non-participatory mindset.”
Fourth, there has to be an acknowledgement that groundwater is India’s lifeline, and, therefore, there has to be a focus on its recharge and aquifer management.
Last, but not least, get people involved. Bundelkhand is a drought-prone region, where access to water is at a premium and difficult for the poor to access. While the upper economic classes do not suffer much shortage, the poor face the brunt of this lack of water in a disproportionately large manner. This has huge health and livelihood implications, especially for scheduled castes /scheduled tribes, and within these groups, even more serious for women and children. “Despite such odds, illiterate and semi literate women have formed groups (jal sahelis) that work towards water security by spreading water literacy and water conservation,” says Indira Khurana, a water and sanitation expert.
In Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district, farmers have formed a collective to “share groundwater with each other” to sustain their crops. And in Bangalore, Anand Malligavad, a techie, is leading a citizen-driven initiative to rejuvenate the city’s lakes. In Delhi and many other cities of India, several resident welfare associations have done commendable work in harvesting rainwater and augmenting groundwater. The government must build on these positive interventions.