India needs land for water...

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

To deal with scarcity, with climate change, with pollution--and to survive

it has been an eventful fortnight for those who know India cannot take water for granted. Cyclone Aila's severe destruction in the Sunderbans is sending thousands of refugees into Kolkata. For all its severity, this merely a glimpse of what a rising sea level could do to the delta. India's negotiators at climate talks ought to remind themselves--and the rest of the world--of that.

And what should the state government do? Asking for Rs 1,000 crore for a concrete embankment is exactly what it needs to not do. The delta is not the kind of low-lying coastline the Dutch have protected with dykes. Some of the world's largest rivers meet the sea here. The answer lies in studying how land and water court each other in the delta, and how plants and animals have adapted to this.

Adaptation is what a housing society in Bengaluru has shown in the face of scarcity. Tricked by builders, like so many urban middle class people, the residents have enhanced their water availability by harvesting rain, they treat and reuse their sewage, and have water pricing that is an example of self-regulation. They did this by committing their life and their land to their future.

The government of Tamil Nadu is showing a similar willingness to learn from a pilot project to revive traditional village ponds. If more than 12,000 ponds are revived, it would mean life to hundreds of thousands of people. A caveat: the state would do well to learn from the successes and failures of similar programmes in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

Both these cases show where the answers lie--given the peculiar geography and rainfall in South Asia, survival depends on committing land and people to water management. Taking 25 years to prosecute a tannery accused of polluting the Ganga is not the way to go about it. Building dams in the face of protests, when the fears of those likely to get displaced and those downstream who stand to lose a living river, is not sensible. In light of Aila's destruction, the Centre's constant weakening of coastal norms is shortsighted.

These should be read along with the report on the oldest mummies. 7,000 years ago, the Chinchorro people suffered the consequences of arsenic in their water. Arsenic and fluoride contamination is rife in India, mainly from mismanaging land and water. Water mandarins should visualize people embalming their dead children.

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