The summer of 2019 is not only heated up by the intense general election campaign but also by the above average temperature forecasted in many parts of India. Even though the agrarian distress has been a major campaign issue, the availability and the stress on groundwater sources are yet to find a headway in the elections.
India is one among the world’s water-stressed countries with the availability of water per person fallen almost 400 per cent in the last 60 years (World Bank 2019). The recent reports by national and international agencies forecast more than 600 million Indians are going to face acute water shortage in the coming decade and 21 cities are under severe stress, and on the threshold of shutting down in a few years’ time.
One in every four in rural India does not have access to sufficient volume of clean water (40 litres per person per day). The per capita availability of water is declining since 2000 (it was 1.82 million litres per year and is now 1.45 million litres) and there is a rapid rise in the demand forecast.
The issues and challenges related to water crisis could be categorised into three broad areas; the lack of clean water and overexploitation of the groundwater, lack of water governance and management of the water resources and the pricing and innovations in the water market.
Though customary study groups and commissions are appointed, there has not been any pragmatic and all-encompassing outlook on the impending water crisis and high demand has resulted in worsening the crisis in the last two decades. There is no single solution; rather, it demands for crisis management solutions keeping the principles of subsidiarity against the command and control operations governments of the day.
Both urban and rural India are facing an acute water shortage. With the rapid urbanisation, when more than 600 million are going to live in urban settings, the city municipal corporations and the parastatal agencies do not have any clue on how to solve the impending water crisis.
The majority (more than 80 per cent) of the cities have access to drinking water but their supply is intermittent and the pipe water connections are abysmally low in most of the cases. Even though attempts are made for rainwater harvesting (by amending the building rules, eg, Chennai), desalination of seawater (Minjur in Chennai, but faces cost escalation and environmental challenges) and recycle and reuse of the industrial and waste water (cost escalation and pricing an issue), the recharge of groundwater is meagre compared to the utilisation of water in cities.
Globally and in India, water management has gone back to public offices for the reasons such as water pricing and the poor public-private partnership agreements raising concerns on the ownership of the resources and the service delivery charges.
In rural India, the water crisis is mainly due to the lack of proper management of the water bodies and their sustenance. The groundwater exploitation is linked to the farming style and the crop in business. With the absence of price discovery mechanisms for farm products due to the overbearing nature of subsidies such as Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the availability of free or cheaper electricity, the farmers are prone to exploit more groundwater.
The cost patterns of the production from water-gulping crop regions should be made publicly available for innovations in seed technology. Also, the potential of direct cash transfer to the farmers for the use of electricity, as an incentive for saving it than encouraging more consumption by giving it free, should be considered .
The lack of data on water availability, water usage, cost of supply, etc, in the public domain has hampered the stakeholders understanding the gravity of the situation and find sustainable solutions on the basis of informed choices and opportunities. Instead, the arguments such as water as a human right have covered up the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the present system of water governance.
Even now, the legacy of the British rule continues to dictate the water governance in India. The government has the command and control with no share of ownership for the local government or community. The community rights over the water available in an area should be able to facilitate the creation of a water market under the aegis of the local government.
The distribution and other tech aspects of recharge and recycling could be undertaken by able private parties but the pricing and ownership should be vested in the community and the local government. Sharing information of families who do not comply with the community principles of the local water usage optimisation is a very effective tool to curb overuse and apply peer pressure. The city of Philadelphia has come up with a concept of income-based assistance on water bills, which is a tremendous improvement from the earlier debates on the poverty vs water bill.
By the time the Lok Sabha election results come on May 23, the nation will be in the grip of cricket World Cup mania, which starts on May 30, in England. Last year, when India was playing against South Africa, the city of Cape Town warned on the likelihood of ‘Day Zero’ citing the water shortage. If politicians fail to drive home the point, let’s hope that such a situation would rekindle the discussion on water crisis.
(Research inputs from Deepthi Mary Mathew, senior research associate, CPPR)
D Dhanuraj is chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research. Views are personal.
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