Last week, Karnataka’s deputy chief minister G. Parameshwara created quite a buzz with his radical plan to tackle growing water shortage in India’s technology capital. Parameshwara, who is also the state’s minister in charge of Bengaluru, said the government was considering a ban on all apartment construction in the city for five years. The justification was that houses with inadequate access to water and other amenities should not be built at all. While the context—an alarming water crisis—may be new, the instinct that this idea betrays is an old one. For far too long, Indian authorities have responded to gaps between supply and demand by trying to contain the latter through clamps and quotas. Often, municipal governments that are ill-equipped to deliver basic services, such as water and sewerage lines of usable quality, have resorted to blaming rapid urbanization for all their shortcomings. Efforts to keep out “migrants" and limits on how high a building can rise are some of the results of such an attitude. It’s a pity that such thinking persists.
On current trends, our big cities will continue to attract job seekers by the drove, and the past offers enough evidence to show that restrictions on their expansion are worse than futile, for all they do is restrict the country’s economic growth potential. An arbitrary cap on the housing stock in a city like Bengaluru, which is among India’s fastest-growing metropolitan centres, could badly distort the market for homes. Artificially high rents and mushrooming illegal structures would be the most likely outcomes, with little relief from water scarcity for the city’s residents. Instead of relying on quick-fix proposals based on faulty logic, the city and state authorities should focus on addressing what underlies the actual problem: Reservoir depletion in general and a falling water table in particular. As in Chennai, which is suffering even worse deprivation, the real worry in Bengaluru is not the number of residential units coming up, but the over-use of private borewells to suck out precious groundwater in the absence of reliable municipal water supply. South Bengaluru, especially, is fast turning into a desert underneath, since the pace of extraction far exceeds the rate of replenishment. If there is a case for government regulation, it is for curbs on the amount of groundwater a household can extract. Ideally, this water should be metered and priced. After all, it’s a public good held under the trusteeship of the government as a common resource.
Unfortunately, Indian cities have failed so miserably in mapping their groundwater reserves that a good policy framework is hard to adopt. Without a clue on how much water lies down there, neither can proper rules be framed nor prices be set. The National Project on Aquifer Management has begun taking tentative steps towards mapping large aquifers, but micro-level data of the kind that exists in some parts of Europe would be essential to the exercise. Only once that’s done could other higher-order ideas like water-quota trading be considered. Elementary reforms are needed first on who gets to use what water. Even in our big cities, access to water is governed by inequities that point to an even more profound failure. The poor pay far more for water than the rich. Some scrounge to buy a bucketful, while others draw as much as they like from the ground. This absurdity must end.