Millennium Post

Our greatest need

The current pandemic has further highlighted the need for creating universal water security for the purpose of ensuring self-sufficiency in rural India, writes Indira Khurana

Summer is here. This is the time when water crises across the country flare up as temperatures soar, throats get parched, and water sources run dry.

This year, things will be different and more difficult. As governments begin graded exits from lockdown, it's clear that the virus is not going anywhere, anytime soon. The Rs 15,000 crore approved by the Parliament for a multi-year 'India COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health System Preparedness Package,' and predictions by virologists and epidemiologists, all indicate that COVID-19 is here to stay for a while until there is a vaccine or a cure, better still both.

In the coming months and years — water — an unrecognised Corona 'warrior' will need more focused attention than ever before. And there are several reasons for this. The most recent and life-saving demand for water is to maintain hygiene to avoid infection from the virus. Estimates provided by the UP 'Jal Nigam' and 'Jal Sansthans' reveal that the average consumption post-March 15 has gone up from 75 litres per capita per day (lpcd) to 125 lpcd due to repeated hand washing, home cleaning and washing of clothes to maintain hygiene.

Here's the catch: Where is the water? Will there be enough water available for maintaining hygiene? Especially in rural areas, where efforts to kick start the economy are underway.

According to the Niti Aayog, in 2019, some 75 per cent of households do not even have drinking water on their premises and about 84 per cent of households do not have access to piped drinking water. Barely 16 per cent of rural households have access to piped water.

Getting water for washing hands is thus a luxury that few can afford. Behind these figures is the ugly truth of ruthless over-extraction of groundwater for almost all requirements including drinking water has resulted in failing water supply infrastructure.

The lockdowns also starkly highlighted the plight of the lakhs of people who migrate from their villages because agriculture is simply not possible due to water scarcity and no other livelihood options are available. "Villages are losing their pani (water), jawaani (youth) and kisani (agriculturists)," rues Stockholm Award winner, Rajendra Singh, Chairperson of Tarun Bharat Sangh.

This year, subjected to 'double distress migration — one in search of work and another returning back home because of the lockdown, their future is uncertain: Most migrants don't want to leave their villages again.

Migration leads to disruption of the social fabric, health issues, increased burden on women, hunger, malnutrition, trafficking, child marriage and suicide. The health burden for the women left behind to live in drought includes increased spontaneous abortion, uterus prolapse, kidney stones and water-borne disease. The men who have migrated come back with TB, silicosis and asthma.

This pandemic has, yet again, emphasised the need for strengthening socio-economic development in rural areas. The economy will improve if we improve the lives and livelihoods of people in the villages and make them self-reliant.

Creating water self-sufficiency implies beginning by conserving the rain that falls through locally-appropriate water harvesting systems. This conserved water can be used either directly either or for recharging surface and groundwater reservoirs. This water must be used judiciously: Adopting crop patterns suitable to the water available and bringing in efficiency in use, resulting in the availability of sufficient water for household needs including hygiene, and catering to future drought-like scenarios. There should be the least dependence on sources outside of the village or piped water supply from distant locations.

Water sufficiency will result in adequate water to maintain hygiene. It will enable local food security, give access to locally appropriate nutritious food through promoting homestead, community and school nutrition gardens where green and other vegetables and fruits can be cultivated to provide much-needed nutrition.

Migration extracts a huge social and economic cost from the rural poor but, for many, the search for greener pastures can end at home, if the water supply is assured and basic services and nutrition through their own cultivation is possible. Each village and every panchayat must attain self-sufficiency in water, food and nutrition security so that the residents of these self-sufficient units no longer crowd trains and buses in search of 'greener pastures' elsewhere at great social, health and economic cost.

There is a need for civil society to work with the government to develop livelihood options for the people to reduce migration: The youth can earn in the villages itself, connect to their water conservation heritage and stay back. This will also bring a sense of pride in their roots. With the long-term monsoon prediction stating that 2020 will be a normal monsoon year and MGNREGA work starting with the focus on water conservation, there is hope.

In his address to the sarpanches on Panchayat Diwas on April 24, the Prime Minister stated that COVID 19 has reminded us about the imperative of self-reliance. This must begin in villages, with the villagers encouraged to augment their water resources, practice agriculture that caters to their nutritional needs and livelihood requirements. This is possible by supporting them through various Central and state government schemes focusing on only one vision: Attaining self-sufficiency for self-reliance.

The writer is the Vice-Chairperson, Tarun Bharat Sangh and Director, Research at Safai Karmachari Andolan. Views expressed are strictly personal

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