India facing great water crisis, but takes stop-gap measures

Ashis Biswas, Kolkata
Published : 05:30, Jul 14, 2019 | Updated : 05:30, Jul 14, 2019

Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/File PhotoIt’s official: after ignoring decades of environmental neglect and rampant overuse of its valuable water resources, the Indian Government has finally acknowledged a major water crisis, with the monsoon behaving erratically. Currently, 225 districts covering nearly 6000 blocks and served by 756 urban local bodies, have been declared water stressed. In 2019, the problem is simply too big for the usual type of official under –reporting. Almost half of India’s estimated population of 1.2 billion is believed to coping grimly with acute water shortage.
As with most developing countries, more than the dimensions of a natural crisis/disaster, political considerations matter more with Delhi-based policymakers. People living in the rural and peripheral areas closer to the country’s borders generally suffer more than their normal share of misery from recurrent floods and droughts. This happens owing to their relatively greater distance from the national capital. Their location puts them well behind the more developed centrally located regions in the official pecking order. Poorer media reach on part of the major TV channels /newspapers in such areas, thanks to their lower revenue-generating potential, helps to accentuate the general neglect.
Opposition parties have urged upon the second National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Ministry headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to declare 2019 as a drought year. The demand has not been met. Ruling governments declaring a drought year have to spell out special relief programmes for the affected millions. With the economy not doing well during the last 3/4 years, rulers find it preferable not to commit themselves to a massive relief operation.
That is not to suggest that nothing is being done, especially with acute distress reports about the peoples’ sufferings coming in daily, from Haryana/Punjab to Manipur, Uttar Pradesh to Tamil Nadu.
However, owing to the unpredictable rain patterns, heavy rain has occurred during the last few days in Maharashtra and Rajasthan, breaking the long spell of dry weather there. The situation is not too bad in Kerala and parts of Karnataka either. The East, Central India and the Northeast, excepting Assam and North Bengal, have however reported major rain deficits.
Union Jal Shakti (Water resources) Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has urged upon state governments to take special water conservation measures immediately, both for the short and long terms. Local authorities should wherever possible launch tree plantation schemes close to existing water bodies, in the parks, by the roadside and on open spaces. Using concrete to build pathways for pedestrians is a no-no, as this does not allow rainwater to reach the parched soil. All new buildings must be equipped with rainwater conservation equipment, which would help in saving excess water run-off into chambers/reservoirs. Wherever possible, water bodies should be revived.
Despite some organised plantation carried out in the states ruled by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)) which has resulted in increasing the country’s green cover marginally, the overall situation regarding water conservation and environment protection has been negative. The measures suggested by the Centre are basic and will take time to implement. Meanwhile, what of the situation here and now, on the ground?
To give a few examples only, from Imphal in Manipur of all places, where poor rainfall is rare, there have been reports of angry farmers threatening to storm the Secretariat building. The police had to stop protestors physically, as they asked why their farms, plots and terraces were allowed to run dry by the authorities despite repeated calls for help.
Despite the Central Government’s recent overdrive in the Northeast region to increase its road, air and river connectivity with Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Indian mainland, involving an investment of over Rs 30 billion in 2019-20 alone, there has also occurred a scandalous official neglect of the reckless destruction of the natural habitat. Delhi-based officialdom has also ignored clear warnings from nature during the last decade.
Weather analysts have expressed their mounting concern over the increasingly longer and hotter summers in Assam that has posed a serious threat to the country’s tea production. The state accounts for 55% of the total tea production. In a bid to sell rocks and boulders to Bangladesh for road construction and other projects, to increase forex reserves, entire hillsides have been denuded of their traditional tree cover for miles around in Meghalaya. The denuded rocks have then bee dynamited, causing massive damage to the natural habitat, the green cover and the running water streams. There has been loss of wildlife and birds of many varieties. Some of the destruction is visible along the picturesque road connecting Guwahati with Shillong.
The impact has been felt at Cherrapunji, which is no longer the place that records the world’s highest rainfall amount. Initially the rains shifted briefly to Mawsinram, also in Meghalaya and only a small distance away. Of late however, both places are reportedly much drier, bringing them at par with other ordinary towns and settlements, depriving them of their once famous attraction. The revenues earned from the tourist season have naturally declined.
In West Bengal, the wastage of potable water daily in greater Kolkata is estimated at 30% of the total production of 450 million gallons, admitted by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority. If saved, the quantity of water wasted could have adequately served an additional 20,00, 000 people in the greater Kolkata area, most of whom face an acute shortage almost round the year. Apart from depending on the supply from KMDA tankers which has to be paid for, they have to depend on mineral water. Many people complain of rising expenses on account of purchasing water makes a big hole in their earnings! Corporation authorities by way of action have begun an awareness campaign, consisting of messages run as ads on TV and the local papers. There is no talk of sealing off roadside taps (1700 of them in the city) from, which gallons of water are wasted daily as most do not have turn off switches!
Meanwhile, a gleam of hope in an otherwise depressing scenario: from West Rajasthan, news comes of one Rajendra Singh, local social activist who has carried out an effective water conservation programme during the last four years, by building special low-cost water saving structures for use in the fields. Thanks to his efforts, people living in nearly 1000 villages are getting water regularly. Currently he has launched small schemes to revive the flow of five local streams that dried up and recharge old wells. Authorities confirm that his work on the ground has helped the local forest cover increase by about 33% in the last 4 years, apart from bringing back the animals, the birds and the bees.