Come election, candidates of every colour promise water to the people. “Elect me, I will solve your water problems.” Such promises reverberate through the constituencies, especially the drought prone ones as also the cities. These promises gain traction amongst the voters as the elections are being held during the hottest months. Water scarcity is everywhere — in the rural as well as in the urban.

Maharashtra reports that almost all of its reservoirs are getting empty. The Sangli and Satara district administration issued prohibitory orders to stop water theft as the water crisis in these two districts deepens. Twentyseven blocks in Maharashtra are witnessing a groundwater drought — deficiency in groundwater levels and availability — says the Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) report for the month of March. Bengaluru’s water crisis is the subject of discussion everywhere. After the elections everybody, including those who get elected on the promise, forget about it. Till the next elections.

Supply side options

The election promises are always about supply side options. They are all about ways of getting more and more water to the area — whether it is for agriculture in the rural areas or drinking water to the cities. Substantive issues in the water sector like sustainable use, equitable access and participatory governance never become part of the election agenda. The imagination is about getting water from longer distances, sometimes hundreds of kms. Or getting water from centralised, mega projects. Today even to provide decentralised and dispersed needs, for example domestic water needs that would require 5-6 per cent of available water, the governments build centralised water grids and huge water infrastructures.

The gigantic Mission Bhagiratha with a financial outlay of ₹42,853 crore, initiated by the previous Government of Telangana to provide drinking water to the State, is an example of this. At the national level there is the ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’ to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections to all households in rural India by 2024 with the attractive slogan ‘har ghar jal’ (water in every house).

There is already cynicism creeping in about this very ambitious infrastructure project. Will it deliver taps without water coming from them?

Hydraulic mission problems

The imagination of the political class is about large water infrastructure, often called the hydraulic mission mode. It emerged as a distinctive approach to water towards the end of the 19th century in the West. It got fully developed as a system in the 20th century. It combines scientism, an anthropocentric ideology of the domination of nature and a reliance on technology as the means to achieve it. Large dams, power generation and huge transmission networks and large-scale water resource development are the outcomes of this approach.

Some of the water researchers call it as “a defining feature of the 20th century”. All countries seem to have adopted the ‘hydraulic mission’ mode and entrusted the entire edifice to centralised, powerful water bureaucracies, more colourfully called hydrocracies. With the British it got readily exported to India. Ever since, till today, it has remained the bedrock of our water sector. The axiom, water going to the sea is a waste, comes from this mindset.

Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) takes the hydraulic mission approach to newer heights. In the context of ILR, late Ramaswamy Iyer, former secretary, water resources, had said, “Rivers are not human artefacts, they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems and inextricable parts of cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and re-joined.”

It is worth noting that the West, where the hydraulic mission mode originated, has long given it up for more ecologically sustainable options.

Alternative water agenda

The Vikalp Sangam manifesto sets a radically different agenda for water. It says that water policies and programmes should have the following sequential water use prioritisation: water for life (drinking, washing, sanitation, livestock, wildlife), ecosystem needs and functions, livelihoods (including food production), adaptation to changes (climate, land use, livelihoods, etc), and industrial/infrastructural use.

There is a need to disaggregate water use taking place under the rubric of domestic water between lifeline and luxury uses in the urban areas. There is a need to curb luxury and wasteful uses. There are no curbs presently on water from the rural areas and from agriculture getting re-allocated to the cities. This is happening everywhere in India. Maharashtra has been in the lead. A Prayas Resources and Livelihoods Group study report (2013) shows diversion of agriculture water to non-irrigation purposes, especially to meet urban domestic water needs, between 2003 and 2010 was to the tune of about 2000 Mm 3 (million cubic meter) from 51 dams. This seems to have reduced the irrigation potential by about 323,300 ha. More water entering cities does not guarantee water to the urban poor. They continue to depend on informal water markets and tankers. Interestingly there is no articulation coming up from our cities saying that the cites can do with much less water.

As for industrial water use, there is tremendous scope to reduce water footprint. Take the case of thermal power plants in the country. They take up the highest proportion of industrial water used. Indian thermal power plants are one of the most inefficient when it comes to water used per unit power produced. It has been estimated that by converting all thermal power plants from once-through open-loop to closed-cycle cooling systems using recycled water, about 65,000 million litres per day of fresh water can be saved.

Reforms in agriculture

Agriculture accounts for about 80-85 per cent of total water use. It offers the largest scope to bring down overall water footprint. Here, apart from water efficiency measures, various demand management options like aligning cropping pattern to the agro-climatic conditions and adoption of agro-eological approach and agronomic practices can result in large water savings. Within the agriculture water use, rice, wheat and sugarcane account for the bulk of water use.

There are many promising agronomical practices that are being promoted especially by civil society organisations across the country around these crops that can result in large water savings. System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in the case of Rice and Sustainable Sugar Initiative (SSI) are example of these. In India the gap between Irrigation Potential Created (IPC) and Irrigation Potential Utilised (IPU) has been increasing mainly since the Sixth Five Year Plan period (1980-85).

NITI Aayog estimates the gap presently to be about 24 mha (million hectares). Amongst other reasons, one important reason is the absence of water distribution system; and even if the system is there it is in a state of perpetual disrepair. Bridging this gap can ensure water to large rainfed areas without going for new dams. The present cost of creating one hectare irrigation through major and medium projects is more than ₹5 lakh. Bridging the gap and bringing additional area under irrigation can be easily done at one-tenth of this cost.

Since water is a finite and limited resource, there is a need to reduce water footprint of different water uses like domestic, agriculture and industrial water uses through efficiency measures, equitable water distribution, demand management and recycle and re-use. The state promotes water saving technologies like drip and sprinklers through subsidies. However, the experience has been that such measures do not lead to overall water saving or reduction of water footprint.

Instead, the saved water is used by the same people to increase their irrigated area. Promotion of water saving technologies should carry conditionalities in the sense that the saved water needs to be pooled together and made available to those who do not have access to water.

Change of perspective

The emphasis should be on soft options. It means prioritisation of decentralised harvesting and governance over mega-projects and centralised governance, with appropriate combinations of traditional and modern knowledge. This requires support for regeneration, restoration, and de-polluting of wetlands and water sources and the regeneration and conservation of their catchments.

There is a need to review large water-based infrastructure projects like the interlinking of rivers, inland waterways and large hydro-power projects as they are destructive of lives, livelihoods and rest of nature. Instead, what is needed is incentivising initiatives of more sustainable, climate friendly as well as cheaper options with the participation of all concerned people.

The Vikalp Sangam manifesto asks the political class to go beyond the supply side options and hydraulic mission mindsets that have dominated the water sector till now. Instead, it asks for softer options that are decentralised, sustainable, equitable and participatory.

The writer is part of SOPPECOM, Vikalp Sangam and Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India