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.

Secession of the urban Indian

Amidst all the recent furore over “seditious” behaviour on one of India’s premier university campuses, my mind went to the steady secession of sections of Indian society from the larger populace around them. Now, secession is no laughing matter; any talk of it in the context of a region seeking to separate itself from the republic constitutes a serious crime. And yet, through its actions (or rather inaction), the Indian state itself has been guilty of creating a secessionist mindset in certain groups residing within its frontiers. Before I am hauled up before the guardians of law (one never knows in these hyper-excitable times), let me expand on my theme to set all apprehensions at rest.

I still remember a childhood when those of us living in cities like Delhi, Bombay and Madras received, and enjoyed, the benefits of public services. Electricity came from the local power undertaking and water from the local water board. Those living in Bombay and Madras were fortunate to enjoy good public transport (local train and bus) facilities. We Delhiwallahs were not so lucky; a six kilometre journey from school to home could take anywhere up to two hours, earning the Delhi Transport Undertaking (DTU) the sobriquet Don’t Trust Us. Public health facilities were extensively used: the Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS) for minor illnesses and (in Delhi) public hospitals like Safdarjung and Willingdon (later christened Ram Manohar Lohia) for major ones. The doctors were reputed and trusted by their patients, the nursing staff was dedicated and competent and many of our friends went there for minor and major surgeries. While I don’t even remember seeing a uniformed policeman in our government colony, the friendly Gurkha watchman on his nightly vigil made us feel secure. The seeds of secession were already then being sown in primary and secondary education, though not in higher education: many of us went to private (euphemistically termed public) and missionary schools (with parental confidence in municipal and government schools at a fairly low level) but subsequently to publicly funded universities.

The last quarter of the twentieth century marked the watershed for the transition to a dual society. As the pressure of population grew, with large migrations to urban areas, shortfalls in public services and the unwillingness of better-off sections of the citizenry to live with these infrastructural deficiencies led to the Great Secession. The success of the Indian diaspora and their affluence created envy in their humble country cousins, who had to look forward to the casually tossed out gift on the annual pilgrimage home of the non-resident Indian. 1991 was the first window of opportunity for the great Indian middle class. Easier and cheaper imports, the opening up of the consumer sector to private investment and the information technology boom saw an explosion in the availability of hitherto forbidden fruit, which the Indian consumer was only too eager to acquire and consume. Money is the medium for the transfer of goods and services from the hitherto totally public domain to private enclaves of wealth and prosperity. As living standards improve for a growing middle class with aspirations to the “good life”, it would be instructive to examine how this stratification has worked in different sectors of services and how it has had its impact not just on the wealthier classes but also on the common woman/man living in urban settings in India.

Electric power supply has always been the country’s Achilles heel. Rural areas, especially in the more backward northern and eastern regions of the country, have long been inured to the absence of electricity. But urban areas, inhabited by industries and by the relatively wealthier segments of society, would not accept such a scenario. Industries went in for diesel generator sets and, where possible, captive power generation. Households followed suit very soon; as disposable incomes went up, generator sets made their appearance in private residences and housing societies. Even after the initiation of power sector reforms in the early 2000s, the scenario is yet to change, with problems persisting in all the three sectors of electricity generation, transmission and distribution. A nuclear deal was concluded, but power from nuclear plants still seems a distant dream. Oh, of course, there has been a lot of talk but, as yet, only limited progress on the renewable energy front, the inspiring example of countries like Germany notwithstanding. Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, sees its citizens stoically settling down to power cuts of three to five hours daily, while its energy policy makers scramble for excuses like low water supply positions in reservoirs.

Drinking water supply poses a major issue everywhere, and not just in years of scanty rainfall. Politicians and bureaucrats have failed to anticipate the demand for this crucial, life-giving resource, not just in rapidly growing urban centres, but also in rural areas, where water supply is fast depleting. There are a variety of reasons for this critical situation, best summed up as “the triumph of private greed over public need.” What is glaringly evident is the absence of any long-term planning for urban water management. No efforts have been made to recycle wastewater for use for non-drinking purposes, nor is there any coherent policy in place to desalinate seawater, on the lines of countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The only ones laughing all the way to the bank are the bottled water companies, which are the major drinking water supply source to populations in cities like Chennai and Bengaluru. With a steadily worsening groundwater scenario, water tankers are the order of the day in every metropolitan area. The urban poor have to make do with the trickle that comes from their public taps or fight for access to the tankers that service their areas.

The steady deterioration of public health services has, over the years, put an enormous financial burden on the aam aurat/aadmi. Money is again the feature that distinguishes the quality of services for the rich and the poor. Corporate, multi-specialty hospitals with state of the art technology are available to those who can pay, while the poor flock to already overloaded public hospitals. The average citizen has come to distrust the medical attention she can expect to get in public health institutions, forcing her to get into debt to meet the costs of private medical care. A moribund public health care system functions (??) under the benign gaze of governments (both central and state) and a controversial Medical Council of India.

Public transport, almost the only commuting option a couple of generations ago, is probably the most striking example of the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. City transport systems have come under immense strain, even as private car registration figures shoot up. Mumbai’s famed local trains are groaning under the sheer weight of numbers and even the Mumbai bus system (BEST) is not quite what it used to be. Indian city roads have, of course, proved to be somewhat of a social leveler — the potholes on the roads are no respecter of private or public transport modes and congested thoroughfares allow for no distinctions in time spent on travel, regardless of whether you are in a BMW or on a city bus. The Delhi Metro has been the only bright spot in an otherwise abysmal tale of stalled public rail transport and Bus Rapid Transit systems in nearly all Indian cities.

Most unfortunate has been the privatisation of security systems as inadequate police forces battle with multiple responsibilities in the diverse areas of criminal investigation, law and order maintenance and VIP security. It is bad enough when housing becomes segregated (although the coexistence of prosperity and squalor serve as reminders that “no man is an island”). It is worse when these residential islands also shut off the rest of humanity (including visitors’ vehicles) and seek protection behind high walls and iron gates. As the perception of individual insecurity grows, those who are well-off but not fortunate enough to be provided taxpayer-funded security go in for their private armies of security guards. The aam aurat is left to manage on her own against antisocial elements, with no beat patrolling by constables in even crowded localities.

The final act in this secession drama is the scramble for job opportunities overseas. The earlier flight to the Gulf at least saw many of the migrants return home to better living standards in states like Kerala. The subsequent exodus to the West, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, and other areas in South-East Asia and Australia, has been rather more one-way traffic. While there is the feeling in expatriates of a homeland lost, there is also the realistic recognition that India still cannot offer the same opportunities for innovative thinking and risk taking that many other countries both to the east and west of us offer. If you don’t believe me, ask a budding research scholar in any university or an entrepreneur starting a new venture. It should occasion no surprise that India’s only Nobel award in the basic sciences came during British rule (C. V. Raman, 1930). Indians have since won Nobel awards in the basic sciences, but their research has been conducted in foreign institutions.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to the pursuit of excellence. Islands of excellence in the country still float in a sea of mediocrity, a consequence of unimaginative education systems, blatant patronage based on ethnic and other considerations and an acceptance of sloppy, disinterested performance. Perhaps we should heed the prescient words of John Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Lyndon Johnson administration “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water”.