India and the politics of water

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India and the politics of water

Even before summer has fully set in, temperatures across the Indian subcontinent have soared unnaturally, and it is not just the atmospheric temperatures that have risen. Tempers have frayed between various state governments and groups across the country over the use of fast-diminishing water resources.

Summers in India have historically been long, harsh, dry and hot. Often, water levels in rivers and lakes go down extremely low, making the supply of drinking water to many parts of the country a huge challenge. The situation has worsened due to the impact of climate change brought about by global warming, which has seen the Himalayas receiving much less snowfall and many glaciers disappearing. As the Himalayas are the source of dozens of Indian rivers, this has dramatically reduced the water availability during the summer months, leading to severe water crises all around the country for at least four months a year before the thirsty, dry land is quenched by the monsoon showers. 

According to studies by the United Nations, the per capita water availability in India has fallen steeply over the last 25 years, declining from 2,309 cubic meters in 1991 to the current 1,500, and it is projected to fall to 1,340 by 2025, pushing India into danger. But climate change isn’t the only reason behind the country’s water scarcity. There is also the continuing rise in the Indian population, which has grown from 846 million in 1991 to the current 1.3 billion. India is now home to nearly 20 percent of the world’s population but has barely 4 percent of its freshwater.

But perhaps the biggest reason behind the water scarcity in India is the way water is used and abused, and also the way a key resource like water is priced. Water distribution is extremely unequal, with the rich, both urban and rural, cornering an ever-increasing share of the available water, leaving the vast majority of the poor fighting for survival on the balance. Paradoxically, often the rich end up paying little or nothing at all for their excessive water consumption, while the poor often have to pay over the top to private contractors.

But perhaps the biggest reason behind the water scarcity in India is the way water is used and abused, and also the way a key resource like water is priced.

Ranvir S. Nayar

While the poor, who mostly live in slums or clusters of small homes, depend on one public tap, the rich dig borewells around their homes to draw upon the groundwater. The sharp rise in water consumption in some cities has meant that the groundwater table has fallen dramatically.

In rural areas, the disparities are even higher. The average farmer, with a holding of less than two acres, depends on rainwater or the rare canal near his fields and hence is able to plant one or two crops a year. The richer farmers, on the other hand, have access to borewells and canals, and plant extremely water-thirsty crops such as sugarcane in water-scarce regions.

Rivers are the primary source of water for most of the country and they traverse through several states, ensuring there have been fierce disputes about the sharing of the water from these rivers. In the north, Punjab and Haryana — two agricultural states that account for the majority of India’s cereal production — have been engaged in a bitter battle over water for the past four decades. More than 2,000 kilometers to the south, a similar story has been played out between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the waters of the Cauvery. 

The situation has been made worse by leaking pipes, broken canals and wastage. Water recycling, though mandated by law for hotels, commercial establishments and industry, is something of a rarity across the nation and water harvesting is still in its infancy.

Unfortunately, the water wars have been inflamed by politicians who seek to please their voters by making unrealistic and unsustainable demands over water distribution. Instead of changing the distribution patterns, taking concrete measures to promote conservation and recycling, and distributing water more equally across the nation, politicians of all hues have displayed short-sightedness. They have played on emotions rather than finding solutions that would ensure the sustenance of a country long blessed by nature’s boon of perennial rivers and adequate rains that cover the entire landmass for at least three months of the year.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.
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