Many years ago, work had to be stopped one afternoon, at one of the spanking new facilities of the IT (information technology) firm that I was associated with. There was no water in the campus, and 3,000 people certainly could not work without water. There was no civil water supply to that area, so the water was sourced from the campus borewells and by buying from water suppliers. During summer, borewells would run dry, so most of the water was bought. The vendors had stopped supplying water since that morning.

Our desperate investigation revealed that there was blockade by the local community near the sources of water. The conflict was on the most fundamental of issues—the water suppliers were sucking the sources dry and everything was at stake for the community. While they did reach a commercial settlement, it was fragile, given that those water sources were absolutely integral to the life and livelihood of that community.

Arising from a deep commitment to environmental sustainability, we were using water responsibly. For example, we reused a lot of our water discharge, were doing maximal rainwater harvesting, our per capita water consumption was reducing every year. But that incident told us how inadequate our perspective was. It triggered our efforts to trace all the water that we used right to its source, and to try and understand the issues along the entire source-to-use path. What we discovered left us much better informed and therefore much better prepared to make sure that there is no disruption of operations because of water. At the same time, it has left us feeling quite helpless. This is a multi-billion dollar, globally successful corporation, which felt quite helpless. Let me narrate a specific case to explain this.

A source-to-use mapping of water for the facility on Sarjapur Road in Bengaluru brought the following things to light. Seventy percent was sourced from suppliers who purchased the water mostly from farmers in about a 30-km radius. The borewells in their farms had turned into an additional source of income. Not just us, but most of this part of the city was buying water from those sources. No surprise that the water table in those areas was dropping rapidly, reducing the water availability for the local community. This led to tensions within the community, which continues unabated even today.

It was clear that we were entangled in a web of problems of water, like everyone else near and in the city. Gradually, a community group of business organizations, residents associations, non-government organizations and academic institutions was formed, to attempt to deal with the complex set of issues involved. One of the first attempts was to map and monitor the aquifers of Bengaluru. This was upon learning that while the city was 60% dependent on ground water drawn from the aquifers, no one had a clue about what these underground reservoirs of water were like, i.e. location, amount of water, rate of depletion and recharge.

This project will take years to complete. In the meanwhile, the exploding metropolis continues to suck away at its ground water, completely dependent on it, and yet without the foggiest notion of how long it can last. This is worse than wanton mismanagement of the cities’ most important common property resource. The helplessness that I talked about arises from the collective inability of the interested group to change anything at the fundamentals of these issues. And there are other burning issues on water, such as vanishing lakes and the inequity in access to water.

The tragic flooding in Chennai last week reminded me of this whole experience of ours. If you look at the satellite pictures of Chennai from the late 1990s to today, you can see the reason for the floods. The earlier pictures will show a continuous arc of ponds, lakes and wetlands, across Chennai. These have completely vanished by now, vanquished by construction. The water from the heavy rain has merely found its natural place, which we are calling flooding. The Chennai floods and the experience that I have narrated merely emphasize the fundamental importance of common property resources and public goods. As does the air quality issue in Delhi.

These crises in Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and other cities are not due to “too much development", but just the opposite. Development happens only when a society successfully organizes people and resources to achieve the common good in a sustainable manner. The failure to protect our land, water, forests, air and public spaces from overuse and destruction is a brewing crisis that is likely to result in even greater calamities in the future. A key part of the problem is our inability as a society to act sensibly and collectively. This failure infects our attempts at educating our children, providing healthcare to the needy and protecting the environment.

In the rush to get rich quick at any cost, we jeopardize ourselves and future generations. The independence movement was marked by great sacrifice and the ability to act collectively towards a common purpose. We need something similar all over again.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

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