The skewed nature of our priorities is what has led to the current crisis
On the folk who put food on your platter
Cities remain drought-proof even when the rest of the state, especially the hinterland, grapples with acute water scarcity
By now, it has been established that India is facing its worst water crisis. Several commentators and environmentalists have sounded off alarms that should send shivers down the spine of any sane human being. And with the metros too feeling the pinch, the media has also woken up to the issue. If the NITI Ayog says 21 cities in India – including Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore – will run out of groundwater by 2020, then the crisis must be real. Never mind the hardships of women in rural India lumbering miles to fill up a pot of water almost every summer for the past few years.
This skewed nature of our priorities is precisely what has led to the current water crisis. We have a tendency to blame it on drought, implying it is an act of god, and absolving our policies from culpability in the bargain. But the water crisis is, in fact, led by human activities; drought only acts as the last nail in the coffin.
Take Maharashtra for example. Seventy two per cent of the state is reeling under drought. The production of winter crops is down by 63 per cent, and the Economic Survey of 2018-19 says the total agricultural output in Maharashtra is down by 8 per cent. Marathwada, which is one of the worst hit regions, is scraping the bottom of dried up wells, drinking muddy water even if it is detrimental to people’s health. A poignant video from Aurangabad, the capital of Marathwada, recently went viral; in it women are seen running hysterically behind a water tanker with empty pots in their hand.
In the same Aurangabad, 16 beer breweries and distilleries guzzle three million litres of water per day. They have recorded a 14 per cent increase in production in times of peak drought. Common sense tells me these factories should be in areas with excess water availability and not in a drought-prone zone. But common sense is the most uncommon thing.
Speaking of applying common sense behind water management, Marathwada has more than 70 sugar factories. Sugarcane consumes 76 per cent of available groundwater, and occupies 6 per cent of Maharashtra’s cultivable land. According to an estimate, just two crops use 50-55 per cent of irrigation water in India: rice and sugarcane. Agriculture economist Ashok Gulati had written that farmers in Punjab and Haryana use 5,000 litres of water to produce one kilogram of rice. It is said to be one of the main reasons behind groundwater depletion.
It is convenient to blame farmers for their continued cultivation of water guzzling crops amidst crippling scarcity. But water conservation should be the responsibility of lawmakers, not destitute farmers. One of the biggest challenges for farmers is to sell their crops at a decent price after harvesting them. Out of the total procurement by the government, more than 30 per cent consists of rice and wheat. In case of sugarcane, farmers deal with their contracted sugarcane factories, and sell off their produce relatively quicker than the food crops, which do not even cover the basic investment costs on most occasions.
Our policies incentivise the cultivation of water guzzling crops. The market discourages farmers from cultivating food crops that require fewer litres, and then we wonder why farmers continue to sow rice and sugarcane. It is no coincidence that politicians or their proxies own most of the sugarcane factories in Marathwada. Discouraging sugarcane would compromise their vested interests, which they do not want to do even if it means the state turns into a desert.
The third kind that exposes our abuse of water is the juxtaposition of water usage in urban areas with rural areas. In his recent piece, agriculture expert Devinder Sharma wrote how cities remain drought-proof even when the rest of the state, especially the hinterland, grapples with acute water scarcity. “Strangely, while the rest of the state has been reeling under a series of droughts – at least for 12 of the past 18 years at a stretch, Bengaluru city remains insulated,” he wrote.
“Hyderabad too doesn’t give an iota of the sense of the terrible water crisis prevailing on either side of the city in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh – a clear reflection of the drought-proofing accomplished over the years in urban areas.”
Having travelled a bit through rural India myself, I can reliably say the people in hinterland also get thirsty every once in a while. It isn’t something unique to us living in urban centres. While we discuss India’s worst ever water crisis, we need to address our inequitable distribution of water. Access to water should be a citizen’s right. We have made it into a privilege.
Seventy two per cent of Maharashtra is reeling under drought