Robin Keshaw is a development sector professional with rich experience in the domain of education, life skills and governance. He is a computer science graduate from BITS Pilani and has previously worked with Teach For India and CM office in Haryana.
The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation admitted in end May that unemployment was at a four-decade high. This had already been highlighted by the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) job survey for 2017-18 which had shown a spike in the unemployment rate to over 6 per cent.
The NSSO stats also show that there is higher unemployment in the urban areas as compared to rural India. For the rural areas, the unemployment rate was 5.3 per cent, while in the urban areas it was 7.8 per cent.
This data was collected from 433,339 households located in both rural and urban areas. The government read Ministry of Finance has decried this data claiming this survey conducted between 2017-18 cannot be compared with previous years because they have used education as a criterion unlike earlier surveys which had used expenditure as a hallmark.
This is the first comprehensive report on the country’s employment scenario in the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government and assumes significance as it captures the impact of demonetisation on the domestic economy.
In a primary school of Topchanchi block in Dhanbad district of Jharkhand, around 150 students are taking a pledge for conserving water during the morning assembly, as part of the Jal Shakti campaign. “Jal hi hamara jeevan hai aur iske bina ham jee nahi sakte….”. Barely 10 metres away from the assembly ground, is a water tap which is leaking profusely. The marks of water trail near the tap are indicative of the fact that the leaking tap is lying unattended for quite a few days. “….aur ham sankalp lete hai ki ham paani ki ek-ek boond bachayenge”. The pledge ends and the students walk away to their respective classrooms. The water keeps flowing from the leaking tap. The glimpse of the primary school from Dhanbad is representative of the dichotomy of the water crisis in India. On one hand, the monies are flowing in, new schemes are being designed, rankings and reports are being released. On the other hand, ground realities paint a grim and scary picture. Recently, Dhanbad district was ranked number 12 amongst 255 participating districts in India by Ministry of Jal Shakti, for successfully running programs related to water conservation, watershed development, etc.
India is staring into a nationwide water crisis which is going to severely affect majority of its population. According to the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) released by the NITI Aayog in 2018, 21 major cities (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and others) are racing to reach zero groundwater levels by 2020, affecting access for 100 million people. This summer, Chennai got a glimpse of the ‘Day Zero’, a dystopian situation when the water stops coming out of city taps and people have to queue up to collect their daily quota of water.
The water levels in the four main reservoirs, which supplies the drinking water to the city, fell below one per cent of storage level. Part of this is attributed to the failed monsoons for the last three consecutive years, but the majority of the blame goes to the mismanagement of water resources by the successive governments. A study by Anna University has found that Chennai has lost 33 per cent of its wetlands in the last one decade. During the same period, Chennai lost 24 per cent agricultural land, crucial for improving groundwater table. Even though Chennai braced the water crisis this year, the problem is only going to aggravate.
“Governments do not believe in cost-effective, common-sense solutions. They are always looking at expensive megaprojects and engineering solutions,” complains Dr Sekar Raghavan, Director, Rain Centre, Chennai. “Tamil Nadu has a rich tradition of water harvesting, capturing rainwater in irrigation tanks known as ‘ery’. Every government since the 1960s have totally ignored and neglected them. It did not maintain the 39,000-odd water bodies, the legacy of our ancestors, forget creating additional ones. Unless we capture rainwater during the monsoon season, we will always run out.”
What happened in Chennai is not an isolated incident of lackadaisical government attitude towards the water crisis. As per Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) released by the NITI Aayog, 12% of India’s population is already living the ‘Day Zero’ scenario. The CWMI report also states that by 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual 6% loss in the country’s GDP. The same report mentions that 600 million people are dealing with high to extreme water shortage.
The irony, on the other hand, is that there are cities and other parts of the country which saw unprecedented flooding. Mumbai got more rain this year than it had in 65 years, and several times this season, it came in exceptionally heavy downpours. In the month of August, Kerala saw floods affecting nine of its districts, almost as a repeat of last year’s devastating floods, albeit with lesser destruction and damage. Unusual suspects like Pune, Vadodara, parts of Rajasthan, Goa, etc also witnessed floods.
Over the last century, the number of days with heavy rainfall has increased in the Indian subcontinent. These heavy spells are interspersed by longer dry spells which affect the agricultural economy of the country adversely. Predictable and steady rainfall has become less common, which affects the groundwater recharge severely. According to a scientific paper published in Nature journal, over the last 70 years, extreme rainfall events have increased threefold in the central region of India, while total annual rainfall has measurably declined.
Assam, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal have always been ravaged by the floods. But this year, the capital city of Bihar, Patna saw unusual flooding in the month of October. Different parts of the city were submerged for almost a week, close to Durga Puja – one of the widely celebrated festivals in East India. “This has never happened before in my lifetime”, laments Subhash Chandra, a research scientist and environmental expert at National Physical Laboratory, whose hometown is in Bihar. “It is easier to blame climate change for such erratic floods. However, the real culprits are unplanned development, greed and mismanagement”, believes Chandra.
Plethora of policies
By 2050, the World Bank estimates, erratic rainfall, combined with rising temperatures, stand to “depress the living standards of nearly half the country’s population.” Is India waking up to a new reality recently? Or we already had the wisdom to foresee this threat. Ironically, India was a pioneer in developing National Water Policy (NWP), way back in 1987, which was rather uncommon those days. The policy has been revised twice, in 2002 and 2012.
NWP, 2012 opens with the statement – ‘A scarce natural resource, water is fundamental to life, livelihood, food security and sustainable development. India has more than 18 % of the world’s population but has only 4% of the world’s renewable water resources and 2.4% of the world’s land area. There are further limits on utilizable quantities of water owing to uneven distribution over time and space. In addition, there are challenges of frequent floods and droughts in one or the other part of the country. With a growing population and rising needs of a fast-developing nation as well as the given indications of the impact of climate change, availability of utilizable water will be under further strain in future with the possibility of deepening water conflicts among different user groups.’
It goes on to enumerate twenty-six important concerns pertaining to water resources and their management which includes urbanization, water governance, groundwater recharge, etc. It also lists the basic principles which should guide the public policies on water resources and talks about the principle of equity and social justice among others. More than half a decade later, the ground reality is grimmer.
In 2016, a Committee constituted by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation under the Chairmanship of Dr Mihir Shah suggested a draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016 which contains provisions for an overarching national legal framework with principles for protection, conservation, regulation and management of water as a vital and stressed natural resource. The Bill also talks about Right to water for life, wherein ‘every person has a right to sufficient quantity of safe water for life within easy reach of the household regardless of, among others, caste, creed, religion, community, class, gender, age, disability, economic status, land ownership and place of residence.’
Politics of water
The lofty ideas proposed in different policy documents fail to see the light of day due to the politics associated with the water as well as the unrealistic and wishful thinking of the policymakers. Experts feel that the policies are still driven by the demands of the political masters rather than a data-driven, evidence-based approach which clearly states what is necessary, how it will be achieved, who exactly will do what, within what time frame, and what preceding actions are a prerequisite to do it.
Central government’s common rhetoric is that water is a state subject and the ball is in state governments’ court to implement the policies. In 2017, India formed a new groundwater Bill asserting the state governments’ control over the extraction of groundwater. However, not many states have responded well, and only Maharashtra has set up a regulatory authority to enact it. States have shown an indifferent attitude towards the National Water Framework Bill as well. Only recently, Meghalaya came out with a state water policy and became the first state in India to do so. “Our politicians have managed water mostly for short-term electoral gains and not for long-term benefits of the country. It is now facing a water crisis in terms of quantity, quality, magnitude and severity which no earlier generation ever had to face. Sadly, there are no signs that our politicians have realised the severity of the situation the country is facing and are willing to take some hard decisions. If the current trends continue, India’s water crisis will only worsen with time,” comments Chetan Pandit, former member of Central Water Commission.
Our policymakers’ approach towards irrigation policies have become the proverbial albatross hung around their neck. Irrigation consumes 85% of the groundwater in India. Subsidised electricity by successive state governments and skewed pricing policies around water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane has led to over-utilisation of the groundwater in certain pockets of the country. But no government wants to bell the cat and tamper with the existing policies as it might upset the farmers, one of the largest vote banks in India.
In urban and semi-urban areas, the water mafia has spread its wings in connivance with local politicians and administrators. They take advantage of the shortcomings of the government supply system in the most impoverished neighbourhoods to establish the black market. They go to the extent of damaging water pipes and diverting tanker routes to mint money. “This summer, I spent Rs 2000 from my monthly income of Rs 9000 on getting water for my house. They were charging Rs 30 per bucket of water. This is pure cheating. The water which is meant for us is supplied to hotels and malls, every night I see tankers lined up near these malls”, complains Ravi, a resident of south Delhi’s Sangam Vihar community.
Governing the water
Things can definitely improve if there are concerted efforts from politicians, policymakers, civil society and most importantly, the citizens. Recently, Modi government created Jal Shakti ministry, an amalgamation of ministries of water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. This has been done to improve water governance in our country. The ministry already has a fairly wide ambit- it needs to implement the Modi government’s flagship Nal Se Jal scheme to providing piped water supply for every household by 2024. It has to take forward the government’s controversial river linkage programme, a national mission on irrigation for providing water to every field and examine controversial measures like pricing of water.
Experts also feel that some of the stickiest problems in water governance can be solved through a well-researched, data-driven approach. “The reason farmers cultivate rice and sugarcane, both water-intensive crops, is because they get a better price for these crops. Government’s focus should be on incentivizing farmers for crop diversification, creation of local markets for different crops and reduction of area under rice and sugarcane cultivation in the notified and over-exploited blocks. This can be easily done by having a sector-specific policy and execution plan”, opines Tushar Agarwal, a water expert working with ERM, India.
A crucial element of the water governance structure is the role of civil society and organisations in driving sustainable behavioural change. Government programs can only do so much. A shining example of citizen-driven effort is the story of Ara and Kelam villages in Ranchi district. PM Modi appreciated the efforts of the villagers in his monthly Mann ki Baat program. The villagers came together and did shramdaan for three months to build Loose Boulder Structure (LCB). They arranged the boulders to direct the flow of waterfalls from hills and channelised the flow towards agricultural fields.
There are numerous organisations who are working at the grassroots in driving citizen-led change in water management and conservation. Organisations like Paani Foundation, Water Aid, Sarvajal, etc are reaching to different corners of the country and helping the governments in driving water-related projects. District administration of Gurugram has started a unique experiment in Public-Private Partnership mode, where it has set up a Project Management Unit in the Deputy Commissioner’s office. The initiative is named GuruJal and it works with different government agencies like municipal corporation, irrigation department, agriculture department, etc as well as with the research agencies to drive the change at the ground level.
Shubhi Kesarwani, program manager of GuruJal explains, “We work on multiple fronts. We run campaigns to sensitise the community on water conservation. We work with Gram Panchayats and handhold them in construction of recharge structures, tree plantation and ponds rejuvenation. We also work with experts in creating an integrated water resources management plan for different blocks of Gurgram”.
India is witnessing a watershed moment in its history as it prepares itself to fight the water crisis. There is a long way to go from here. As Kesarwani puts it succinctly, “The problem which we are seeing today has arisen after decades of mismanagement. We didn’t run out of water overnight and hence we should not expect it to reappear overnight. It will be a slow and gradual process and we will make India a clean water abundant country again”.