(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)
A Division Bench of the Madras High Court directed all district collectors across Tamil Nadu to constitute committees and to book cases under Section 379 of the IPC (theft) against persons illegally drawing groundwater. The Court was hearing a PIL against illegal extraction of groundwater for sale. A Government order passed in 2014 prohibits illegal tapping of groundwater as a crime.
Water scarcity has resulted in the growth of a lucrative water trade and sudden emergence of private water suppliers. In many towns and cities in southern India, water cans are sold in grocer shops and vegetable markets. Borewells are dug deep in vacant lands in private possession without proper permission of concerned authorities for direct sale of water or through regular suppliers which results in drying up of other borewells for domestic use in houses around.
Undoubtedly, the water crisis is a global problem affecting several countries in all continents. About one-fifth of the world’s population are living in areas of water scarcity and another one-fourth are said to be facing severe water shortage. The reasons for shortage are both natural and human-made and shortage is aggravated in many places by uneven distribution, wastage, pollution and unsustainable management.
The International Decade for Action “Water for life” was observed during 2005-2015, but without much positive effect. On the contrary, the rate of water use is calculated to be growing more than twice that of the population. Water scarcity is felt in more and more places though the extent of shortage varies.
The NDA Government soon after assuming office announced the setting up of a new Jal Shakti Ministry under a Cabinet Minister and amalgamates the Ministries of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. It immediately announced the Nal se Jal Scheme —– to provide drinking water through pipes to every household by 2024 to fulfil one of the BJP’s election promises that will directly benefit every person.
Like the Swachh Bharat scheme, it also needs people’s cooperation for proper implementation. The Ministry is expected to provide the much needed impetus to water conservation as nearly 45% of India is reeling under drought. To raise awareness about the water situation, the Water Channel is now part of the Weather Channel Forecast.
It is said that more than 100 million people in India could run out of water by 2020 due mostly to poor management and another 100 million could face inaccessibility to water near their homes. Press reports and TV channels are showing pathetic pictures of women fetching water for their domestic use from far off places while rivers, tanks and ponds nearby are lying dry.
Agriculture suffers most and there are reports of farmers selling their trees and families migrating from their water-starved villages. Construction activities are coming to a halt in many cities and industries are forced to slow down. Schools and offices ask their staff and students to bring their drinking water. Water protests are daily events made worse by bias in distribution.
Worse, with rainfall predicted to be below average this monsoon, groundwater levels are depleting everywhere and water crisis is the main talk of citizens. There is a fear that “Day Zero” may arrive in India by 2020.
“Day Zero” refers to the bitter experience in South Africa’s Cape Town in early 2018 after three consecutive years of severe drought when it seemed the city would run out of water and taps would be shut off. Luckily, the Day was pushed off without announcement of a new date by tremendous efforts at water conservation and arrival of rains. Day Zero forecast by the Mayor of Cape Town will be the day when 4 million residents of the town will be required to collect daily water rations which would be less than 7 gallons (25 litres) for each person.
The idea of Day Zero was introduced to focus everyone’s attention on the importance of regulating water consumption as best as possible. Its main features are water rationing and standing in queue to get the ration.
India has to learn a lesson on water conservation and usage to forestall the arrival of Day Zero.
Some are of the opinion that Day Zero has already arrived in India for over 100 million people living without access to water near their homes. By 2020, Day Zero may cover most of India due to excessive exploitation of groundwater. Natural shortage of water is being aggravated by pilferage, wastage and leakage. Technology for re-use of waste water and conversion of salt water into potable water is not well developed in the country.
Depletion of groundwater is a serious threat aggravating water famine in many cities. A NITI Ayog report released in 2018 highlights this problem by predicting that by 2020, 21 major cities including Delhi, Bangaluru and Hyderabad would face complete drying up of groundwater. Pertinently, India is a groundwater economy. It is the highest user of groundwater in the world using 25% of total groundwater extracted globally. It is ahead of the USA and China which are the other two major users of groundwater.
Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN General Assembly to be achieved during 2015-30 says that everyone on earth should have access to safe and affordable drinking water. Climate change is likely to increase the size of the population affected by water shortage which has already crossed 40% of people around the world.
Besides, water quality in India is so poor that it ranks 120 among 122 countries in quality index. “When water is available, it is likely to be contaminated up to 70% of our water supply”, states NITI Ayog which reports that this would cause nearly two lakh deaths in a year. Contamination follows shortage in the quest for some water and use of untreated water causing water-borne diseases.
Clearly, humanity is today facing acute overuse and pollution of water threatening the ecosystems and health and livelihoods of billions particularly the vulnerable. The poorest are the most vulnerable.
True, water management is generally considered as a very suitable area for people’s participation, but even here, politics and money power may intervene. It can be organized at various points from the grassroots as States are primary water managers in India. Social participation should not be equated to social activism or protest movements; nor does it mean referendums and debates.
In sum, extensive involvement of informal associations with official committees is required and this is happening in many parts of India. But, the tendency to resort to litigations and court decisions and predominance of experts and engineers tend to silence the voice of the affected people. Social participation is political as well as economic and is subjected to the stresses that arise from competing demands, rights, priorities and interests.
Still, enthusiastic social participation in water management is a reality in many countries. To avoid the dawn of Day Zero, nation must wake up and act. —— INFA