Troubled waters

Teaser Image Caption
Picture showing river Betwa near Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by. Amit Solanki

This February at an election hustings in the north Indian town of Jhansi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to end the chronic drought plaguing Bundelkhand, a region about the size of Sri Lanka and spread across the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Just as he had brought the waters of the Narmada river to the parched fields of Saurashtra in Gujarat, he claimed his government would make Bundelkhand wet and green again by interlinking, by way of two dams and about 230 km long network of canals, two of its premier river basins, the anaemic Betwa in the west and the relatively voluptuous Ken in the east.

We are, of course, in the middle of the Great Indian Election Circus. And as the former premier of the erstwhile Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev once said: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.” The bigger the stakes in the elections, the grander the bridge. So, even as the Prime Minister promises greener pastures in Bundelkhand, he conveniently forgets to mention that the Rs. 35,000 crore project is yet to take off as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are still wrangling over who would get how much water from the project.

Besides, even if the two states eventually manage to bury their differences, the project will take not fewer than 10 years to finish, by which time who knows who the roulette of elections might bless with the reigns of power. But political parties continue to promise taller and taller bridges regardless. And so the carousel goes on, elections after elections.

Small is beautiful

Meanwhile, tucked away in the shadows of media glare, some grassroots activists are trying to demonstrate that small is beautiful, that an enduring remedy to Bundelkhand’s water crisis lies not in bending rivers to our arrogant will but in building small bridges that connect, as they have in the past, our needs to nature in ways that are non-violent, equitable, and sustainable. The Apna Talab Abhiyan (your own pond campaign), for instance, has over the last decade persuaded farmers to dig thousands of ponds and check dams, as well as embank their fields,in order to trap whatever rain that falls on their benighted land. Besides, Prem Singh, a farmer and one of the champions of this approach, is urging his fellow farmers to adopt sustainable farming practices in tune with the regions’s ecology and (changing) climate.

These experiments are arguably making a difference, at least as a proof against recurring droughts. But a much bigger question is whether the revival of old farming traditions can reverse Bundelkhand’s drying fortunes. So far, it seems it might be a case of too little, too late. The bald truth is that Bundelkhand’s ecology and landscape have undergone a major transformation during colonisation and since independence—deforestation, damming of its rivers along with a wide web of irrigation canals, flattening of undulating terrain and erasure of pastures, and modern chemical-intensive farming techniques. One could say that it looks dessicated today thanks in large part to the myopic policies of modern planners. It is also a telling indictment of the apathy of the Indian state and its scientific establishment that the region is in such a sorry state today.

Bundelkhand is not the only place caught between a rock and a hard place. Indeed, there is hardly any region in the subcontinent whose earth has not been pulled apart by the bulldozers of colonisation and nation-building. No doubt such large-scale infrastructure development projects such as large dams, canal irrigation networks, highways, and mining did contribute to economic progress, but they have also uprooted and pauperised millions, not to mention refashioning nature in ways the full extent and ecological cost of which we are only beginning to grasp. To put it a little flamboyantly, we are in the midst of an environmental blowback.

On top of that, a changing climate has made matters worse. Thanks to an increasingly erratic monsoon, it has become wickedly difficult to predict which region will receive how much rainfall. For instance, in the north-eastern town of Cherrapunji, which was once famous as the wettest place on earth, the average annual rainfall has gone down by almost one-third over the last four decades, while, in contrast, the desert region of Barmer in Rajasthan was flooded last year. These are just two extreme examples of how wayward the monsoon’s become across the country.

As Singh recently told Paul Salopek, an American journalist who is currently travelling in India as part of his about 34000-km walk across the world: “Farmers tell me that more than anything I say, it’s the climate that has made them converts…It’s a time for personal choices. Not big river projects.”

Singh is echoing the thoughts of a few environmentalists who believe that, thanks to recurring wayward monsoons as a consequenceof climate change, the Ken is not the same river anymore--its “surplus” waters that are supposed to revive Bundelkhand’s water economy is at best a historical fact; to pass it off as a fact of the day amounts to not just disingenousness but also hubris.

Technocrat’s fantasy

Well, that’s precisely the hallmark of a technocratic imagination. Like the mythical Greek highway-robber Procrustes, who hacked his victim’s limbs if they did not fit a bed, it disregards anything that doesn’t fit or messes up the project plan. No one should be taken aback when the project engineers dismiss the objection that the “surplus” water in the Ken is a fiction, or that canals are ill-suited to Bundelkhand’s wavy terrain, or that the proposed dams will submerge precious forests of the Panna Tiger Reserve and thereby endanger the surivival of its big cats, or that the same objective could be achieved for much less through small and local innovations such as digging ponds, planting trees, and building check dams.

In the eyes of a politician, small may be beautiful but he can’t bet on its political mileage. For, to be sure, people have been experimenting with alternative models of development based on traditional water-harvesting systems since the 1980s. Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra and Sukhomajri in Haryana are two outstanding examplars that inspired farmers to revive, with a little help from science, traditional wisdom of water management in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, over the years, both the experiments have come apart for various reasons, not least for lack of political patronage.

That, however, hasn’t deterred some communities living in water-scarce regions like Marathwada from pursuing innovations that are often a prudent mix of traditional wisdom and modern science. The village of Kumbharwadi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district made itself drought-proof by budgeting for each drop of water in the village. In 2016, when most of the state was in the grip of drought, this village had enough water for its people, animals, and trees, thanks to a scientific understanding of its water resources, its various requirements in different seasons, and water conservation techniques like check dams, ponds, and crops and cropping patterns that are in sync with local ecology and the vagaries of monsoon rains.

If only these small and successful innovations had full backing of the powerful government apparatus. But there is a good reason why such good practices remain far and few between. Given the scale, complexity and gravity of India’s water quandary, a massive, one-size-fits-all solution, such as large dams or interlinking rivers, is far more attractive for politicians, indeed even for ordinary folks (barring of course those who are forcibly displaced to pave the way for it), not only because it appears grand and nifty, not to mention convenient (contrast piped water or canals with ponds and check dams), but also because it cashes in on a much larger vote-bank than say a village-level solution, such as a watershed, might. The promise, and hence the illusion, of a better life is also more spectacular- jobs, schools, hospitals, electricity, water, indeed the whole shebang. From the standpoint of statecraft, large projects appear to have greater traction because they function as sinews of a muscular military-industrial complex called the nation-state. Last but not the least, they also serve as efficient grease for the politician-bureaucrat-contractor-expert nexus.

It is no surprise that almost every political party has flirted with the idea of interlinking rivers as a panacea for India’s flood and drought miseries ever since the British irrigation engineer Arthur Cotton proposed it first in the 19th century. But it was infused into political and public discourse only after the first National Democratic Alliance government officially endorsed it. The Congress party did give it a serious thought initially but gave it up eventually following stiff resistance from civil society—the former environment minister Jairam Ramesh of the Congress party described it as a “human and environmental disaster”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, championed it first in their 2014 manifesto, and now in the 2019 one as well. Even though the BJP, like its arch-rival, endorses what most water savants have been saying for along time now, namely, creating, preserving and restoring water bodies, like ponds and lakes, as well as recharging of alarmingly depleted aquifers, interlinking of rivers remains its cardinal solution to India’s water problems. Most regional political parties in southern states like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, which are at the mercy of an increasingly capricious monsoon, have also put their weight behind the project.

The water crisis is grave enough for many politicians, professionals, even large sections of the public, to view and endorse river interlinking as a panacea to be achieved at all costs, economic, social or environmental, But how serious is the crisis?

Neck-deep in water

Given the diversity of climate and geography in India, some regions, such as Vidarbha and Marathwada in Maharashtra or Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh or Bundelkhand, are evidently more susceptible to vagaries of weather, beholden exclusively as they are to rain-fed rivers for their water needs, unlike, say, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, which are fed by perennial rivers like the Ganges and Kosi. That said, even in places blessed with relatively bountiful rains and almost 100 per cent irrigation, such as Punjab and Haryana, rising demand for water coupled with its inefficient use has resulted in excessive exploitation of groundwater.

Seen through the eyes of a worm, there are stories galore from across India about how people, especially poor farmers, Dalits and tribals, are slipping into a life of want and indignity because of lack of water, both for drinking and irrigation. Accounts from different parts of the country this year suggest pervasive drought-like conditions across rural India. For example, a series of reports in the online journal paints a very bleak picture of water scarcity in several regions of Maharashtra, which has already declared drought in 180 of its 350 districts. The situation in Marathwada, one of the most drought-ridden regions in the country, is exceptionally dismal. Picture this: in early February, as many as 1,539 tankers were pressed into service to provide water to over 2,500,000 people every day. According to, women of a nomadic tribe called the Banjaras, who live in shanties outside the city or village limits, are forced to trudge 8 km to fetch drinking water from the nearest available tanker.

But it is the small and marginal farmer who is bearing the brunt of this drought, the third successive one in Marathwada. Caught in the vicious cycle of debt, drought, crop failure, many farmers have taken their own lives. In a reply to an Right To Information (RTI) application, the state government has disclosed that 11,598 farmers have committed suicide between 2015 and 2018.

In 2016, Marathwada was splashed all over national media when the state government had to send water by train to a district called Latur. During the 2014 general elections, BJP had promised a tanker-free state but clearly it has turned out to be yet another jumla (an empty phrase). Yet, in a speech to BJP cadres in Maharashtra, Union Minister for Water Resources, Nitin Gadkari, said he feels happy that “the irrigation potential of Maharashtra has increased from 18-20 percent to 48-50 percent due to the efforts of the Fadnavis government.” This is yet another instance of the frustrating gap between the rhetoric of election promises and ground reality.

The situation in Madhya Pradesh is equally dire. As many as 4,000 villages spread over 36 districts are facing drought following scanty rains for the third successive year. According to a survey carried out by the Department of Panchayat and Rural Development, about 40 rivers that sustain these villages have dried up. Besides, the micro-watershed network created to recharge water bodies like wells is in a shambles.

While the situation in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra is particularly grave, there are regions in almost every state that are either in the grip of a drought or facing an imminent one. According to a series of reports published in the online news journal, drought in about 5,000 viilages of Rajasthan is forcing people to   migrate. In the state of Karnataka, farmers are staring down the barrel with 156 of the total 176 taluks braving a severe water shortage due to poor rains last year. Similar tales of people suffering water distress are being reported from the states of Gujarat, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and even Kerala.

Ironically, none of the governments can do much to ease the suffering of the people as the model code of conduct for the general elections bars them from announcing any new initiatives, although some of them have reportedly requested the Election Commission for an exemption.

The situation in cities in no less distressing. Most big cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Lucknow are reporting water shortages even though it’s still early summer. Experts warn that diminishing water sources---groundwater, river basins, dam reservoirs, lakes and ponds—on which most cities depend for their water requirement, not to mention pollution of various water bodies and gross inefficient usage, may soon trigger a major water crisis in urban India.

The big picture

While the worm’s eye view helps us empathise with the suffering of fellow citizens, it is the bird’s eye view that helps us grasp the gravity and complexity of the situation. The spectre of a water crisis has been with us for a long time now, surfacing with greater intensity during poor monsoon years. However, a number of studies in the last two years point to a gradual worsening of the crisis, and that we might be heading into probably the most alarming water emergency in the nation’s history.

This may not be all that surprising in a predominantly agrarian economy with 17 per cent of the world’s population but only 4 per cent of the world's fresh water resources. If anything, this seeming deficit should have warranted a more judicious and democratic policy for its wise consumption. On the contrary, as many experts have asserted, the top-down, one-size-fits-all policy has pushed us to the brink of a major water calamity. No surprise then that per capita water availability in the country has already fallen to 1,400 cubic metres per annum, from 5,177 cubic meters in 1951, and is projected to fall further, to 1,140 cubic metres by 2050.

Asit Biswas, a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, had warned of the impending crisis about four years ago. To quote him from an article he wrote in 2015 for the online news journal,

India is now facing a water situation that is significantly worse than any that previous generations have had to face. All Indian water bodies within and near population centres are now grossly polluted with organic and hazardous pollutants. Interstate disputes over river waters are becoming increasingly intense and widespread. Not a single Indian city can provide clean water that can be consumed from the tap on a 24×7 basis.

Last year, Niti Aayog, a government think-tank replacing Planning Commission, came out with a report that said that 600 million Indians are currently under “high to extreme water stress”, and that “lack of safe drinking water kills about 200,000 people every year”.

The government reiterated its concern about the worsening water situation early this year when it issued a note that warned that we are most likely heading into a severe water crisis due to wanton exploitation of our rivers and groundwater sources. It said that at least 253 blocks are in the critical stage, while about 680 can be dubbed as semi-critical.

As if on cue, a recent IIT Gandhinagar report declared that at present almost half the country is facing drought, with at least 16 per cent in the “exceptional” or “extreme” class.

Another report, Hidden Risk and Untapped Opportunities: Water and the Indian Banking Sector, issued by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) last January warned that if India doesn’t do something urgently about its water crisis, it may further worsen the burgeoning Non Performance Assets (NPA) crisis facing Indian banks, as many loans are linked to risks associated with water resources. The report states that “the extent, magnitude and nature of the water risks faced do vary by the type and distribution of the industry. Water risks, for instance, can materialise from the discharge of untreated effluents or from regular conflict with communities for rights and access to water.”

For Biswas, over-extraction of groundwater is the elephant in the room. By a reliable reckoning, India uses about 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater per year, which is an astonishing 25 per cent of the world total. It gets even more startling. Groundwater accounts for more than 60 per cent of irrigation and 85 per cent of domestic water use in India, whose groundwater budget now exceeds more than that of China and the United States combined! As Biswas writes in the same article,

It is no coincidence that the highest number of protests by farmers and suicides have occurred in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, where groundwater blocks are over-stressed due to decades of over-extraction and poor management.


And yet it is flabbergasting that water and its discontents have rarely, if ever, found a prominent place in the agenda or manifestos of political parties. As far as one can remember, successive governments have given mere lip service to what is probably the most vital element in the life of a civilisation or nation. Looking back, it appears that the Indian nation-state has muddled along, ostrich-like, from one water crisis to another without really looking for enduring, equitable, and sustainable solutions.

Indeed, even now, when Cassandras are crying hoarse from the rooftops, all the major political parties seem unfathomably deaf to the coming storm. Jobs and national security are unquestionably important issues, but so is water.

It is not a little perplexing considering India was one of few countries to come up with a National Water Policy (NWP) way back in 1987. Needless to say, designing a workable and enduring water governance regime for a large and complex nation like India is a Herculean task. Over the years, the state has created a complex Lego-like bureaucratic machine to manage the country’s water resources.

To give you a broad sense of India’s water governance structure,the Indian Constitution puts water under both the Union and State jurisdiction. The state is directly responsible for the provision of drinking water and irrigation, as well as making rules and regulations for managing the all the water resources, surface as well as ground, within its territory. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments further devolved these powers to urban and rural local bodies like municipalities and panchayats. The Central government, on the other hand, prescribes general guidelines for the management of water resources through its five year plans. It also reserves the right to approve and clear large projects related to irrigation, hydropower, and flood control. In addition, it plays a key role in resolving inter-state disputes over sharing of river waters.

But, in hindsight, it’s tragi-comic that rather than ensuring a sustainable and equitable use of this vital resource, this lumbering behemoth of a regime has been reduced to a pious fraud over the years. The first NWP regarded water “as a basic human need and a precious national asset.” It also stressed, among other things, on making plans around river basins,on reckoning the social and ecological costs of any large water-related projec such as a large dam, and, crucially, including users, primarily farmers, in the planning process.

Most of these grand ideas have remained on paper though. The NWP has been revised and updated twice since, in 2002 and 2012, and yet India’s water agony has gone from bad to worse. In fact, the 2012 NWP in particular emphasised the urgency of carrying out a scientific assessment of “the availability of water resources and its use by various sectors in various basin and States in the country”, yet no such study has been carried out so far.

Biswas argues that all successive NWPs have flirted with fashionable ideas most of which were never implemented either because they were ill-suited to Indian conditions or because they did not serve the political economy of corruption. For example, he explains, even though all the NWPs endorse the river basin as a unit for all planning, there is not a single demonstration as yet of a basin being planned or developed. For him the trouble is that “inter-state river water disputes are resolved by specially constituted Tribunals which allocate water shares to various states, based on juridical principles of riparian rights, prescriptive rights, and equitable distribution. Each of these principles, though a valid legal principle, divides the basin and its water resources in several independent parts, and therefore contradicts the idea of basin planning.”

At the state level, however, there was one significant change in the water discourse between 2002 and 2012 when several erstwhile state governments, in lieu of loans for improving their water infrastruture, agreed to reform their respective water governance regimes on the lines prescribed by the International Financial Institutions (IFI) like the World Bank. Among other things, the reforms included setting up an independent regulatory authority (IRA), privatising water delivery services, and rationalising water tariff on the principle of recovering total cost of water from all users. States that signed up included Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and Jharkhand.

Maharashtra was the first state to set up an IRA in 2005, followed by Andhra Pradesh in 2009. But, as is the common refrain in almost every story about water management in India, the reforms ended up creating an even more skewed top-down water bureaucracy. As a 2009 critique of these reforms by the Pune-based NGO Prayas notes: “The emergence of the IRA as a new power centre in the water sector also raises many questions. First, handing over major decisions to the body of experts and bureaucrats can lead to the sidelining of wider sociopolitical concerns. Second, there is a danger that it may lead to a process of decision-making over which common people would have little or no influence…Third, in a developing country like India, the welfare role of the state is required to ensure the objectives of social justice and equity. Although performance of the state in the last 50 years is not very assuring in this regard, relying on market mechanism in a sector like water will further aggravate the problem.”

Subsequent events have more or less borne out Prayas’ apprehensions. Reporting on the 2016 drought in Maharashtra, an article in the newsletter of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP) described the IRA thus: “The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act (MWRRA) has a remarkably bad track record in any implementation since the past ten years that it has been formed. It is still to take a single equitable water distribution decision, which was its main role. The whole Maharashtra irrigation scam happened under the agile existence of the MWRRA, but MWRRA failed to address any of the issues plaguing the irrigation sector or do any thing about the scam.”

The current water crisis in the state is yet another reminder of the callousness, deceit, and corruption inherent in the water sector reforms intended ostensibly to ensure equitable distribution of water in the state.

Be that as it may, the archetypal Indian politician is a bit like the proverbial old dog who either refuses to or simply cannot learn new tricks. This is remarkably true of his obsession with setting up new committees to replace old committees set up to look into the same old issue in the first place. Committees come, committees go, but the problem remains where it was. Water is surely one such problem. In 2015, the newly minted Modi government decided to retire the NWP. It invited Mihir Shah, a well-known water expert, to head a new committee, called the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB). Shah wanted to inquire into why “despite having a written NWP for more than 30 years all the problems, be it water scarcity, deteriorating quality, aquifers being sucked dry, inter-state disputes and now even intra-state disputes, are only increasing.”

Shah submitted his report in 2016 in which he recommended the following key reforms.

--We must view ground water and surface water as parts of a whole. This implies merging CWC and CGWB into a single entity called the National Water Commission (NWC).

--Instead of building more large dams, make better use of the trillions of litres of water stored in the existing dams and ensuring that this water reaches the farmers for whom it is meant. As Shah Committee Report noted: “Till the time you don’t give water to a farmer’s fields, you can’t save him from suicide. We have moved away from our vision of watershed and conservation. We did not think about hydrology, geology and topography of a region before pushing large dams everywhere. We pushed large dams, not irrigation. But this has to change.”

--The single most important factor explaining the drying up of post-monsoon flows in India’s peninsular rivers is the over-extraction of groundwater. So no government, especially in the south, have any choice but to stop wanton mining of groundwater.

--There has to be a multidisciplinary approach to understanding and managing our water resources. Besides engineers such as hydrologists, the knowledge and experience of social scientists, NGOs, activists, and farmers should be taken in account.

--We need to move towards participatory irrigation management and hand over the management of these commands to its eventual users, namely farmers.

Besides the Shah committee report, the present government also prepared two draft Bills on legal reforms in the water sector. The National Water Framework Bill, 2016, suggested a legal framework that would ensure the state at all tiers of governance protect and preserve water resources in public trust for its citizens. The Groundwater Bill, 2017, proposes a new regulatory framework based on two to key reforms; recognise the right to water is fundamental and give the power to protect groundwater sources to local communities.

Almost four years later, the Shah Committee report as well as the two Bills is gathering dust, perhaps waiting to be replaced by yet another committee report. Shah makes no bones about his disappointment:

The proposals have not moved forward due to the extraordinary resistance from vested interests within the Central Water Commission, who exercise an almost mystifying power over water policy in India. It gives me no joy to say this but I am afraid this has to do with the political economy of corruption in India.

This only reinforces the cynical view that governments across the political spectrum do not have the political will to unravel and revamp an outdated and top-down heavy water governance regime. It also explains why the looming drought doesn’t even figure in the political agenda of any of the national parties in the current general elections.

Having said that, any future government would choose to ignore the coming water catastrophe at its own peril, at least for not very long. The Talab Nahin to Vote Nahin (No ponds, no votes) campaign in Madhya Pradesh’s Jabera constituency in last year’s state assembly elections resulted in the incumbent BJP MP losing his seat. Likewise, the residents of Kot Block in the Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand have threatened to boycott the 2019 general elections if they are not supplied clean drinking water.

As the water crisis engulfs more districts around the country with the onset of summer, not to mention a not-so-encouraging monsoon forecast, it is likely that many more constituencies might start demanding water as ransom in exchange for votes. However, even if water does become a critical bargaining chip in this elections, the more critical question to ask would be whether the winning dispensation will continue to bat for mega engineering fixes like interlinking of rivers and dams, or whether it will have the political guts to implement some of the more radical recommendations of the Shah Committee report.

Disclaimer: This article was prepared with the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung India. The views and analysis contained in the publication are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung.