Fire and water

Water is a burning issue in India

Published: Friday 15 January 1999

water means life. It also means death. Three men were recently charged with setting on fire a woman corporator of Navi Mumbai. The reason: water. Corporator Meena Bhagwan More was attacked by the men, workers of another political party. They first doused her with a can of kerosene, then set her on fire. More is in hospital with 80 per cent burn injuries. A tussle over the location of a water pump led to her immolation.

The incident merely shows that water, or the lack of it, has become a very serious issue in Indian cities. Is the problem lack of water, or poor distribution, or the systems inability to manage water? Today water and its supply has become a burning issue in India. Water shortages are chronic. Supply is no longer decentralised. Queues for water are a common sight. How serious is this crisis? If the price one has to pay for bottled drinking water is any indication, it is high time some serious rethinking is done. Bottled water is almost as expensive as milk in the national capital.

India's ability to manage water has taken a severe beating. Indians have a glorious tradition when it comes to managing and harvesting water. Like rain the supply of water in India was always decentralised. Ancient Indians used tanks to store rainwater and produced intricate systems based on the use of checkdams, ponds and storage structures to manage the local watershed. It was this management of water which resulted in India being one of the world's most prosperous countries. Huge urban centres came up, even in the desert state of Rajasthan. They all had one thing in common. The municipal corporation and the pipeline were both conspicuous by their absence.

The struggle to get control of water merely shows that political party workers have realised that water means votes. What happened in the Navi Mumbai slum was startling. While the woman corporator was trying to get the pump installed in front of her residence, Congress workers succeeded in getting the site changed to another part of the colony, where the residents had more loyalty for the Congress. She threatened to move heaven and earth to oppose the installation. The Congress workers reacted by setting her on fire.

It is high time that the policy makers and political heavyweights in India realise that water is a very important issue. Best left outside the purview of the bureaucracy. It is time to give power to the people, so they can control water.

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