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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 33 New Delhi August 3, 2019

Need for a National Water Policy

Saturday 3 August 2019

by Saumitra Mohan

The Rain God has been playing pricey for sometime in this country. All the skyward prayers and purported rain-invoking rituals seem to have been in vain with the rainfall still remaining elusive and erratic in many parts of India. The delayed onset of rains is said to have resulted in a 27 per cent drop in sowing of kharif crops. With the water crisis looming large on the horizon, the subject experts and scribes are seemingly having a field-day diagnosing the problem and related issues, while also prescribing endless solutions.

This is where the nub lies. We have all known the problem and solutions for long. But when it comes to acting on the sundry recommendations, everyone everywhere falls short and comes a cropper. And this has somewhere to do with the way we do our politics today. Our decision-making is beholden to the generosity of the political class who, more often than not, shrink from taking right decisions while playing to the gallery of the voters. It is this attitude and the emergent situation which have been playing havoc with the way we deal with every issue in this country including water.

The almost ‘free water’, ‘No User Charge’ or ‘free electricity’ policy has somehow cost us dearly, with the same resulting in the extensive and mindless use of ground water by all the stakeholders, almost verging on the criminal. The stakeholders including agriculturalists, industrialists or the hoi polloi see no merit in water conservation by way of a prudent and discrete consumption of the same. However, the time has definitely come for all of us to soak in all the available water wisdom by doing a rethink on our water consumption patterns.

Today, the 18 per cent of the global population living in India has access to only four per cent of its usable water, with 163 million Indians lacking access to safe potable water. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), in its recent report, has painted a very grim picture of India’s water scenario. As per a report shared by the NITI Aayog, 22 Indian cities, including New Delhi, shall run out of water by 2020. One could only imagine the ensuing chaos and mayhem as a result thereof unless we start bracing ourselves for the eventuality in right earnest immediately.

As we know, 21 per cent of our diseases are water-borne and with no access to safe drinking water, almost 200,000 Indians reportedly die every year because they don’t have access to safe drinking water. It is suggested that a humongous 600 million Indians face ‘high to extreme’ water stress in the country. The situation is only going to aggravate in times to come. Thus, we are virtually sitting on a ticking time-bomb in the form of a potential health emergency waiting to unfold. Poor state regulation and gross mismanagement over the years by our water managers have today resulted in our rivers and water systems being heavily contaminated by the presence of solid waste therein. The high coliform content at many stretches of these water systems make the same unusable and unfit for human consumption.

It is really painful to note that notwithstanding 70 years of independence, India has seen the safe piped drinking water reaching only 70 per cent of urban and 19 per cent of rural households in this country. It is really laudable though that the government has finally given piped water supply its deserved attention by not only committing to reach the same to all the rural households in five years by way of launching a ‘Nal Se Jal’ (Water from Tap) scheme, but also creating a dedicated Ministry in the form of ‘Jal Shakti Mantralaya’ for a more holistic and coordinated approach to India’s water problem.

A better convergence of the same with national programmes like ‘Namami Gange’, ‘Swacch Bharat Abhiyan’ and similar State Government initiatives could pay rich dividends to ensure better policy outcomes, thereby addressing the problem of inegalitarian access to water resources in certain parts of India. If we don’t wake up in time to come out with a geographically-customised water policy, our dreams of becoming a developed country or a ‘superpower’ is sure to be dashed against our water woes, not to speak of our health and food security being severely compromised.

Be it a sound watershed management, building of smaller check-dams rather than big-ticket behemoths, construction of more percolation tanks linked to main service tanks, popularising dedicated ‘on-farm tanks and ponds’ for agricultural purposes, better networking and deepening of our canal systems, imposing a population-specific progressive user charge, a regional river-linking plan to be gradually upgraded into a full-fledged national river-linking project, incentivising water harvesting and water conservation behaviour, encouraging more and more afforestation, renovating and redoing our traditional water systems while creating more water storage capacities for better recharging of our ground-water aquifers are some of the solutions that the Government needs to consider with more gravitas than has been done so far.

The required policy and regulatory support should be immediately in place. It is felt that all the municipal and PRI bodies should hugely incentivise and make it mandatory for all the private and public buildings to have a ‘roof-top water harvesting structure’ as far as practicable, while also recycling most of the water we use to make the same usable for different purposes including drinking. The regulatory machinery must ensure zero discharge of industrial, household and municipal waste into our rivers and water systems, thereby not only improving the quality of water, but also saving the entire aquatic ecosystem therein.

We also need to do a rethink on our cropping patterns. By traditionally cultivating water-intensive crops like rice, sugarcane, soyabean, wheat and cotton, we have been unwittingly depleting our water resources. The export of such crops actually means indirectly exporting water to the recipient countries. We must selectively switch from the more water-intensive crops to the more water-efficient crops like pulses, oilseeds and other cash crops which give better returns on the investment of all kinds of resources including water, labour and capital.

According to the Central Water Commission, India receives 4000 billion cubic metres of rains, while it requires only 3000 billion cubic metres of water for its populace as of now. However, as per the recent Composite Water Management Index Report by the NITI Aayog, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply by 2030. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an individual requires 25 litres of water daily for meeting one’s basic needs for hygiene and foods.

While India’s per capita average water use is much more than this as of now, the same is going to be severely compromised in the near future if we don’t sit up and take corrective measures instantaneously. And while we do all this, we must raise the general awareness among all sets of stakeholders regarding the looming water crisis and the related imperative to conserve the same. We urgently require the framing of a National Water Policy today to nudge every stakeholder to imbibe a more responsible water ethos than we have cared so far. One only hopes that with an intent and determined government leadership, all stake-holders could come together for taking the water problem bull by its horns.

Dr Saumitra Mohan is an IAS officer, presently working as the Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views expressed here are personal and don’t reflect those of the government.

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