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On the road to a serious crisis

George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action film “Mad Max: Fury Road” offers a frightening glimpse into a drought-stricken future, where water scarcity will critically impact humankind. Meanwhile, in Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian classic, “The Road”, the reader is taken into a world where men take refuge in violence for the sake of drinking water. Although the situation in India has not reached such dire extends, recent events suggest that if the status quo continues, citizens will soon be at each other’s throat over a drop of water. In Latur, Maharashtra, district authorities were forced to invoke Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to prevent violence over in the drought-hit zone. Under the collector’s order, not more than five people are allowed to gather near 20 water storage tanks until May 31 in order to prevent possible acts of violence. The situation has grown so dire in the city that authorities have restricted the supply of municipal water to once a month. Meanwhile, in Punjab, the State government has criminally gone back on a 40-year-old deal to give Haryana its share of water from the Ravi and Beas rivers by refusing to build the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) canal. Despite the Supreme Court’s repeated calls since 2004 to complete the canal, the State Assembly passed the Punjab Sutlej-Yamuna Link Land (Return of Property Rights) Bill, 2016, which provides for the restoration of land acquired for the project to its original owners. The Bill was passed with a clear aim to prevent any further construction of the canal ahead of the crucial Assembly elections. The consequences for Haryana are dire, especially for its southern regions. Closer to home, Jat protesters, demanding reservations in government jobs last month, damaged the Munak canal in Haryana, which supplies water to the national capital.

On the occasion of World Water Day, which was on March 22, many reports came out in the national media on how much water we actually have in this country and the real scarcity that exists. The one common thread that runs through these reports is how India’s escalating water crisis is primarily down to short-sighted considerations that have engulfed its politics and agriculture.  In Maharashtra’s sugar belt, which includes the drought-stricken Marathwada region, sugarcane production has been on the rise. For those unfamiliar with agricultural practices, sugarcane is a water guzzling crop. In 2014-15, a year in which the sugar belt faced a serious drought, it declared record production of sugarcane. It is baffling how a State stricken by drought continues to promote sugarcane plantation. The crop consumes over 70 percent of irrigated water while occupying just 4 percent of the State’s farmland. Despite the discrepancy and dire water situation, successive State governments have bailed out the sugar industry on numerous occasions with subsidies and loan waivers, instead of incentivising the production of other sustainable crops. Suffice to say, the sugar lobby and the number of local politicians beholden to it have influenced agriculture policy in the State. Meanwhile, the SYL canal in Punjab has been subject to the most deplorable forms of political opportunism in recent memory. “That legacy (of political opportunism) has shaped the terms of the debate, particularly in light of Punjab’s crop patterns; water-intensive rice crops cover over 60 percent of the state’s area under cultivation,” according to an editorial in Mint published on World Water Day. “That makes it easy to portray any inclination to honour the SYL agreement as being anti-farmer, the kiss of death in Punjab’s politics.”  

According to the latest report by the Central Water Commission, water levels at 91 major reservoirs nationwide stand at a mere 29 percent of total capacity. The data available goes on to detail that water levels at Indian reservoirs are 71 percent of last year or 74 percent of average storage over the last decade. According to an analysis of the report by IndiaSpend, a data-drive news website, the 91 major reservoirs contain only 157.8 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water, even though they can hold 250 BCM. Moreover, a further 400 BCM water is available for irrigation in India through groundwater. But according to NASA, India’s water tables are dipping at the rate of 0.3 metres a year. There are more than three months to go before we head into the monsoon season. After two consecutive years of deficient rainfall, experts are skeptical of the redeeming effect this year’s monsoon season could have on water levels. If the monsoon season follows the same pattern it did in the past two years, India could be on course for its worst water scarcity problem in a decade. Experts contend that another year of deficient monsoon with no equivalent relief in oil prices will worsen the economic distress that has already afflicted rural India. Adding to the problem of scarcity, government agencies estimate that as much of 80 percent of India’s surface water is contaminated and most of it come from untreated sewage that our cities release. Governments, civil society and the average citizen will have to play their part in resolving the crisis before it’s too late.   
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