Why isn’t water an election issue?

These elections were an opportunity for every party to present their agenda on water, instead they spewed slogans that threw mud in the already muddy waters of our politics


Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about interlinking of rivers in 2014 during the elections but no effective steps have been taken in that direction. Photo: Reuters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about interlinking of rivers in 2014 during the elections but no effective steps have been taken in that direction. Photo: Reuters

A few days ago, we were standing at the origin of the river Mandakini near Chitrakoot. The scene before us was enchanting. A stream of water was emerging from the foothills of the Vindhyas and going down a naturally formed slope. For thousands of years this stream has kept this holy river in Bundelkhand full of water. For the devout, it is a symbol of Goddess Anusuya and for the locals, their lifeline.

But now the Mandakini is getting depleted. You get evidence of this as soon as you reach Chitrakoot. The monks here tell you it is a meeting point for River Payaswini and the lost river Saraswati of Indian mythology and ancient texts. When we ask where Payaswini is, we are directed to a small drain. The Payaswini turning into a feeble drain is not a good sign for the Mandakini because traditionally it is the tributaries that have been strengthening the larger rivers. The question is, will these two rivers meet the same fate as the Saraswati? Folklore popular in Allahabad describes the lost river Saraswati as an integral part of the iconic Triveni. For hundreds of years, the Saraswati has been revered in Hindu faith. Why don’t all those people who claim to be religious think about the reasons that led to the alleged disappearance of the Saraswati? Today, the Payaswini is taking its last breath. More than 10 rivers in Uttar Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region have vanished into the folds of history mainly owing to illegal mining.

Will the Ganga and the Yamuna meet the same fate?

I was born in Benares and grew up in Mirzapur and Allahabad. Like Jawaharlal Nehru, I too have seen the Ganga and the Yamuna in their diverse avatars. Today, whenever I cross the Yamuna bridge in Mathura and look below, I let out a sigh. The Yamuna, which inspired Krishna’s Braj, has now become a thin stream of polluted water. The Chambal in Etawah and the Betwa in Hamirpur merge with it to lend it a reincarnation. Similarly, if you look at the Ganga before the Sangam in Allahabad, you will experience the same despair. That’s the reason during a field trip to cover the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections I met people lamenting the shortage of drinking water. Entire villages are turning vacant owing to shortage of drinking water and crops drying up. On top of it, no avenues for employment are being created.

The conditions are so distressing that in response to a question in 2016, the then minister of state for drinking water and sanitation Ram Kripal Yadav said as many as 308 districts in the country are grappling with the shortage of drinking water. This includes 50 districts in Uttar Pradesh alone. Replying to an RTI application, the Uttar Pradesh government had admitted four years ago that 4,020 sources of water had dried up over a decade. In Banda district, 35% of the 33,000 hand-pumps have gone dry.

A folk song in Bundelkhand’s Patha area captures this despair well: Gagari na phoote chahe khasam mar jaye (The pitcher of water shouldn’t break even if the husband dies).

Similarly, in Uttarakhand, according a report written by an NGO in June 2016, 12,000 of the 60,000 sources of water have dried up. A former chief secretary of the state says lack of drinking water is the biggest reason behind the mass migration from the state.

Now let us shift the focus to Manipur, another state located in the lap of the Himalayas. It receives annual rainfall of 1,500 mm but no infrastructure has been created for its conservation or distribution. Most people here depend on the water mafia. As a result, they have to shell out Rs200 for a thousand litres of water. Punjab is a little better off on this count. Thanks to the Satluj-Yamuna canal, there was no needless debate over water during the election campaign. None of the political parties addressed the issue with seriousness in the other four states.

You can witness this poignant situation everywhere, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Is it a sign of the downfall of our civilisation? At one time, the Sumerian and Indus Valley civilizations were dominant. They no longer exist. In these high-tech days, shouldn’t the governing classes be paying attention to this? As soon as he assumed power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about interlinking of rivers but no effective steps have been taken in that direction.

These elections were an opportunity for every party to present their agenda on water, which is so essential to everybody’s life. Instead, slogans that threw mud in the already muddy waters of our politics were flung around. An old Indian adage goes: pani pila-pila kar mara (killing you with water). Our leaders are killing us by denying us water.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan.

His Twitter handle is @shekharkahin.

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