Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India’s water crisis is set to worsen

Short-sighted political tactics and agricultural inefficiencies are enabling it

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a touchstone of dystopian literature, men will visit violence upon each other for the sake of water to drink. The future, unfortunately, is now in Latur in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region where the collector has invoked Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code relating to unlawful assembly. His order prohibits more than five people from gathering near 20 water storage tanks until 31 May in order to prevent possible violence over water scarcity in the drought-hit area. This has been some time coming. Last year, the city’s residents were supplied municipal water once in 15 days; this was later lowered to once a month.

In Punjab, meanwhile, the state Assembly has defied the Supreme Court to resolve that the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) will not be built. With the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Land (Return of Property Rights) Bill, 2016, it has decided to deny Haryana its allotted share of the waters of the Ravi and Beas rivers, reneging on a 1976 deal. The consequence: half of the state receiving canal water for eight days after every 32 days, with the state’s southern regions particularly hard-hit.

Maharashtra’s sugar belt—which includes Marathwada—declared record production of the crop in 2014-15, a year in which it also faced a second drought after 2012-13. The problem: sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop, consuming over 70% of irrigated water, although it occupies just about 4% of farmed land in the state. That discrepancy hasn’t stopped successive state governments from bailing out the sugar industry time and again with subsidies and loan waivers, short-circuiting market dynamics and incentivizing sugarcane production. This must be seen in the context of the sugar lobby’s political influence and the involvement of a number of state politicians in the industry.

The SYL presents a different kind of opportunism. The issue, framed in populist terms, has been used as a political football since the days of the Khalistan movement. That legacy has shaped the terms of the debate, particularly in light of Punjab’s crop patterns; water-intensive rice crops cover over 60% of the state’s area under cultivation. That makes it easy to portray any inclination to honour the SYL agreement as being anti-farmer, the kiss of death in Punjab’s politics.

Marathwada and the SYL are a microcosm of the water disputes that speckle the Indian map. And they are going to grow more intractable. Over the past 50 years, per capita availability of fresh water in India has decli-ned from 3,000 cubic metres to a little over a thousand cubic metres; the global average is 6,000 cubic metres. Underlying this, both cause and effect, is escalating groundwater scarcity.

Of the country’s two sources of fresh water—surface water and groundwater—the latter accounts for some 55%. It also accounts for about 60% of irrigation needs, which take up 80% of India’s total water usage. That skewed pattern is in direct and growing conflict with growing urbanization levels, given that urban water demand per capita daily is thrice as high as rural demand. With India’s urban population expected to hit 50% of the total population by 2050, according to UN figures, that is an untenable situation.

As Marathwada and SYL show, the problem ties into a political ecosystem that is entangled in calculations of patronage and electoral viability. Massive agricultural subsidies, a mainstay of every administration, have incentivized indiscriminate water usage and inefficient cultivation patterns—a problem the Economic Survey 2015-16, presented last month, recognized when it said that the system “encourages using more inputs such as fertiliser, water and power, to the detriment of soil quality, health and the environment". The result, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration: India’s water tables are dropping at the rate of 0.3 metre a year. That sets up a vicious cycle, increasing the importance and political value of surface water, making those disputes more difficult in turn, thus boosting dependence on—and depletion of—groundwater. And unpredictable monsoon adds to the mix; according to the Central Water Commission’s latest numbers, water levels in India’s most important reservoirs now stand at a mere 29% of total capacity.

South Asia is a severely water insecure region. Climate change, according to multiple studies, will hit Asia’s coastal regions among the hardest; large parts of India are already highly stressed. Today happens to be World Water Day. It’s an apt time to consider the policies that are hastening the process.

Can reforming agricultural subsidies help deal with India’s water crisis? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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