The Prime Minister’s latest expression of anguish is about the state of water conservation in general and groundwater in particular. He was reiterating the concerns from his first Independence Day address in 2004, where he had said that “water is a national resource and we have to take an integrated view of our country’s water resources”. It would perhaps be churlish, but not entirely out of place, to ask why progress since then has been so limited.
First, our laws confer rights of groundwater utilization to the person who owns the land above, oblivious to the geological nature of aquifers, though some states are trying to address this problem. Surface water, on the other hand, is controlled by the state government. The Prime Minister wants a “critical and vital role” for local bodies and civil society organizations and “each and every panchayat and municipality to come forward with a water conservation strategy”. But if a municipality wants to protect its water sources from pollution, it may and often does run afoul of the state government.
Second, in our search for solutions, the focus seems to be on an increasing supply. While rainwater harvesting has much to recommend it, it is disturbing that a city such as Chennai has been using desalination plants to meet its water needs. Chennai is as much a model of what should be done as it is a model of what should not be done in harnessing water basins.
Third, water-intensive cultivation is encouraged, not just by electricity subsidies, but also broader agricultural subsidies that contribute to distorting cultivation patterns in crops such as rice and sugar cane. Groundwater irrigation is also extremely inequitable. Rich farmers use expensive deep tube wells to deplete aquifers, leaving poorer neighbouring farmers with barren land. Subsidies are also present in our urban water prices, which does little to reducedemand.
Finally, while irrigation does use nearly 90% of the water in India, our cities are fast progressing to abusing 90% of our water. Groundwater overused by excessive irrigation pumping can perhaps recover with recharging and restraining future use, but industries in Haryana, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and even Ghaziabad —in the PM’s backyard— which pump effluents into the ground destroy entire aquifers with contaminants such as mercury and arsenic, often beyond repair. Restricting abuse may be even more important than managing use. Waste water monitoring and treatment must be on top of our agenda.
Perhaps, it is naïve to expect more. Our record of managing natural resources is appalling. In a country with the world’s fourth largest coal reserves, imports are a severe indictment of the sector. One expected progress in reform when the PM decided to retain the portfolio—sadly, it has been limited to tinkering with captive coal blocks. It is also ironic that the PM should bemoan the irrational pricing of power when our petroleum pricing remains as obtuse as ever, without the slightest hint of the regulatory rationality that has begun to emerge in electricity. In gas pricing, we have got a foretaste of the problems that we can expect.
But in water, by completely abandoning our responsibility to put it back in the same condition in which we took it, we have managed to convert a renewable resource into an exhaustible one.
In principle, water is used, not consumed. But by blithely pumping our household and industrial waste into our rivers and, more dangerously, even into our groundwater aquifers, we may have made it impossible for nature to repair the damage.
The only hope is that nature may still be strong enough to overcome our depredations if we stop our insane behaviour, abetted by unreasonable government policies, soon.
The bad news is that those who still hope are beginning to appear more naïve than ever and the PM has done little to rekindle their hope.
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