On 17 June, Amitabh Kant, chief executive officer (CEO) of India’s policy think tank, NITI Aayog, took to the social media platform Twitter to join the ongoing debate over water scarcity. “Water is the biggest challenge India faces. India has 16% of d world’s popln but only 4% of the world’s water resources. Ground water accounts for 63% of our irrigation needs. We need to do sustainable ground water usage, recharge aquifers, restore water bodies and reuse waste water. (sic)"

Kant wasn’t saying anything new; just plain common sense, unfortunately also something that has eluded public policy so far. Understandable because implementing these common sense solutions requires consummate political will as they will challenge popular practices and notions.

But Kant’s remarks stoke fresh hope given that they came just weeks after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) took guard for a second term and set up a ministry of water or the Jal Shakti Mantralaya—merging the erstwhile ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation with the former ministry of drinking water and sanitation.

The problem so far has been that the public discourse on the water challenge has had a seasonality to it; every summer, especially in the period till the annual monsoon arrives, there is an outcry. Politicians respond by offering quick-fix solutions and populist promises, the media follows the rhetoric and in the process, the public gets short-changed. The need for a sustainable solution to the water challenge remains in the realm of academics and water activists (many of whom should be tapped to shape the public policy on water); as a result, once the crisis abates, all is forgotten. By kicking the can down the road, the cumulative build-up of the crisis is being ignored to the point of no return.

Indeed, latest reports suggest that the clock is rapidly running out. The Central Water Commission projects that the demand-supply mismatch will occur by 2050; however, the World Resource Institute, a Washington-based group that researches ways to protect the environment, claims that already more than half of India is facing extreme water stress. The brunt of this is being borne by the agriculture sector which accounts for more than three-quarters of the water consumption in India. So, any long-term solution to resolve India’s water crisis has to begin with the agriculture sector.

Clearly, there are no easy fixes. And the solutions—like replacing national staples wheat and rice, both of which are water guzzlers, with millets—on hand can potentially alter the fundamental political economy in the country, especially in states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. While the political risks of a backlash are there, it is also a fact that this is something that is happening on the ground and just needs to be scaled up.

Karnataka, which is among the areas in the country facing an acute water scarcity, is undertaking this shift. Krishna Byre Gowda, in his previous stint as minister for agriculture in the Karnataka government had pursued the #LetsMillet campaign; millets, rich in fibre and therefore very diet-friendly can grow in dry conditions—in other words, unlike rice, they do not guzzle water.

A similar common sense solution is available for tackling the urban water crisis. Rain water harvesting is what gets the most eyeballs, and what escapes public scrutiny is the business of boosting groundwater resources through systematic management of storm water drains.

At the moment, it is like an afterthought with bulk of the budgets often earmarked for setting up new drinking water connections, something politicians love to showcase to the electorate; this is not to say that new drinking water connections should not be provided, but they can’t come at the expense of the budget on storm water drain desilting. At the moment, garbage, solid waste and road debris enter the drain, resulting in silting. As a result, not only does the rainwater not reach the aquifers but stagnant water provides the perfect ecosystem to breed mosquitoes. A double whammy.

In the final analysis, it is clear that time has run out for India on any soft solutions to fix the water crisis before it assumes pandemic proportions.

The question is whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is normally risk-friendly will expend his hard-earned social capital to effect a bold correction in the public response to the water challenge. Setting up the Jal Shakti Mantralaya was the first step.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

Close