Muddying the waters
Sarosh Bana

Yopa mayatanam veda ayatanam bhavati
He who knows the source of water, becomes established in his Self
-- from Taithreeya Aranyakam (1.22) of Yajur Veda

Water, the life resource, appears to be draining out of our very being.

The recurring monsoon failures in India have delivered us one of the worst droughts in 30 years, blighted the

earth, scorched the crops, spelt ruin and death for the farmers who nourish us, and threatened our water and food security.

India is a seriously water-stressed nation. Its 17 per cent of the world population inhabiting just 2.6 per cent of the world’s total area has access to only four per cent of the global fresh water resources, compelling the need for water resource development, conservation, and optimum use. One in two persons has no access to safe drinking water.Severe water shortages are causing conflicts between farm and industry, and also within the domestic sector. Even in urban India, piped water supply caters to only 63 per cent of the population and sewerage networks to only 46 per cent, when municipal corporations and urban local bodies should be ensuring 100 per cent water and sewer coverage for raising living standards. Pertinently, chairing a National Water Resources Council (NWRC) meeting in New Delhi a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that water security was an issue on which the country would swim or sink together.

Life-giving water assumes lethal extremities in India’s capricious climate. While the terror of drought has gripped 330 million people – a fourth of India’s population - in 256 districts across 10 states, with three more added lately, torrential rains are smiting the north-east, with Assam, Arunachal and Meghalaya reeling under floods. Rainfall distribution in India is very uneven in terms of time and space and while Bihar remains the most flood-prone state, with 76 per cent of the population in its north living under recurrent threats of flood, Chennai experienced its worst floods last December, while Mumbai too buckled under a 944-mm deluge over a 24-hour period in July 2005. Uttarakhand, now battling the most devastating forest fires in its history because of the dry weather, was convulsed by cataclysmic floods in June 2013, while the cold desert of Ladakh was swept under a cloudburst in August 2010.

The subject of flood control, unlike irrigation, is not, however, on any of the three legislative lists - Union List (List-I), State List (List-II) or Concurrent List (List-III) - of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. This implies primary responsibility for flood control with the States. While the States plan, investigate and implement all schemes for flood control, the role of the Centre is technical, advisory, catalytic and promotional in nature.

The nation has been heartened though by predictions of an above average south-west monsoon by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). But it is mindful that the widespread drought that has prolonged for two long years could have been mitigated to a great extent by timely and judicious state investment in, and promotion of, water conservation and management, soil health management and monitoring, proper seed selection and distribution, adequate crop insurance, and timely disbursal of insurance relief to farmers, apart from the upgrade of urban water and sewerage supply, and mandating of sustainable norms like rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling in the construction industry.

Water unavailability and poor management practices have led to dismalsanitation facilities, posing a major environmental and social challenge to the country. Every week, some 42,000 deaths – 90 per cent of which are of children under five - occur from preventable diseases like diarrhoea and dysentery, caused by unsafe drinking water. The high cost of water for the poorest households - nearly 15 per cent of their annual income - is because of very low access to water as also exploitation of the situation by the water and tanker mafia who often even induce it. India has done precious little to conserve water for off-season use beyond building rigidly centralised capacities that store only relatively small quantities of its fickle rainfall. Even after constructing 4,525 large and small dams, India has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cu m, as against 6,103 cu m by Russia, 4,733 cu m by Australia, 1,964 cu m by the US, and 1,111 cu m by China.

The crisis is, alas, as manmade as it is natural. Though Indian courts uphold the Right to Water and Sanitation as fundamental to the Right to Life as guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, both Central and State governments have been trampling upon human rights with impunity and without accountability. In acts that cannot but be termed anti-national, they have jeopardised the farming community and driven many a distressed farmer to suicide by plundering over the years from funding for irrigation, flood control and drought proofing, and by disregarding the more workable community-level water conservation and watershed management practices.

Worse, the country, as a consequence, confronts calamitous food shortfalls and a shrinking agriculture base that will decimate yields even further as farmers abandon their barren farmlands and gravitate to the cities where they are reduced to a menial existence.

Water is the lifeline more in India than anywhere else, because its deficit can ravage agriculture that consumes 83 per cent of our fresh water resources and which strives to feed a population of 1.25 billion, over 15 per cent of whom are undernourished. Despite its sheen of a buoyant economy, the country is predominantly agrarian, with 52 per cent of its population having farming as the principal source of work and income security, and where the farm sector has a 17.4 per cent share in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and contributes 10.2 per cent of total exports.

Net per capita per day availability of foodgrain has risen only feebly to 436 grams today from 395 grams in 1951, a pathetic record over 65 years. Per capita annual production of cereals has besides slumped from 192 kg in 1991-95 to 174 kg today, a level that prevailed in the 1970s. Pulses too have recorded less than 40 per cent growth in production in the past 40 years, while their per capita availability has dwindled from 60 grams a day in the 1950s to 35 grams a day at present. Though offset to some extent by increase in per capita availability of other food products, this raises valid concerns on food security.

Signalling a “crisis of stagnation in agriculture” even as long back as in 2006 in its approach document to the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12), the then Planning Commission (now NITI Aayog under the BJP-led dispensation that came to power in May 2014) had postulated a growth path of four per cent for agriculture. But the sector actually contracted by one per cent in the October-December quarter of 2015 and hobbled to an overall growth of 1.1 per cent in 2015-16. With the weightage of agriculture in India’s GDP, it is clear that the lack of water can hinder social and economic growth.

Astonishingly, even Cherrapunjee, in Meghalaya, that was once credited to be the wettest place on earth, is set to instead become the wettest desert on earth. Though the town is drenched with a mean annual rainfall of 11,619 mm, the rainwater simply drains away as there is no system in place to harness it. This ‘water shortage’ has been dubbed the ‘Cherrapunjee syndrome’ as the town suffers a drinking water scarcity that it views yearly from behind sheets of rain. Perennial springs that held abundant water till quite recently too are now on the verge of drying up due to large scale destruction of forests.

Though irrigation is critical to sustaining food security, brazen corruption has thwarted its augmentation. Only 64 million of 142 million hectares, or 45 per cent, of India’s net sown area is irrigated, though a staggering Rs 3,51,000 crore has been expended on Major and Medium Irrigation (MMI) projects from the 1st Five Year Plan (1951-56) – when 22.6 million hectares of farmlands were irrigated - to the 11th Plan periods. A government study cites huge time and cost overruns, especially on the major projects where the average cost overrun has been as high as 1,382 per cent. While 28 of the 151 major projects analysed witnessed cost overruns of over 1,000 per cent, nine had cost overruns exceeding 5,000 per cent. The government launched the Rs 50,000 crore Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) in 2015 to increase the irrigated area and reduce risk in agriculture, but it is clear that the problem of irrigation can no longer be solved by throwing money at it.

The most depraved venality in a sector as vital for the public as water supply has, however, been in the frontline industrialised state of Maharashtra where the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) ruling alliance has been charged with swindling Rs 70,000 crore from irrigation and lift irrigation schemes. The case filed before the Bombay High Court by voluntary organisation Jan Manch has the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) investigating those involved, including then Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, a powerful politician from the NPC, which is headed by his uncle and then Union Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, and partyman Sunil Tatkare, who now heads his party’s state unit.

Tatkare succeeded Pawar as the Irrigation (subsequently renamed Water Resources) minister and both are charged with favouring select contractors by clearing major projects in haste and at grossly inflated costs, without the mandatory clearance of the governing council of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) of which, as the concerned ministers, they were ex-officio chairmen. Pawar, for instance, is accused of clearing major projects worth Rs 17,700 crore in only three months between June and August 2009, just weeks before the State election code of conduct came into force.

Maharashtra’s then Economic Survey report had recorded the state’s irrigation potential as having grown a minuscule 0.1 per cent over the previous decade. The scam allegedly by a nexus of politicians, contractors and officials had been exposed by Vijay Pandhare, chief engineer at Nashik’s Maharashtra Engineering Research Institute (MERI), who was also member of the state-level technical advisory committee. Costs of 38 VIDC irrigation projects were shown to have escalated by Rs 20,050 crore - from Rs 6,672 crore to Rs 26,722 crore - within a span of seven months in 2009. Thirty-five of the projects had been granted approval in just four days, while costs had mounted by six to 33 times the original costs in six schemes and more than doubled in the case of 12 others. The resultant per hectare cost of irrigation was computed as Rs 9.81 lakh, far in excess of the limit of Rs1.5 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh mandated by the Central Water Commission.

The goings-on in Maharashtra’s Water Resources department had gained attention even in 2010, and responding to complaints, the state government had in March that year appointed retired principal secretary (water resources) Nandkumar Vadnare to investigate those schemes launched in 2006-07, 2008-09 and 2009-2010. Vadnare’s findings revealed that the cost of VIDC’s Gosikhurd inter-district irrigation project on the Vainganga river in Vidarbha’s Bhandara district had been revised frequently from Rs 372 crore in 1982 to Rs

Published Date: 10th June 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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