Modi’s Water Sutra

Narendra Modi at the Kumbh mela in Allahabad, 2019
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India is staring at an imminent catastrophe

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi recently made a grand statement in the first edition of his Mann Ki Baat programme after assuming power for a second term. It was an appeal to the people of the country to launch a mass movement for water conservation along the lines of the cleanliness mission started with aplomb by the previous NDA dispensation. “We should together resolve the water crisis by saving every drop of water,” he exhorted. For a political leader with a penchant for bringing up topics at an opportune time, Modi’s timing couldn’t have been better. Thanks to erratic rains and a raft of other reasons, including mindless construction and poor implementation of existing water conservation and related schemes, India is currently staring at an imminent catastrophe, the enormity of which is visible from the congested streets of Chennai to the decrepit villages of Maharashtra, besides others, where large crowds are seen anxiously queuing up to collect water from tankers. Once the tankers arrive, there is utter chaos, confusion and squabble. These clips are eerily similar to those from certain dystopian movies where people fight over scarce resources in a bid to survive an apocalyptic situation. The Niti Aayog has said 21 major cities, including Delhi, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater as early as 2020—an estimate contested by the ruling Government. What is not contested, however, is that only less than a quarter of the nation’s 1.3 billion people have direct access to drinking water, and women, who often have to collect water, end up losing close to 150 work days a year in the process in many water-scarce regions of the country. In arid areas such as Rajasthan, men marry women—called water wives—for the sole purpose of carrying water when their older ones become sickly or weak.

What perhaps captures the magnitude of the problem at hand is a report from Madhya Pradesh in June that as many as 15 monkeys died of heat stroke at the Punjapura forest range in Dewas district after a group of larger and stronger monkeys denied them access to a river. According to the PTI report, a group of stronger monkeys, numbering around 60, was found to be ‘guarding’ access to a tributary of the Kali Sindh river.

Now, worldwide, water-scarce countries have devised methods to cope with insurmountable odds. Namibia, a country known for its dry rivers and arid climate, has successfully led a campaign to conserve water by mobilising people and to generate drinking water through recycling of waste water. Veena Srinivasan, senior fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru, says that people often talk of Cape Town’s ‘zero-day’, a day when piped water supply comes to a halt. Indians face it often, she emphasises, adding that recycling waste water and harvesting rainwater are solutions that India will also have to work keenly on besides those lofty goals of inter-linking of rivers. She also insists that compartmentalisation of functions have to stop. For instance, integration of handling of storm water, groundwater, sewage and piped water have to be ensured.

As of now in India, water supply, sewerage and storm water are managed by separate entities while groundwater is a segment that gets no attention. Srinivasan adds that the newly-formed Jal Shakti Ministry should work in tandem with the agriculture and energy ministries to resolve any water crisis. Water accounting to collect data and nature of water use and setting limits for water use are some of the measures that experts suggest in combating the menace that could often snowball into law and order problems and even civil strife. Experts Open spoke to are also averse to recharging of groundwater using river water instead of opting for more scientific ways to reduce water stress. For her part, Sreenivasan likens the use of existing water sources to raise groundwater levels as a “ponzi scheme”. She adds that there is a lot for India to study from the experience of countries such as Singapore that fell back on waste water recycling to meet the water crunch in that country.

There has never been any dearth of do-gooders in India, but political backing has been in short supply. Besides well-known water conservation evangelists, younger campaigners have also contributed to creating awareness about the pressing issue. For instance, some years ago, Bengaluru-based teenager Garvita Gulhati launched a non-profit named ‘Why Waste’ to encourage waiters in the city to serve only half-a-glass of water for each customer to reduce water wastage. Incidentally, water left behind in glasses at restaurants accounts for 14 million litres annually. The half-a-glass policy struck a chord even with restaurant patrons whom Gulhati and her team of volunteers reached out through videos and other means.

Interestingly, artistic ways of spreading awareness about water have seen a rapid rise over the past decades across the world and in India. Some of the posters brought out by various agencies and countries around world are proof of higher level of awareness. Posters that carry the 17th century historian Thomas Fuller’s quote, ‘We never know the worth of water till the well is dry’ are insightful indeed. Yet, politics and bureaucracy have a way of dampening the resolve of people. The 1981 Tamil movie by K Balachander titled Thanneer Thanneer (Water Water), set in a drought-prone Tamil Nadu hamlet, was one of the first Indian films to nail how red tape and the unholy nexus of unscrupulous politicians and greedy bureaucrats misuse their powers and leave people in deep anguish. Facts are sometimes stranger than fiction. Babus and netas in the hinterland continue to waste money on unviable water-conservation projects. India would do well to heed the warning signs in the Chinese documentary film When The Last Tree Dies(2013) about the water crisis in the North China Plain. The 27-minute documentary film depicts the devastating consequences of water scarcity exacerbated by pollution and corruption involving a major private company and local politicians. Meanwhile, for all their talk, the Modi Government has come under attack from water experts for merging an existing water conservation scheme named Integrated Watershed Management Programme in 2015 with the then newly-announced irrigation programme, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. Many experts contend that the move was counter-productive with respect to water-harnessing targets.

That taps are running dry across India is nothing new. Even hilly areas that were rich in water sources are facing acute shortage. Last year, the city of Shimla faced inexplicable hardship after piped water ran out. People also reel under infrequent supply of water by tankers in drought-prone areas of cities as well as the countryside. In some villages last year, especially in Maharashtra, tankers supplied water once in a week or a fortnight.

Caste discrimination rampant in villages add to the woes as water becomes one of the most precious commodities and the world is expected to face a devastating water crisis in less than two decades. By 2050, UNESCO warns, close to 5 billion people will not get regular supply of water. Today, half the world’s population lives in areas that are drought-affected for at least a month a year. The situation is expected to get much worse if drastic steps are not initiated at a fast clip. The solution certainly lies not only in human-made infrastructure alone, but also in tapping water through natural methods. Setting up of desalination plants and the use of technology to draw water from alternative sources may also prove to be effective. A few months ago, IIT Madras tied up with sustainable tech firm Teerthaa to make a device that can generate potable water from atmospheric air. Such efforts offer rays of hope. But at the moment, the panic seems contagious.