Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

India must take action before it runs dry

Failure to manage agricultural and personal water use has led India to the brink of a crisis

Rudyard Kipling once described Shimla as a “centre of power and pleasure". The power faded with the Raj. Now, pleasure is at a premium. Shimla is struggling with a water crisis that is an echo of Cape Town’s distress earlier this year. It has run out of municipal drinking water supply during peak tourist season. Citizens are being forced to queue up to collect water from tankers. Schools have been shut down for 10 days. This crisis is a reflection of a wider problem confronting India.

India has adequate freshwater. The problem is inefficient and wasteful use. This has two components. The first is agriculture. According to the Central Water Commission, agriculture consumed about 85.3% of total freshwater in 2000. This is likely to decrease only by a meagre 2% by 2025. Water usage for major crops in India—paddy and maize, for instance—is two to four times that in other large farming nations thanks to wasteful flood irrigation, mostly in northern India. This can be traced to the subsidy regime. The Economic Survey, 2015-16 noted that the present subsidy structure “encourages using more inputs such as fertiliser, water and power, to the detriment of soil quality, health and the environment". Most states provide electricity either for free or at a flat rate. This inevitably leads to wasteful water extraction.

Both the Economic Survey and a 2015 International Monetary Fund (IMF) study have noted that these subsidies disproportionately benefit rich and large farmers. A number of economists have recommended tapering off electricity and water subsidies. The Aadhaar and financial inclusion drives have laid the foundations for the Centre and states to do just that via targeted direct benefit transfers.

Concurrently, irrigation infrastructure must be upgraded and research and development efforts focused on improving agricultural productivity with lower water usage. There have been some promising developments here. Punjab Agriculture University, for example, has recently come up with a new water-saving variety of rice that matures one to five weeks earlier than other varieties without compromising on the yield. The government is also collaborating with Israel—an established leader in water-management techniques—to promote drip irrigation; Asia’s largest such project took off in Karnataka earlier this year.

The second component is the use of water for personal consumption. About 80% of drinking water needs are sustained by groundwater. Look no further than today’s centre of power to see the problems here. In 2001, India’s groundwater authority banned private water extraction in Delhi due to the looming fear of groundwater depletion. However, the black market persists. Here’s how dire the situation is: According to scientists at the National Geophysical Research Institute, Delhi could dry up in a few years.

It’s worth noting here that water is a state subject and states have kept water-pricing rates stagnant for about three decades now. Pair this with the subsidy burden—the IMF study reckoned that it “amounted to 0.6% of global gross domestic product in 2012"—and authorities are left with little financial means to invest in the water- management practices that would provide sustainable, long-term solutions. These range from the construction of reservoirs to building water treatment and recycling infrastructure.

Putting in place viable water-pricing policies and ending subsidies will be tricky given the political optics. But these are essential changes. Others are needed as well. India has an antiquated legal framework to regulate groundwater. Since it is considered a part of land and gives landowners unrestricted entitlement to it, the government is left with little leeway to act. Legislative change is important.

Policies that nudge public behaviour can also help. The World Bank’s World Development Report 2015: Mind, Behavior And Society ( studied how creative interventions by city officials, such as publishing daily data on Bogota’s water consumption, identifying households that were not cooperating and rewarding those who were in leading newspapers, effectively reduced water consumption. In Hebei, China, authorities started publishing data on temperature, rainfall, soil moisture content and groundwater level. This induced farmers to rely on such irrigation forecasts instead of their own experience in making effective water use decisions. Eateries in Maharashtra, a state struggling with critical water scarcity, have started serving only half a glass of water and replenish it only on request.

Authorities in Cape Town took a gamble last year and announced “Day Zero"—the day when taps would be turned off and people would have to adopt communal water collection. This doomsday notion, despite affecting tourism and creating panic, pushed people to act. Water use per person per day has been reduced to half and “Day Zero" has been averted—for now, at least. Governments at various levels in India must act before more Shimlas make such drastic steps necessary here.

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