Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
The Ancient Mariner and his shipmates suffered the consequences of his shooting an albatross; becalmed on the wide ocean, they had no access to drinking water, leading to the death of all the sailors except the Ancient Mariner. An act as wanton as that of the Ancient Mariner today threatens the health (and lives) of millions across the parched plains of peninsular and northern India. The blame for the present predicament lies squarely on man’s nature rather than on Mother Nature. Man has squandered the available sources of surface water and, over the past four decades, has drilled deep into the bowels of the earth to extract every possible drop of water. The present summer represents one of the worst years of water availability for the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Much publicity has been given to the efforts of many organisations, such as the Indian Railways, to supply water over long distances to Latur city. While all such initiatives are laudable and deserve to be appreciated (even though it appears that the local administration is going to be billed for the supply by the railways), the bitter truth needs to be recognised that these are temporary palliatives for a far more deep rooted crisis, one that threatens man’s very existence. Since I have spent many years of my public life in the Marathwada region in different capacities, it may be appropriate for me to add my two bits to the ongoing debate on the causes for this huge human-ecological crisis that is affecting nearly 20 million people in this region.
Drought has been a recurring pattern in interior Maharashtra in most areas of the rocky Deccan Plateau for centuries. Falling as they do in the rain shadow area between the two monsoons, these areas rely almost entirely on the bounty of the south-west monsoon to meet the food and water needs of their populations. But even Maharashtra’s worst drought in the early 1970s was agriculture rather than water related. The picture changed over the last quarter of the twentieth century with the rapid urbanisation of Maharashtra and the indiscriminate application of water (both surface and ground) for agricultural, especially cash crop, production. The large storage capacities of the Jayakwadi dam at Paithan in Aurangabad district and its sister dam at Majalgaon in Beed district whetted the appetites of the rural elite of Marathwada. Taking a leaf from their confreres in prosperous Western Maharashtra, the landed elite used water as the means to enhance their economic and political power. Sugarcane factories (often badly managed) sprang up in the region, putting strain on both surface and groundwater resources. Water storage in the Jayakwadi reservoir was (and is) crucially dependent on the drinking water and irrigation demands of the politically influential upper riparian districts of Nashik and Ahmednagar. While there are treaties and agreements governing the distribution of river water flows between countries like India and Pakistan and between the different states of India, there are no specified norms dictating the distribution of water between different regions of a state; political compulsions and administrative decisions generally decide the allocation of waters.
Recurrent water scarcity has also created rural-urban tensions in Marathwada. Farmers who are denied water for agricultural purposes resent the diversion of water for industrial and urban needs. When the Jayakwadi irrigation project was commissioned in the 1970s, no one foresaw the extent of demand for water that would emanate from the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the sleepy town of Aurangabad. Today, a variety of industries, ranging from consumer goods and beer production to automotive and chemicals, are critically dependent on water from the Jayakwadi dam for their survival. Rationing of water supply to industry in lean years (as the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has sought to do this season by limiting water supply to the beer production units) runs the risk of affecting industry and industrial employment prospects, more so if water scarcity becomes a recurrent phenomenon. The issue is complicated by the misuse of purified water for non-drinking purposes, including watering gardens and flushing toilets. Aurangabad Municipal Corporation has no rules to restrict the use of costly, purified water for only drinking purposes, with users being mandatorily required to use groundwater or recycled water for other purposes. Shrinking groundwater levels pose their own problems; Beed town, the district headquarters of the politically powerful Beed district, with a population of 1.5 lakhs, was historically famous for its dug wells (Bir, as the district and town were earlier referred to, probably derives its name from vihir, the Marathi word for well). With urbanisation and the supply of piped water, these wells have fallen into disuse, rendering the once water-abundant town vulnerable to surface water availability in the water reservoirs servicing the town. Growing contamination of surface and groundwater by industries and sugar factories, not surprising considering the extremely lax implementation of pollution norms, has further reduced the access to safe groundwater.
As always, human greed and indifference lies at the heart of the problem. Deforestation in the upper reaches of the Godavari River (in the name of development) has led to the accumulation of massive quantities of silt in the major reservoirs. The lure of new capital investments in irrigation facilities (in the contractor-driven raj of modern India) as opposed to investments in reservoir and canal maintenance has reduced the life of these assets and led to the runoff of rainwater that could otherwise have been stored. Most importantly, the “small is beautiful” slogan of Eric Schumacher lies buried under the focus on large irrigation projects. River water projects that were considered technically and financially infeasible in the 1970s and 1980s were taken up in different regions of Maharashtra after the mid-1990s. These projects are yet to see the light of day, given poor planning, inefficient execution and massive corruption. Resources that could have gone into soil and water conservation measures were squandered. Successive governments have dutifully paid lip service to soil/water conservation projects with fanciful names; piecemeal planning and lack of an overall picture for recharging the watersheds in the state mean that there is unlikely to be any meaningful resolution of the water crisis in the foreseeable future.
Is there no solution in sight to this crisis which threatens future generations? There can be, provided the political and administrative will exists to look for imaginative solutions which do not pander to the interests of contractors and their political backers, with the concomitant allocation of adequate financial and human resources. After a continuous three year water crisis in Marathwada from 2001 to 2003, the Marathwada administration, in collaboration with NGOs working in the soil/water conservation sector proposed to the state government a massive plan for systematic watershed planning and implementation of a slew of soil conservation measures, including afforestation, contour bunding, check dams and field ponds, that would involve local communities in the programme. Given the scale of the task, it was obvious that relying on rural employment programmes like the MGNREGA would not do, given that the skilled component in terms of machine-intensive jobs would require relaxation of the specified norms for percentage expenditure on labour. It was, therefore, proposed that rural employment funds could be tapped for the components that could be largely implemented using local labour, with the government budgeting for capital-intensive investments in machinery and skilled operations. This proposal never took off and, for all I know, is still lying in the dusty archives of the Government of Maharashtra. Such initiatives are desperately needed to look for long-term solutions to the mess we have landed ourselves in.
Ad nauseam, we are told that it is better to teach a man to fish rather than giving him a fish to eat, since the former course of action is a lifelong investment. Similarly, it is far better to recharge the earth’s water reserves rather than rely on nature alone to make up for acts of human commission and omission. Marathwada’s districts get, on an average, between 600 and 950 millimetres of rainfall annually. I still remember India’s waterman Rajendra Singh expressing his astonishment that, with so much rainfall, Marathwada could not solve its water problem, when areas in Rajasthan were able to manage with an annual precipitation of barely 300 millimetres. Countries like Israel, with regions like the Negev Desert which receive about 30 millimetres of annual rainfall, have invested in water-saving drip irrigation and desalination technology to meet the needs of their people. Maharashtra, and India, can certainly take inspiration from such examples: time and tide wait for no man.