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Water has become India’s scarcest resource, which isn’t just hurting its economy, but its people too. With 18% of the world’s population and 4% of its water resources, India is clearly a water-stressed nation.

Constitutionally, water is a state subject. But after two consecutive deficient monsoons, the need for a natural framework policy on water is an idea whose time has come. A central policy is needed to bring coherence and force to largely uncoordinated and ad hoc water policies. Several states have enacted laws on water and related issues. Yet, states tend to have varied legal positions and perceptions—for instance, on riparian water use and ownership.

According to a study conducted by EA Water, a leading consulting firm in the water sector, India’s demand for water is expected to exceed all current sources of supply and the country is set to become a water-scarce country by 2025. With increasing household income and increasing contributions from the service and industrial sectors, water demand in the domestic and industrial sectors is increasing substantially.

It is also noted that nearly 70% of the country’s irrigation and 80% of domestic water use comes from groundwater, which is rapidly getting depleted. It also says the water sector is expected to see investment of $13 billion from overseas players in the next few years. Companies from Canada, Israel, Germany, Italy, the US, China and Belgium see big investment opportunities in the Indian water sector.

Maharashtra is emerging as a hub for the water sector. Over 12 international companies have already set up design and engineering centres in Mumbai and Pune. At present, there are more than 1,200 companies dealing in water and waste-water treatment in the state, mainly catering to the small and medium sector. Therefore, one is inclined to say that the country provides huge opportunities across the spectrum in infrastructure development for water supply and waste-water management. With the government’s planned investments in the water sector through the Ganga River Cleaning Project, the Smart Cities initiatives and the Swachh Bharat campaign, the industry hopes to create over 1 million jobs.

Keeping this in mind, the union government is working on legislation to restrict the unregulated use of freshwater across the country. Water resources minister Uma Bharti has come out openly to say that “In future, people would need to rely more on treated water, and use fresh water only for limited purposes". She has elaborated by saying that, “Fresh water, whether it is surface water, groundwater or reserved rain water, cannot be used for every purpose. We have to bring clarity on the uses it can be put to and the purpose it cannot be used to. Otherwise, we are staring at a huge water problem in the country."

As the water resources ministry is working on legislation to regulate the use of fresh water, the government intends to persuade farmers to buy treated water for irrigation. In case of the Ganga, it is decided that even treated water must not be allowed to flow into the river. So where will this treated water go? Perhaps the government intends to create a market for treated water. The most gullible are the farmers who would be forced to buy it for irrigation or farming. But some treated water might not be suitable for irrigation, like effluents from certain industries. Attempts should be made by those industries to recycle their water. They cannot release it. Oil refineries along the river Ganga and Yamuna, like the ones at Mathura, should be asked to recycle their water. Should the government force farmers to buy water and further their penury and make agriculture unremunerative?

The major problem facing the country today which needs immediate remedy is the lack of clarity in the first use of water. None of the states have laws or executive notifications specifying the basis for water allocation among different segments of river basins in their jurisdiction. There is a need for natural consensus on water, complete with attendant principles that can apply across states and regime.

The first use should be for agriculture, then drinking and lastly for industrial use. Those who talk of inter-linking of rivers in India should not get carried away by a slogan that it will boost per capita water availability for 220 million thirsty Indians and eventually even out the surge between floods and droughts, but should be aware about the risks at hand, which include the possibility of displacement of nearly 1.5 million people due to submergence of 2,766,000 hectares, not to speak of escalating cost projections which have jumped to something like Rs11 trillion. Isn’t it a utopian idea with inherent flaws? So, there is an urgent need to evolve a water conservation policy to address the acute scarcity of water/water emergency in the country.

It is important that all levels of government understand the gravity of the situation. Things can change, but that requires an integrated approach. Technology, tighter regulation and economic incentives need to be combined to mitigate the water problem so that we can obviate any shortage. As the monsoon recedes in this month of September, we should contemplate conserving water, recycling water and recharging water as it is becoming a scarce commodity.

Bhartruhari Mahtab, is member of Parliament from Cuttack for the Biju Janata Dal and a writer.

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