Water, water, everywhere…

Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

The Ancient Mariner and his shipmates suffered the consequences of his shooting an albatross; becalmed on the wide ocean, they had no access to drinking water, leading to the death of all the sailors except the Ancient Mariner. An act as wanton as that of the Ancient Mariner today threatens the health (and lives) of millions across the parched plains of peninsular and northern India. The blame for the present predicament lies squarely on man’s nature rather than on Mother Nature. Man has squandered the available sources of surface water and, over the past four decades, has drilled deep into the bowels of the earth to extract every possible drop of water. The present summer represents one of the worst years of water availability for the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Much publicity has been given to the efforts of many organisations, such as the Indian Railways, to supply water over long distances to Latur city. While all such initiatives are laudable and deserve to be appreciated (even though it appears that the local administration is going to be billed for the supply by the railways), the bitter truth needs to be recognised that these are temporary palliatives for a far more deep rooted crisis, one that threatens man’s very existence. Since I have spent many years of my public life in the Marathwada region in different capacities, it may be appropriate for me to add my two bits to the ongoing debate on the causes for this huge human-ecological crisis that is affecting nearly 20 million people in this region.

Drought has been a recurring pattern in interior Maharashtra in most areas of the rocky Deccan Plateau for centuries. Falling as they do in the rain shadow area between the two monsoons, these areas rely almost entirely on the bounty of the south-west monsoon to meet the food and water needs of their populations. But even Maharashtra’s worst drought in the early 1970s was agriculture rather than water related. The picture changed over the last quarter of the twentieth century with the rapid urbanisation of Maharashtra and the indiscriminate application of water (both surface and ground) for agricultural, especially cash crop, production. The large storage capacities of the Jayakwadi dam at Paithan in Aurangabad district and its sister dam at Majalgaon in Beed district whetted the appetites of the rural elite of Marathwada. Taking a leaf from their confreres in prosperous Western Maharashtra, the landed elite used water as the means to enhance their economic and political power. Sugarcane factories (often badly managed) sprang up in the region, putting strain on both surface and groundwater resources. Water storage in the Jayakwadi reservoir was (and is) crucially dependent on the drinking water and irrigation demands of the politically influential upper riparian districts of Nashik and Ahmednagar. While there are treaties and agreements governing the distribution of river water flows between countries like India and Pakistan and between the different states of India, there are no specified norms dictating the distribution of water between different regions of a state; political compulsions and administrative decisions generally decide the allocation of waters.

Recurrent water scarcity has also created rural-urban tensions in Marathwada. Farmers who are denied water for agricultural purposes resent the diversion of water for industrial and urban needs. When the Jayakwadi irrigation project was commissioned in the 1970s, no one foresaw the extent of demand for water that would emanate from the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the sleepy town of Aurangabad. Today, a variety of industries, ranging from consumer goods and beer production to automotive and chemicals, are critically dependent on water from the Jayakwadi dam for their survival. Rationing of water supply to industry in lean years (as the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has sought to do this season by limiting water supply to the beer production units) runs the risk of affecting industry and industrial employment prospects, more so if water scarcity becomes a recurrent phenomenon. The issue is complicated by the misuse of purified water for non-drinking purposes, including watering gardens and flushing toilets. Aurangabad Municipal Corporation has no rules to restrict the use of costly, purified water for only drinking purposes, with users being mandatorily required to use groundwater or recycled water for other purposes. Shrinking groundwater levels pose their own problems; Beed town, the district headquarters of the politically powerful Beed district, with a population of 1.5 lakhs, was historically famous for its dug wells (Bir, as the district and town were earlier referred to, probably derives its name from vihir, the Marathi word for well). With urbanisation and the supply of piped water, these wells have fallen into disuse, rendering the once water-abundant town vulnerable to surface water availability in the water reservoirs servicing the town. Growing contamination of surface and groundwater by industries and sugar factories, not surprising considering the extremely lax implementation of pollution norms, has further reduced the access to safe groundwater.

As always, human greed and indifference lies at the heart of the problem. Deforestation in the upper reaches of the Godavari River (in the name of development) has led to the accumulation of massive quantities of silt in the major reservoirs. The lure of new capital investments in irrigation facilities (in the contractor-driven raj of modern India) as opposed to investments in reservoir and canal maintenance has reduced the life of these assets and led to the runoff of rainwater that could otherwise have been stored. Most importantly, the “small is beautiful” slogan of Eric Schumacher lies buried under the focus on large irrigation projects. River water projects that were considered technically and financially infeasible in the 1970s and 1980s were taken up in different regions of Maharashtra after the mid-1990s. These projects are yet to see the light of day, given poor planning, inefficient execution and massive corruption. Resources that could have gone into soil and water conservation measures were squandered. Successive governments have dutifully paid lip service to soil/water conservation projects with fanciful names; piecemeal planning and lack of an overall picture for recharging the watersheds in the state mean that there is unlikely to be any meaningful resolution of the water crisis in the foreseeable future.

Is there no solution in sight to this crisis which threatens future generations? There can be, provided the political and administrative will exists to look for imaginative solutions which do not pander to the interests of contractors and their political backers, with the concomitant allocation of adequate financial and human resources. After a continuous three year water crisis in Marathwada from 2001 to 2003, the Marathwada administration, in collaboration with NGOs working in the soil/water conservation sector proposed to the state government a massive plan for systematic watershed planning and implementation of a slew of soil conservation measures, including afforestation, contour bunding, check dams and field ponds, that would involve local communities in the programme. Given the scale of the task, it was obvious that relying on rural employment programmes like the MGNREGA would not do, given that the skilled component in terms of machine-intensive jobs would require relaxation of the specified norms for percentage expenditure on labour. It was, therefore, proposed that rural employment funds could be tapped for the components that could be largely implemented using local labour, with the government budgeting for capital-intensive investments in machinery and skilled operations. This proposal never took off and, for all I know, is still lying in the dusty archives of the Government of Maharashtra. Such initiatives are desperately needed to look for long-term solutions to the mess we have landed ourselves in.

Ad nauseam, we are told that it is better to teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish to eat, since the former course of action is a lifelong investment. Similarly, it is far better to recharge the earth’s water reserves rather than rely on nature alone to make up for acts of human commission and omission. Marathwada’s districts get, on an average, between 600 and 950 millimetres of rainfall annually. I still remember India’s waterman Rajendra Singh expressing his astonishment that, with so much rainfall, Marathwada could not solve its water problem, when areas in Rajasthan were able to manage with an annual precipitation of barely 300 millimetres. Countries like Israel, with regions like the Negev Desert which receive about 30 millimetres of annual rainfall, have invested in water-saving drip irrigation and desalination technology to meet the needs of their people. Maharashtra, and India, can certainly take inspiration from such examples: time and tide wait for no man.

What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
(William Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet)

William Shakespeare would never have had the hapless Juliet fret about the irrelevance of a name in the face of true love if he had been a twentieth or twenty first century inhabitant of India that is Bharat. My first tryst with our name-changing proclivities came when, as a newly posted probationer in the civil service, I landed at Bombay (Mumbai?) Central railway station one hot May morning in 1981. Getting into a taxicab, I directed the cabbie to take me to the Maharashtra State Administrative Training Institute located on Hazarimal Somani Marg, where I had been ordered to report for being inducted into the state bureaucratic culture. For good measure, the letter from the Institute informed me that the Institute was close to the Victoria Terminus (VT) (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus?) railway station. At VT, the cabbie asked me which road he should take. Clueless about Bombay’s (Mumbai’s?) roads, I directed him down the road to Flora Fountain (Hutatma Chowk?). Not finding the Institute, we took a one-way road back to VT and explored other alleys in our vain search for the elusive Institute. On our tenth or so sortie (as the taxi meter merrily shot up), we finally located the Institute located in a modest, single-storey premise, it’s innocuous signboard hidden from public view by large creepers. My eureka moment was spoilt by the contemptuous glance I received from the wizened cabbie who growled “Why didn’t you tell me it was Waudby Road?” before driving off with the inflated amount he received from me.

My engagement with Mumbai’s road names continued when I joined the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation (better known to the locals as BMC) in 1996. I was allotted a house within the premises of the Mumbai Zoo in midtown Byculla. Its northern boundary abutted E. S. Patanwala Road. Intrigued by the name, I made inquiries and discovered that Mr. Patanwala was the founder of a large cosmetics empire, responsible, among other products, for Afghan Snow, a vanishing cream that was applied on my face before I left for school every day. As fate would have it, my boss allotted me the subject of maintenance of Mumbai’s roads. My padayatras across many kilometres of Mumbai’s roads and pavements threw up many names hitherto unknown to me: Barfiwala Road, Veera Desai Road and Lokhandwala Road, not to mention Bhulabhai Desai Road and Gopalrao Deshmukh Road, better known by their earlier names of Warden Road and Pedder Road respectively. But it was at my weekly attendance at the General Body meeting of BMC corporators that I was privy to the extreme interest that the subject of road naming (and renaming) generated in the city fathers (and mothers), something that dreary budget items failed to excite. The meeting agenda was never complete without the inclusion of at least one item pertaining to a stretch of road that was to be renamed, often after some local benefactor or even some deceased relative of a corporator, whose memory was thus preserved for prosperity.

If the BMC was so active in the game of the name, how could the Maharashtra state government show tardiness? Shortly after it assumed state power in 1995, the ruling Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party combine put all its might behind renaming Bombay as Mumbai. Not content with this, the government of the day strove valiantly to rename Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad as Dharashiv, hoping probably to erase the Mughal-Nizam legacy. While Bombay became Mumbai, the then state government was not successful in renaming other cities, though politicians of parties like the Shiv Sena still use Sambhajinagar to refer to Aurangabad.

If you think Haryana’s politicos showed great drive in renaming the urban jungle of Gurgaon as Gurugram, please shower your appreciation on Karnataka’s present government which has, with great gusto, gone about renaming the state capital and just about every district, albeit sometimes only to reflect the Kannada inflection of tone — Bengaluru for Bangalore, Mysuru for Mysore, Mangaluru for Mangalore, Belagavi for Belgaum, Vijayapura for Bijapur and Kalaburagi for Gulbarga. The epidemic is now spreading further; the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is demanding that Shimla be renamed Shyamala!

It is almost as though the rechristening of places indicates a deep rooted desire to erase certain not so pleasant historical memories, especially of the colonial era. Delhi went through the phase of historical cleansing when Cornwallis, Canning, Curzon, Hardinge, Irwin and Willingdon, all representatives of East India Company/British rule in India, made way for their Indian counterparts after independence. Mercifully, smaller places in India named after Britishers who made a local impact — Forbesganj, Daltonganj and McCluskieganj — have withstood the renaming mania. More recently, the present central government decided to remove Aurangzeb’s name from a Delhi road, renaming it after a respected former Indian president to forestall any criticism of religious or historical bias. Each government obviously favours its admired icons in the naming/renaming exercise. While the Congress pantheon dominated the landscape in the first few decades after 1947, governments of other political persuasions have been no less diligent in introducing their favourites into road names. Sometimes, the repetition of the same name can cause confusion in giving directions; my area in Bengaluru has many roads named after the great engineer, M. Visvesvarayya. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Netaji Subhas Bose are perennial favourites across towns and cities of India and are often repeated in the same city. Ideological, literary and anti-colonial affinities also influence road names: Kolkata has its Ho Chi Minh, Lenin and Shakespeare Saranis, while Delhi has roads named after Nelson Mandela, Josip Broz Tito and Archbishop Makarios; where Olof Palme fits in this group is still a matter of conjecture.

Actually, names are meant to be markers of one’s origin, ethnicity and religion in the masala dabba that represents India’s diverse, heterogeneous population, although the forces of national integration and globalisation are ironing out these distinctions. Still, in a country that is more a continent (like India), there are delicious vignettes that highlight the complexities of names that are commonplace in some parts of the country but are foreign to the ears of those from other parts. Take my own example. I stuck to a six letter name like Ramani since, based as I was in Delhi, I was not sure how my northern confreres would mutilate Subramaniam. Now, Ramani is generally a name more associated with the female sex in its linguistic origins, including in states like Kerala, although there are hordes of male Ramanis emanating from Tamil Nadu. But when I was to join the civil service training academy at Mussoorie, the Assistant Course Director (from a northern state) used his extant knowledge to assign me accommodation in the Ladies Block. My good fortune (??) at this turn of events did not, however, last long. The other Assistant Course Director (a Tamilian) promptly rectified the gender error. He gleefully related to me how he inadvertently paid back his colleague in the same coin. The Tamilian allotted Maheshwari to the Ladies Block, till his northern colleague pointed out that Maheshwari was a male surname in the northern reaches of India. Imagine also the plight of the Punjabi receptionist at the entry desk of Shastri Bhavan, in the heart of the Indian government, who asked this strapping Tamilian visitor his name. When the visitor blithely replied “Thirunavukkarasu”, the receptionist, visibly blanching, hastily handed over his pen to the Tamilian to enter his name in the entry register, a name as Greek to the receptionist as Varoufakis (for more on the latter, refer to the Greek economic crisis).

I wonder if Nandan Nilekani devised the unique identification Aadhaar number for every Indian to get over the problem of mutilation and misspelling of names. A number (accompanied by fingerprint and iris scanning) that enables individual identification from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and Dwarka to Dimapur would do away with the need to get the spelling right. Pronunciation is another matter altogether. Maybe we should all adopt the Beagle Boys formula — the three brothers were distinguished solely by the numbers boldly emblazoned on the front and back of their sweatshirts: 176-167, 176-671 and 176-761. After all, there’s always safety in numbers!