The country is in the grip of a severe water crisis, but our leaders and the media are busy discussing inane issues
by- M N Partha
India is currently facing its worst water crisis. Let alone farming, NITI Ayog has sounded off a warning, saying 40 per cent of Indians would not even have access to safe drinking water by 2030. Twenty-one cities, including Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore, would run out of groundwater by the next year.
The water crisis has been looming large for a while, yet it was not part of the agenda ahead of the 2019 general election. Later this year in October, we are about to have Maharashtra assembly elections, and the water crisis, which pinches farmers the most, is still unlikely to be an election issue.
Before we come to the reason behind it, let me briefly explain the magnitude of the water scarcity. Seventy-two per cent of the districts of Maharashtra are currently hit by drought and crop failure. Farmers are migrating out of their villages, not too different from what we saw in the iconic film The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name. Those still in the villages have to cover miles before they can fill up a pot of water. That too is mostly muddy, causing diseases and infections to the residents of rural Maharashtra.
Many experts say what we are witnessing today resembles the most horrific drought of 1972 that had devastated even the big landholders in Maharashtra.
But the socio-political equations back then were different. India had only been independent for 25 years. It was a nation-building phase. The Dalit Panther movement had been flourishing. And merely two years before the drought of 1972, students in Maharashtra had carried out an agitation for development.
Naturally, when the state grappled with drought, it birthed a state-wide movement of toilers, ably supported by students and workers in urban areas as well. Many of the civil servants, bureaucrats and even politicians today were students back then working hard to alleviate the tremors of drought.
It was an active and all-inclusive civil society that had taken to the streets, mirrored by the politicians representing them in the assembly. Vasantrao Naik was the chief minister of Maharashtra, and opposition leaders like Mrinal Gore, Ganpatrao Deshmukh, Ahilyabai Rangnekar would rock the state assembly with their questions regarding drought relief. Senior journalists tell me the debates would go on for hours, and were of a certain quality. The entire discourse did not allow journalists to focus on non-issues either. As P Sainath says, good journalism is a society in discussion with itself. And that is exactly what it was back then to a large extent.
In contrast, barring a few reporters, not many mainstream media houses are focusing on the water crisis today. In the quest for ratings, they are instead busy debating Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s inane glove. The current opposition in Maharashtra lacks credibility to make water an issue; people may even laugh at them if they try to, considering the Rs 35,000 crore irrigation scam involved some of its prominent leaders. Ajit Pawar, who had condescendingly asked if he should pee in a parched dam, surely cannot lead the water agitation in the state assembly.
The civil society too is more fragmented, insular and apathetic than what it was, thereby being incapable of compelling the media or political leaders to make drought or water into an issue, or even an integral part of our discourse.
It is a chicken and egg story. The civil society, our political leaders and the media are connected and largely reflect each other’s bankruptcy of integrity and sincerity.
It leaves us with leaders who have the limited intellect of providing water tankers and cattle camps in times of drought. The Maharashtra government led by Devendra Fadnavis has now promised to interlink dams in Marathwada with pipelines to counter drought. But his government has used more water tankers in the state this year than it did in any of its previous years in power. More than 6,000 of them are currently running through the state. That water is mostly extracted from the ground, basically accelerating our journey towards desertification. Most of us do not realise that the water crisis exists even when the rain is pouring down.
But providing tankers and setting up cattle camps is a good stopgap measure, and by the time people in Maharashtra queue up to cast their votes in October, monsoon would be on its last legs. The water scarcity would have receded a fair bit. And the media, civil society and our leaders would be able to get back to inane issues until next summer.
Think of it this way. We have doctors only coming up with an idea of applying a Band-Aid to every wound under the sun. How long before we run out of them?