The onset of an early and searing summer in Maharashtra and Karnataka has created conditions of acute water scarcity, with the potential of its spilling over into conflicts between States and between rural and urban populations. Farmers near Latur, in Maharashtra, for instance, protested the supply of water to the town from the Dongargaon dam, forcing the police to intervene. Water scarcity has affected the rabi crop in the State. In Karnataka, Cauvery and Krishna basin reservoirs are at half the levels obtaining in March 2015. Yet, none of this comes as a surprise. If unusual and extreme weather events have become the norm, the slow decay of water bodies has made matters worse. It would be simplistic to blame the chronic water crisis on population pressures alone — India’s water statistics point to higher availability than demand in the aggregate, although that is changing and variations across space and time are immense. The real issue is more one of how water is used, apportioned, polluted and wasted.
There are few signs that the Centre and States are taking a long-term view of the water crisis — one that keeps political forces away from scoring brownie points and commits them to sustainable urban and rural use. The fracas over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal suggests that the Punjab government and the opposition are not keen to deliberate on the unsustainable use of water to grow paddy in particular. The Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices has rightly mooted ceilings on the use of water and electricity per hectare. A combination of free electricity (since 1997) and assured prices has led to Punjab being water-inefficient, using 5,300 kg to produce a kg of rice, double the ratio in West Bengal. It is high time that policies favouring paddy and sugarcane in dryland areas are reviewed, and water-efficient methods of growing paddy propagated.
It would be wrong to reduce the water issue merely to one of improving efficiency in agriculture practices, as the Economic Survey for 2015-16 has done. While agriculture accounts for over 80 per cent of the water used, rising urban residential and industrial use needs to be checked both for waste and pollution; this should be a central concern of the smart city project. A focus on irrigation is welcome, but as the Twelfth Plan rightly points out, too many dams tend to reduce water flow in the dry months — getting more intense and prolonged these days — exacerbating shortage and pollution. The MGNREGA should be transformed into an intensive watershed management programme. Above all, the institutional framework to address water disputes must change drastically. A river-basin approach to development makes more sense than one driven just by the States. There are enough instances of acrimony to show that the political class, courts and tribunals are not great at resolving disputes, and that multi-stakeholder forums instead can play a useful role. With World Water Day falling today, we must stop this drift towards disaster.