Will it quench India’s thirst?

Court Charts New Water Course

By Poonam I Kaushish

In dull political Delhi there is a deluge via a Supreme Court order on the Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu which is all set to chart a new course for riparian disputes. Underscored by a no nonsense message to our netagan: Water is not a State property, it belongs to all, don’t politicize it.
Notably, it increased Karnataka’s water allocation by 14.25 tmc from 270 to 284.25 tmc, reduced Tamil Nadu’s from 419 tmcft to 404.25 tmcft and allowed it to draw additional 10 tmcft ‘groundwater’ from total of 20 tmcft beneath the Cauvery basin. The tribunal award of 30 tmcft to Kerala and 7 tmcft to Puducherry stands.
Predictably, while Karnataka is over the moon, Tamil Nadu is “disappointed”. Citing figure to buttress its claim: The State houses 6% of the country’s population but has only 3% water resources, per capita availability is 800 cubic metres, a third of the national average and gets annual rainfall of 792 million metres compared to the national average of 1,250 million metres.
Undoubtedly, the verdict’s timing could not be better. As the search for water has become the most harrowing and frustrating task for 21st Century India and Cauvery is only the tip of the iceberg. Inter-State disputes over water-sharing have grown over the years and become major politically volatile issues. More so, post bifurcation of big States, leading to inter-State political and legal battles wherein no State wants to release water to another.
Worse, instead of finding a durable and sustainable solution to the problem, the Centre has taken recourse to short-cuts and quick-fix remedies which have compounded the mess. Resulting in States taking independent action in brazen violation of the Constitution.
Already, the Centre is embroiled in sorting out water-sharing disputes between Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka over Krishna waters, Maharashtra-Karnataka over Godavari, Goa-Karnataka over the Mandel-Mandovi Basin and Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat over Narmada etc. Despite the Inter-State Waters Dispute Act 1956 setting up five tribunals to go into the matter.
Alongside, Parties rake up water issues for their political survival, failing to realize that our rivers are being over-exploited and increasingly polluted by being used as dumping grounds for industrial waste and garbage. Notwithstanding, crores being spent on cleaning rivers like Ganga and Yamuna and on rural water schemes, wells are dry and women continue to trek long distances for water.
At other times, State interests override national concerns. Many times a State refuses to honour a tribunal award or rescinds its agreement. Telengana has asked the Centre to relook the River Krishna water-sharing award as it is being unfairly treated by Andhra, Maharashtra and Karnataka through which the river flows.
This at a time when 11 river basins including Ganga will be water deficit by 2025, threatening over a billion lives with the challenge getting graver by 2050 as demand will rise to 1,180 million cubic metres, 1.65 times the current levels even as fresh water resources dwindle. Think, India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% usable water, wastes more than it produces and spends billions on inane projects instead of focusing on water conservation.
The Government’s solution? Look skywards to ward off the crisis and ignoring that due to global warming glaciers are melting rapidly. Questionably, where will India get its water in the coming years? Realizing the gravity Modi has unveiled his dream project Ganga Rejuvenation and River Development plan. It now remains to be seen whether his proposals are implemented and, if so, how fast?
Perhaps he can take a leaf out of Ambedkar plan to encourage a permanent solution between States: ‘Water sharing equity’ through a Constitutional mechanism by allocating autonomous governance rights to the Centre to ensure water sharing equity is met even in distressed years.
Happily, after years of foot-dragging India will begin work on an $87 billion plan to connect some big rivers to end floods and droughts. As States which were not flood prone are now witnessing calamity and those which flooded, the situation has deteriorated. All thanks to accumulation of silt in huge quantities in rivers.
Modi’s mammoth plan entails linking 60 rivers including Ganga which the Government hopes will cut farmers’ dependence on monsoon rains by bringing millions of hectares of cultivatable land under irrigation. It constitutes two main components connecting Himalayan Rivers and Peninsular Rivers. When completed, the project would consist of 30 river links and 3000 storage structures to transfer 174 billion cubic meters of water through a canal network of about 14900 km, flood control and generation of 34000 megawatt of power.
The project’s first phase involves a dam on the Ken river in north-central India and a 22-km canal connecting it to the shallow Betwa which would set the template for other proposed river inter-linking projects. Next are projects in the West linking the Par-Tapi with the Narmada and the Daman Ganga with the Pinjal.
Proponents of rivers interlinking projects claim this would end our water misery as it would help conserve abundant monsoon water, store it in reservoirs, deliver it using rivers inter-linking projects to areas which are water scarce and facilitate navigation and fish farming to broaden income in rural areas.
Further, the surplus flood waters from Brahmaputra Mahanadi, Ganga and Godavari could be diverted through a network of canals and dams to water deficient rivers in south India. This would help boost agricultural production, increase forest cover and bring down pollution.
Already, six intra-State river linking schemes, including Sujalam Sufalam, Sabarmati-Saraswati and Bhadar-Mahi links have started yielding positive results and mitigated potable and irrigation water woes in several parched and drought-prone areas in Modi’s north and central Gujarat, increased greenery and improved the environment.
Inter-linking of rivers would also raise the irrigation potential to 160 million hectares for all types of crops by 2050 and India would be better off investing in water conservation and improved farm practices nonetheless environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts warn of ecological damage.
Simultaneously, States need to maximize a fair distribution of water and minimize its use as a weapon of conflict. Concerned States must show magnanimity and adopt a give-and-take approach instead of rushing to courts. Rivers need to be seen as a composite whole that includes forests, environment, watersheds, seepage, evaporation, crop patterns, irrigation etc.
True, inter-linking of rivers is not a panacea for all issues as water cannot be created, manufactured in a factory nor imported like oil. Therefore, management of available water resources becomes vital for catering to a growing population and changing lifestyle.
Time now for the Centre to treat water as a national asset and go in for durable long term solutions which needs national planning geared for local solutions. Else, India will face a severe water crisis within the next two decades and have neither cash to build new infrastructure nor water for its growing economy and people.
In sum, our leaders need to end their reckless drift offering pies in the sky. Pragmatic competence is the need of the hour. Let us keep our fingers crossed that the waters are not muddied further and our netas don’t leave us high and dry. Zabaani jama khurch will not quench India’s growing thirst! —- INFA