Dr D M Deshpande
The Niti Aayog has released it’s Composite Water Management Index for Indian states recently. Irrespective of who has topped or who are the laggard states, the overall scenario is scary, to say the least. It also really does not matter to go in to the details of the methodology used, it’s efficacy etc. at this point of time. Some of the facts released by the report, though not new, will now gain greater authenticity and credibility.
The Aayog report is a damning indictment of successive governments- states and central-since independence. Some 600 million people are in the grip of high to extreme water crisis. 75% of the population does not have access to drinking water; 84% do not have access to piped water supply. If this is not a crisis, what else is? Excessive dependence on ground water was known; now you get a quantification of the ‘problem’. 40% of the water supplied in the nation is from ground water resource. In 54% of ground water resources, water table is dropping indicating clearly that this is no more sustainable. There are independent reports of how water level has dropped to over 1000 ft. in some parts of peninsular India. And look at the speed of our policy action; two years now and still counting, we are still in the drafting state of Ground Water Bill! More than 50% of agricultural operations depend on this source for their water needs.
There is also a question mark over the quality of water available and supplied in the country. The report says that over 70% of the water in the country is contaminated. ‘Where water is available, it is more likely to be contaminated’ resulting in over 2,00,000 deaths every year. Fluoride contamination was known for quite some time; what has recently come to light is the uranium contamination that raises serious questions about how we are going about exploring this ambitious renewable energy resource. There is also enough evidence to show that the levels of discharge of effluents in our water bodies, few which are only remaining, is on steady rise. So, without concerted action, the scenario is quite bleak; we are staring at more polluted rivers despite grandiose plans of ‘Clean Ganga’ and the like. Shouldn’t public health care start with provision of safe drinking water? Or is it too much to ask of an elected government? As governments have continuously abdicated their basic responsibility, you find that the package water industry is now thriving and growing rapidly not only in urban areas but in rural space too!
According to an estimate, 80% of all the water usage in the country is for agriculture. At stake, of course, is providing food security which is a serious matter. But at the same time efficiency in use of water is also paramount. In comparison with global average, our use of water for almost all crops including major ones’ is 3 to 5 times. Agricultural research is not only about better seeds, modern farming techniques including use of fertilizers, but it is also about conserving water in cultivation. Free electricity in some states and near free power in most others has resulted in unanticipated outcome, one of excessive mining of ground water. Additionally, it has created water logging problems and adversely affected the surface soil in several states. This has had impact on productivity, which even otherwise, was never high in Indian agriculture.
While policy initiatives and legislative changes are long overdue, it will still not be able to solve the crisis in water sector. There needs to be a wider socio-political consensus on restoring old water bodies, protecting them from both pollution and encroachment. The centre expects a certain change in water use and management by technology partnership with Israel. Again this alone won’t suffice. We need a massive effort in mobilizing public opinion on the need to conserve every drop of water; something on the lines of ‘swatch Bharat’ and education for use of toilets nationwide. We need a champion for the cause who will catch the public imagination and drive it for the cause.
While the governments have to be at the forefront in all that has to be done, the civil society too has obligations. Leaning only and entirely on governments has not produced results. Water conservation has to become a mass movement; we need to do it for the sake of posterity. Otherwise we will leave behind vast tracks of barren land and huge pockets of water starved areas.