Water crisis, if not managed Sincerely, will lead to increased Livelihood insecurities and Widespread social strife

By GovernanceToday
In Interview
May 4, 2016

Earth is a shared home and unless we all learn to respect it as such, the harm would accrue to all which is what we see all around us these days, from water scarcity to climate change. To discuss the issue of water scarcity and policy failures for the same, Ramesh Kumar Raja talked to Shelley Vishwajeet, the Founder President of Earthcare Foundation, an NGO that works in the area of environmental awareness and local area sustainability. A well respected policy analyst and writer, he has been invited to speak on critical environmental and policy issue by many reputed national and international platforms. An economic and political journalist by profession, Vishwajeet is an alumnus of SRCC and Law Faculty, Delhi University as well as Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Edited excerpts:

Shelley Vishwajeet

Shelley Vishwajeet | Founder President, Earthcare Foundation

Water is a topic of debate these days; how do you look at this crisis?

Being largely a tropical country with well spread perennial river systems, variety of water bodies, a well endowed ground water/ aquifer system and the fact that we have above world average long term precipitation, India on the surface looks well endowed with water resources. Abundance of water in most regions of Indian sub-continent had given birth to the popular belief that water is an eternal natural gift which cannot diminish. Even in the semi arid regions of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bundelkhand, MP, Andhra Pradesh etc or areas where perennial river network is absent, water for human consumption and sustenance agriculture had not been an issue like the ones we are witnessing now in Bundelkhand or Marathawada regions for past few years.

Having said this, the water crisis that we are witnessing today in many parts of India has largely been a preventable phenomenon magnified by administrative and political apathy and short-sightedness. In most drought prone areas, we have worked very hard to exacerbate a natural problem with pathetic disregard for local water resource management while wasting humungous resources on grandiose plans in the name of drought relief and mega schemes.

If the water crisis is not managed sincerely and intelligently, it will lead to increased livelihood insecurities and as a consequence wide spread social strife. As a welfare state aspiring to become a shining economy, we can let this situation prevail only at our own peril and much international disrepute.

The Latur and Bundelkhand water crisis is enough to demonstrate how governments have been non-serious towards the issue despite repeated reminders from time to time. Your take?

Though the reasons and contours of water crisis in Bundlekhand is quite different from that of Marathawada region, you have rightly pointed out that there is a common thread of apathy, lack of vision, waking up too late to the crisis in the making and of course governments’ fascination with grandiose plans while neglecting micro or local area water management practices involving communities and commonsensical approach to water conservation.

To borrow the quote of P Sainath, “everybody loves a good drought’ except of course the sufferers, who are largely marginal farmers and rural poor. Why they love it, I think we all know the answer. In the last 12 years, more than Rs 60,000 crore has been pumped for drought-relief related works in Maharashtra. There are many good works which are visible but the general impression persists that much public money has been wasted or siphoned off. Government of the day needs to bring a ‘White Paper’ on Marathawada drought relief expenditures and its results to regain public trust.

As far as Bundelkhand region is concerned, there has been a reduction in precipitation level in the region from late 80s onwards. Due to hard geographical formation (basalt & sandstone), ground water recharge and extraction has been traditionally difficult while much of the rainwater flows towards rivers and through rivers out of the region. Still, as long as population was low and modern agricultural practices (which typically require more water) had not taken roots, the problem had not blown to capture national attention. But then, warning about impending water crisis has been sounded off for a long time. Problem among the official circle and even among a section of politicians is that when warning is given by civil society, there is a general disdain and a tendency to dismiss these warnings as alarmist. Anyway, my own feeling is that governments, for a variety of reasons, loves such crisis and that’s why it refuses to act till it actually erupts.

Because of depleting water table across the country, water viability for all uses is in danger. How can we ensure water availability for future generations?

There is no lack of scientific, political and administrative understanding as to what needs to be done to ensure water security for future generations. Problem largely lies with the tools we have been choosing to tackle the problem and in the sincerity of approach. My overwhelming appeal is that please don’t rely solely on or give undue importance to mega plans even though they make for good headlines; instead focus more on providing policy, knowledge and financial support to micro and community initiatives for water management works. Even in parched Marathawada, we have many success stories due to community watershed initiatives such as Ralegan Siddhi, Hiware Bazaar and Soppecom. Officials need to learn and get inspired from people like Dr Vilasrao Salunkhe, Anna Hazare, Popatrao Pawar, Kalpanatai Salunkhe and of course Rajinder Singh. The silver lining is that conventional wisdom and some social pioneers are now being co-opted in the new policy regime. And due to this, we will be seeing some dramatic positive results in few years from now even in rain deficient region of Marathawada.

Majority of ponds and lakes have become victim to rapid urbanisation and construction. What can be done to rein in this menace?

Crass urbanisation coupled with greed, official apathy, planning myopia and utter disrespect for our natural heritage has destroyed the local urban area eco-systems and has made most of our cities utterly uninhabitable place. Almost every Indian city has its own tale of destruction of natural heritage, be it Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Guwahati or Patna. Just take the sad case of Delhi. Right here in the national capital which is home to intellectuals, policy makers, highest court of justice and seats of two elected governments, just see the state of our water bodies. In official records, Delhi is supposed to have nearly 1,000 water bodies/marshes but in reality 80 per cent of these are gone forever. And most of the remaining is highly endangered. In most surviving large water bodies in Delhi, we have created concrete walls and blocked the natural water flow recharge system. We focus more on superficial beautification and concretization but have little interest in preserving the natural eco-system. So on one hand, we let our natural heritage die and on the other we keep harping about programs like rainwater harvesting. This duplicity will not take us far.

In 2001, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests developed a separate programme called National Lake Conservation Plan to conserve urban water bodies. However, only a few states have developed state-level conservation plans till date and very few water bodies have been revived. The failure stems from official reluctance to co-opt environmentalists, NGOs, credible citizens in such efforts. To give one example, under the order of the Delhi High Court, Delhi government in 2011 had formed a high level committee to monitor the progress of revival and conservation efforts of water bodies in Delhi. The apex bodies under this are full of bureaucrats or representatives from government institutions – who generally do not have time or natural inkling to undertake such activities. Only one NGO was made a member in the steering committee and there is not a single elected representative as its member out of total members of 30. Why such reluctance to involve citizens and civil society and public representatives in a cause which concerns us all?

Even at individual front, people are recklessly wasting water in their homes and at workplaces. How can this be discouraged?

I sincerely believe that there is a high level of awareness among people, especially among the younger generation about the value of water – thanks to years of many positive campaigns to highlight the issue. Yes, a lot more needs to be done. But often, household water wastage issues are raised to divert the attention from larger failures such as distribution leakage and wastage which not long back was as high as 40 per cent in Delhi and much higher allocation of water to privileged or bureaucratic areas of a city or towns. For example, on an average a Delhi citizen gets 300 litres of water everyday, but in many areas it is not more than 100 liters while in NDMC, which is largely home to government employees, availability is more than 700 litres. Anyway, I have a lot of faith in future generation but the notion that water is a scarce commodity needs to be reinforced time and again through campaigns, curricula and if need be some punitive measures also need to be taken.

What is your opinion on the river-interlinking project? Do you think it is environmentally sound?

Building a National Water Grid of which river interlinking is a big component is an old idea and been a source of recurring debate. Idea on the paper is simple – to conserve and harness excess monsoon water in rivers and use it during water deficient seasons by linking rivers through networks of canals and barrage. If fructified, this could be one of the most life-changing and among the most complex projects in the world.

Every development work has some price to pay in terms of environmental and social fallouts but if the benefits far outweigh the cons, one needs to go for it. The kind of challenges that India faces such as food security, rural upliftment and livelihood, higher agricultural output etc cannot be achieved if our water resources are not harnessed and managed optimally and scientifically. River interlinking project can be a transformational feat for our countryside. And let us not overlook the fact that it is a long project and if major faults are noticed in the program at any stage, this can be abandoned or modified but opposing it even before it has begun will be a regressive, anti-farmer step. The real challenge before the government is to communicate sincerely and effectively to people that this project will largely benefit the rural community and farmers, before other negative notion tak