India without water

| Updated on June 15, 2018

The NITI Aayog report on governance of water resources paints a grim picture

The NITI Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index, which ranks States on water management on the basis of nine parameters, once again reminds us that India is in the grip of a water crisis that needs to be addressed on a war footing. Without going into the methodology on how States have been assessed, the somewhat reassuring message is that the government is just as concerned about quick results in water management, as it is about the performance of States on ease of doing business. The report flags a few factoids that point to how life-threatening the situation is: 600 million people face high-to-extreme water stress; 75 per cent of the households do not have drinking water; and 84 per cent do not have piped water access; and 70 per cent of our water is contaminated. “When water is available, it is likely to be contaminated, resulting in nearly 2,00,000 deaths each year,” it says. Even as India relies increasingly on groundwater for its irrigation and livelihood needs, with rivers running dry or being reduced to sewers, it has recently come to light that uranium contamination is commonplace. With water levels dropping to 1,000 feet in dry regions of peninsular India in particular, flouride contamination too is on the rise. The report assesses States on restoration of surface and ground water, development of watersheds, participatory irrigation, sustainable farming and urban water supply and sanitation and places Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra in the top five. The Centre expects a new groundwater management regime as well as a technology partnership with Israel to make a difference.

However, water management issues cannot be tackled by adopting legal or managerial approaches alone. It's also about making hard political choices, such as pricing water use and weaning farmers away from paddy and sugarcane in dry, rainfed regions. There is no consensus even within the government on pursuing this approach. Meanwhile, free electricity in Punjab has led to a precipitous decline in the water table, despite the State being endowed with surface water. That said, resource intensive farming practices, encouraged by faulty policies alone are not to blame. A socio-political consensus is needed to restore our rivers and watersheds, by checking over-development of eco-sensitive spots, sand mining and dumping of municipal and industrial waste.

The sheer absence of safe, piped drinking water and its replacement by an omnipresent packaged drinking water industry tells a story – of both the State and sections of society abdicating their responsibilities in maintaining water bodies. The report should expand the scope of its inquiry to look at socio-economic aspects.

Published on June 15, 2018

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