The Modi government’s misguided policy on tackling the water crisis

A woman carries her son in a bucket after collecting water from a municipal water tanker on the outskirts of Chennai, on 4 July 2019. P Ravikumar / REUTERS
20 August, 2019

On 19 June this year, the city officials in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, declared that “day zero,” or the day when there is almost no water, had been reached. The four reservoirs that supply water to Chennai had nearly run dry. As national and international news organisations have reported, hundreds of thousands of people are lining up in front of government trucks to get water for their daily needs. Hospitals and schools have been hit and doctors reportedly have had to buy water for surgery.

The situation in Chennai is an indicator that India’s water crisis is not impending, but already here. It is in fact a recurring feature in the hinterland. Two consecutive weak monsoons have caused a severe drought that has affected around 330 million people in India.

The numbers speak for themselves. From 3,000–4,000 cubic metres in 1950, the availability of water per person per year came down to 1,545 at the time of the last census in 2011, and has come down further since then. A country or a region where water availability per head per year is less than 1,700 cubic metres is defined as “water-stressed” by the United Nations. When the availability slips below 1,000 cubic metres, the country is labelled as “water scarce.” India’s average number masks the fact that availability of water is already below 1,000 cubic metres per person per year in the arid and semi-arid regions of the country, mostly in western India and the Deccan Plateau. By all projections, if current patterns continue, these numbers are going to get worse, and more regions are likely to get affected.

Thus, water scarcity perhaps poses one of the biggest challenges to the new government. To deal with it well, the government needs to understand the numerous causes of the crisis, most prominent of which include inefficient use, pollution, poor policy and climate change. It needs to understand that its approach to the problem has been largely misguided and requires a radical overhaul. The government also needs to acknowledge certain uncomfortable truths about the crisis, and show willingness to take tough decisions. The Modi government, which has constituted a water ministry called “Jal Shakti,” claims water conservation is a priority, but it has shown little understanding of the issues at hand.

For an effective approach to water conservation, we need to understand how water is consumed. By most estimates, almost eighty percent of India’s water consumption is for the irrigation of our crops. Since the time the British started building canal irrigation systems in the Ganga and Indus river basins, the process of using more and more water for agriculture only accelerated, with the Green Revolution contributing heavily to the trend. While the Green Revolution made India self-sufficient in foodgrains, the long-term adverse effects are now showing.

Those farmers who can afford irrigation, flood their farms with water from canals or groundwater pulled up by pumps. Their water-use efficiency—the biomass of crops per unit of water used—is a small fraction of the global average. India pumps more groundwater than any other nation in the world, beating the US and China.

But not only have successive governments been unwilling to intervene, they have encouraged inefficient water use indirectly. There is no law regulating how much water can be pumped and as electricity is either free or highly subsidised, irrigation costs almost nothing. The government also guarantees a minimum price for water-hungry crops like paddy and sugarcane, which have powerful agri-business lobbies. Even most of the farmers I have spoken to over the years have told me that this is not sustainable, and yet there has been little change.

The Jal Shakti ministry seems to have no plan to address this. The fear of being branded as “anti-farmer” has made central and state governments ignore these two elephants in the room: zero regulation for groundwater extraction and free electricity to farmers. It is debatable, however, if this vote bank that politicians are afraid of alienating—which primarily constitutes relatively rich farmers—is really as large as they think. As farmers with small landholdings increasingly find themselves short of groundwater, because their richer neighbours are extracting it all, there may be a constituency for rational regulation.

The government has, however, taken some steps that peripherally address the problem. It recently announced floor prices for maize, millets and other cereals that do not require as much water as paddy and wheat. The government has also been trying for years to promote sprinkler and drip irrigation, which would improve water-use efficiency. However, the methods have not been adopted on a large scale, something the government needs to urgently address.

Ahead of this year’s general elections, the BJP promised piped water to all Indian households in its manifesto. Instead of curtailing the demand for water in irrigation, such steps would in fact increase it even more. Laying down a massive network of pipes would be useless if there is no water to supply through them.

The approach to deal with water scarcity through infrastructure has been adopted by several Indian governments, despite recent scientific research suggesting that the approach is misguided. The Modi government, just like its predecessors, is pushing through with its proposed dam projects. According to data from the Central Water Commission, a government body that manages India’s water resources , presented by the ministry of water resources in December 2018, there are 5,701 large dams in India of which 5,264 are functioning or complete and 437 are under construction. Hydroelectricity projects are still being passed without considering the fact that India’s installed power-generation capacity is already over double the current demand.

Several studies have argued that dams lead to more harm than gains. They displace more people than they benefit, and often lead to a drowning of fertile land. Silting shortens lives of dams, and it’s difficult to predict the rate of sedimentation in a given river. A cost-benefit analysis does not take silting into account.

The rationale for dams is often based on thinking that what works in Europe and America would also work in India. This does not account for the fact that rivers in northern India flow down from the world’s youngest mountain range, the Himalayas. This range is still crumbling, which means the rivers carry far more silt than rivers elsewhere in the world.

Whenever there are floods big enough to really hurt, floodgates have to be opened to save the dams, worsening the suffering of people downstream. The recent flood in northeastern Bihar has been worsened manifold due to the opening of all 56 gates of the Kosi barrage. The managers on the spot said they had no choice if they had to save the barrage. However, there is little explanation to offer to those locals who have been protesting against the project from its very beginning. And yet, there is still a fascination with these outdated technologies, not least because corruption and big-dam lobbies ensure that feasibility studies exaggerate benefits and play down problems a dam might cause.

This same way of thinking fuels the BJP’s obsession with the plan to interlink the rivers of India. Government planners argue that interlinking rivers would allow them to move water from surplus to deficient river basins to handle India’s water shortage.

While the plan has been on the drawing board since the 1960s, there is little study on which river basins are actually water surplus. There is an overall understanding that the Brahmaputra basin is water surplus, but that’s the case only during the monsoon. How do the planners intend to move water from the Brahmaputra basin to the water scarce western and southern parts of India during the monsoon? At this time, the rivers in the Ganga basin are also flowing high. Since this planned water transfer would have to cross these rivers, the water would not move by gravity alone, even after it is pumped out of the Brahmaputra basin at enormous expense of energy.

The other alternative would be to build huge reservoirs that would hold the water in the Brahmaputra basin till after the monsoon, and then it would be pumped thousands of kilometres to the Ganga basin when the rivers aren’t flowing as high. The plan would still cause inter-state disputes that would possibly make the current tussles over the Cauvery, the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, the Mahanadi and other rivers look mild.

The government is still going ahead. Right now it is digging a canal from the Ken to the Betwa rivers in central India, using almost a decade old figures that said the Ken had more water than the Betwa, though it has been the other way around in recent years. Neither that nor the fact that the canal passes through the Panna National Park, a protected area in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district, has stopped the project.

There are ways besides water transfer that could help deal with the scarcity. For millennia, Indians have known that they get about 75 percent of the annual rainfall in the four monsoon months, and they have to store this water in order to survive for the rest of the year. So for a large part of its history, the country had a well-developed system of rainwater harvesting that changed from place to place depending on the rainfall, the topography and so on.

But starting in the 1950s, state governments’ personnel went from village to village, discouraging traditional rainwater harvesting. They told people that water—especially water held in ponds—is infested with bacteria, and that tube wells were a better alternative. While the infestation may be real, replacing the source instead of treating that water led to the destruction of traditional water-harvesting systems. When people realised they could get water without having to bother about storing it at individual or community levels, they stopped maintaining the traditional water-harvesting structures. Chennai is now facing the complications set off by these developments in the early part of the last century. Many less publicised places are in the same boat—for instance, Latur in Maharashtra, where trains have been supplying water for the last three years. Even in Bengaluru, Hyderabad or Pune, most residents depend on private suppliers who pump water from nearby villages, carry it in tankers and sell it at inflated prices.

As groundwater depletes, the government has also been planning a peoples’ movement to go back to traditional rainwater harvesting. This would be an uphill task as most of the community ponds and common lands that supported rainwater harvesting have been encroached upon.

Despite that, moving to decentralised water storage all over the country using traditional harvesting methods is one of the few viable solutions. The government’s supply-centric large projects have already proven to be unsustainable from economic, social, hydrological and ecological points of view. The way forward must somehow curtail demand—through spreading awareness about conservation and sustainable agriculture—and prevent destruction of natural sources through pollution and unnecessary intervention.