Promising water

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Wednesday 15 September 1999

Politicians do more to deplete water than provide people a sustained supply

At the recent meeting of the World Water Commission in Stockholm -- set up last year with the support of several governments and United Nations' agencies -- to develop a vision for water management in the next century, one of the members wondered how we would get the world's politicians to understand the importance of water, which is going to become increasingly scarce and polluted in the years to come.

I immediately pointed out that I had not met a single politician at least in India -- who did not recognise the importance of water, particularly drinking water. But I had hardly met a politician who knew what to do about the problem, except to throw money at it. And teaching people that it is going to be quite difficult.

The problem is that management of water is really a question of good governance of a natural resource -- which includes a variety of issues ranging from the establishment of proper property rights and good stakeholder involvement to the establishment of varied forms of institutions -- from the state level to the private and community level, proper pricing, transparency and accountability, strict regulation, integrated economy-environment management, comprehensive environmental management, appropriate choice of technology, and good research, data collection and mass education. How do we get politicians to govern properly?

In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) as a party and Shri Atal Behari Vaypayee as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (nda) understand water is important but are clueless of what has to be done. Both in its 1998 National Agenda for Governance and the 1999 election manifesto, the nda has promised that it "will spare no effort to ensure that potable drinking water is available to all villages in the next five years." This is an absolutely wonderful promise. Moving and delightful. Water is a matter of life and death in some ways as important as, if not more, than Kargil. Have you ever suffered from cholera or cancer because of polluted water or walked miles to get yourself a pot of that wonderful liquid because of all-round shortage?

But will the nda be able to deliver this beautiful liquid in a potable form to India's people? To that beautiful sentence, the 1999 election manifesto merely adds that "Age-old and traditional methods of water utilisation, in both rural and urban areas, will receive urgent attention." As one of the editors of The Fourth Citizens' Report on the State of India's Environment which focussed on India's traditional technologies and water management systems, I feel proud that the nda has taken note of India's valuable traditions in this field. But will this be enough to meet the nda's glorious objective?

The reality today is that nobody, absolutely nobody, today gets potable water. Even the rich and mighty who have dozens of taps in their houses. Otherwise the bottled water industry would not be recording a growth rate of 300-400 per cent every year, if indeed that is true of bottled water, which is more expensive than milk.

I was one of those who had heard Vajpayeeji wax eloquent about drinking water in Parliament when it debated the nda's plan of action in 1998. Vajpayeeji had pointed out, "Water can also catch fire. The problem of water is going to become even more complicated. The problem of water is not limited only to India. This has become a world problem. It is possible that the next major source of tension in the world will be water, not petrol. The pollution of water is increasing. The quantity of water is getting reduced. The water-table is falling. We all see this in our constituencies. We feel disturbed by the problems people are facing. Sangmaji, we have not given the assurance that we will do everything in five years. Only in the case of water, we would like to give the assurance that in five years there should be good drinking water everywhere. And this is our commitment." There are such wonderful words. I was absolutely thrilled to hear them.

But my joy was shortlived. About a year later, after as much as 20 per cent of the time allotted by Vajpayeeji had gone by and after the country had exploded atomic bombs, fired missiles and what not, showing clearly where Vajpayeeji's priorities lay, I checked with the Planning Commission on what was happening as there was total silence about this issue in the media. I asked if the Prime Minister had provided any directions or vision on how the task should be accomplished, recognising that water management is a very complex problem and past experience has a lot to teach us about what to do and not to do. The simple answer was 'no'. So is nothing happening, I asked? "No, that is not true either" said my respondent, "we have been asked to allocate more money for this sector." But what about all the new learning in this field? "Well, it will all be written in the plan document." "Fine," I said, "but how will you ensure that this learning is implemented?" My respondent shrugged his shoulder. It was obvious that no one in the nda had learnt anything from the innumerable Indian experiences of the past.

It was during Vajpayeeji's regime that an officer as senior as N C Saxena who, as secretary in the ministry of rural development, had produced stunning figures on India's deplorable record with drinking water programmes. In 1972, surveys had revealed that there were 150,000 drinking water 'problem villages' in India. By 1980, some 94,000 villages were covered and some 56,000 were left uncovered. But the 1980 survey revealed that there were some 231,000 problem villages. By 1985, only 39,000 villages were left uncovered but the new survey revealed 161,722 problem villages. Again, by 1994, there were only 70 uncovered villages but the 1994 survey revealed 140,975 problem villages (See Down to Earth, February 28, 1998). Why this extraordinary discrepancy between government records and reality? Because of corruption and incompetence resulting in bad water supply schemes, because of excessive exploitation of groundwater forcing the traditional wells to run dry, because of people giving up their traditional sources in the hope that the government will help them and because of growing pollution. Who had heard of arsenic in groundwater?

Another experience with Vajpayeeji's party also left me equally cold. Despite the bjp's professed and repeated respect for Hinduism, I had not seen any statement by its leaders on the utterly deplorable state of Bharat's rivers -- rivers which are worshipped by Hindus unlike any other religion in the world. What is the bjp doing to clean up Mother Ganga, Mother Yamuna and Mother Bhavani? Should we keep throwing filth on the faces of our mother? What kind of Hindus are we? One-half or one-third Hindus? Hinduism, in fact, more than any other religion, is practice rather than religious ideology. So I asked a correspondent of Down to Earth to interview bjp leader Kushabhau Thakre.

Thakreji was livid when he heard the questions. He answered, "This is political jingoism." Meaning this is not an environmental question. Of course, it is not entirely so, but don't India's citizens have a right to ask their politicians questions about their professed ideology and actual practice? Even more disturbing was Thakreji's answer on the subject of water supply which the party leader had talked about with such eloquence. Thakreji merely had three things to say. One, politicians cannot solve the problem of water. Two, this is a problem to which solutions can only be provided by experts. Three, experts unfortunately never speak with one voice and are often one-sided. So what do politicians do? (See Down to Earth, June 30, 1998) If I was interviewing Thakreji, I would have said, "This is precisely why politicians must provide experts with the framework of a clear vision and priorities for them to do their job." Thakreji was behaving like any bureaucrat when confronted with a problem: Just pass the buck.

It is obvious that the bjp and its alliance partners have done nothing to understand an issue on which they had given such a solemn promise. It was Rajiv Gandhi who had first given a high profile to drinking water programmes by making it one of the five technology missions, whose progress would be directly reported to him. A reasonably good programme was developed but a part of it soon deteriorated into a standard pumps and pipes programme which more often fails to yield water. With such a complex issue as water, mistakes are inevitable. But the nda had made no effort to learn from that experience. Nor did the alliance politicians learn from Digvijay Singh's work in Madhya Pradesh which would have told them that water rises in drinking water wells only when an effective watershed programme is taken up with the people's participation as in Jhabua. The programme had nothing to do with water; it was a programme for watersheds. No one has realised that to get rid of 'ecological poverty' one first has to get rid of 'mental poverty'. It is clear that nda's promise on water is nothing more than words. And at best it means a lot of valuable taxpayer money literally thrown down the drain.

The trouble with water is that it quickly collects all the muck of human society and pollutes itself. Equally, the state of water in any country reflects the madness, mismanagement and misgovernance of that country. The Yamuna today is polluted only because there is total lack of foresight in national planning, immense corruption in implementing the country's innumerable laws, total lack of transparency and accountability amongst water supply agencies, lack of stakeholder involvement and unbelievable level of 'mental poverty' in dealing with this problem. The Dal Lake -- the jewel of the Kashmir Valley -- is today dying because of the extraordinary ingenuity of the hapless local people who are turning the entire water body into a mass of floating agricultural fields. Development that has not reached the poor and militancy which has further robbed them of something that they did have -- tourism -- is forcing the poor and the embattled to destroy their very source of survival.

None of these examples are today unique. In fact, this is what is happening to every waterbody and India's water resources are in a deep state of crisis. People in the hills don't get water -- their traditional springs are dying -- because there has been massive deforestation. In the plains, innumerable wells -- traditional sources of drinking water called kuas in the North -- are losing their precious liquid because of the excessive use of groundwater by the agricultural rich for irrigation. Even Kerala which such high rainfall faces water shortages.

Does anybody know how to control river pollution? Does anybody know how to sustainably manage and protect aquifers? Does anybody know how to control the agricultural rich? Literally nobody does. Unfortunately, nobody is even prepared to learn from past mistakes. If the nda were to instal more tubewells for water supply, you can be rest assured the water will disappear even faster.

-- Anil Agarwal

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