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FACING DROUGHT AND WATER SCARCITY

Dinkar Shukla*

    Scorching heat, drought and acute drinking water shortage. India’s summer of discontent has begun!

    Drought conditions prevail in an entire belt stretching from Rajasthan and Gujarat down to Andhra Pradesh. The three most affected States are in the grip of an extended drought resulting from scarce rainfall last year and in some cases in preceding years as well. As many as 18 out of 23 Andhra districts are drought-affected,. The northeast monsoon visiting the State between October and December failed last year. Over 23,000 villages in 26 districts of Rajasthan are facing serious drought conditions. In Gujarat, Rajkot, Junagarh, Surendranagar, Bhavnagar, Porbandar, Jamnagar and Kutch districts are the worst affected. Some parts of Saurashtra are said to be experiencing their worst drought in a hundred years.

Central Relief

    The Centre has announced drought relief assistance to all the three States. Scarcity relief works, food for work and other programmes have been started in many places. The Centre has announced additional drought relief assistance of Rs.200 crore to each of the three States. It has acceded to Andhra Pradesh’s request to provide it wheat and rice for sale at below poverty line price level in its drought-affected areas.

    In any case, the Government has time, resources and bulging stocks of food grains in its public distribution channel to take care of the drought-affected population. What, however, is causing it a grave anxiety is the scarcity of drinking water being experienced in many parts of the country. Reports in this regard are pouring in from all over. In several of these places the shortage has assumed the form of a water famine. The Saurashtra region is doubly accursed. Besides the drought, it is facing a drinking water shortage, which is the worst in living memory. The crisis is so acute that Rajkot, Bhavnagar and a couple of other towns of Saurashtra witnessed water riots early last month.

    Not long ago, three persons were killed when police opened fire on a group of villagers protesting against the diversion of Kankavate reservoir waters to Jamnagar town.

Scenario

    The drought and drinking water shortage have forced mass migration of people and cattle from the affected areas in the three States. The human migration from Mehboob Nagar district in Andhra Pradesh so far alone is placed at around five lakh. Reports of thousands of cattle dying on account of hunger and thirst are coming in from Rajasthan and Gujarat.

    Men, women and children in serpentine queues before water taps, hand pumps and water tankers is a common feature in our towns and cities. In rural areas people, mostly womenfolk with pitchers on head, can be seen walking several kilometres daily to fetch drinking water from the nearest source. To overcome the distress, special goods trains are ferrying drinking water tankers to many places in Rajasthan. Under a Central scheme drinking water tankers plying on roads are being supplied free diesel.

    The drinking water famine being experienced in these areas may appear to be an exceptional phenomenon. But this is not quite so. A large part of the country is routinely experiencing acute drinking water crisis year after year during the summer months. Tens of thousands of rural habitations and villages, dozens of cities and even metropolitan towns face the problem every summer. This is on account of various factors. The chief among them is the neglect of ecology and afforestation, failure to adopt practices aimed at efficient and economic use of water, reckless exploitation of ground water, absence of water conservation, watershed management and water harvesting practices to the desired extent.

    A country of India’s size ought to have a national policy providing for transfer of water from surplus basins to deficit areas. It has neither such a policy nor a programme to check monsoon water. Nearly 80 per cent of it drains out to the sea every year. The total annual availability of renewable fresh water in India is placed by the Central Water Commission at 1,869 cubic meters.

    India’s population has now crossed the 100 crore mark. This is one-sixth of the total world population. The challenge of meeting the drinking water requirement of such a huge population, besides that of cattle population, can easily be imagined. The requirement of water for agriculture and industry is in addition. Over the decades about 30 lakh hand pumps were installed and piped water supply scheme started in the country. Billions of rupees was pumped in to meet drinking water requirements of the people. And, yet, the nightmare of drinking water scarcity continues to haunt many parts of the country and a significant section of the population.

    How is it that a country which can boast of many notable achievements in different fields has not been able to overcome its drinking water problem in the 53 years since Independence? And this despite the fact that eight five year plans, each promising to solve the problem, have been through and the ninth five year plan too has completed half its journey. It seems as though at the end of each Plan period the magnitude of the problem remained more or less the same.

Problem

    According to an estimate, nearly 20 crore people do not have access to safe drinking water. The problem is aggravated by the depletion of groundwater in many parts of the country. Tanks, wells and baodis which were quenching our thirst for centuries are drying. Tens of thousands of hand pumps have been rendered unusable on account of both disrepair and receded ground water. According to an official report, a serious problem of groundwater has arisen in the country’s 240 development blocks. The country is said to have exhausted 37 per cent of its underground water. Half of the underground water is used for irrigation. The area under irrigation with groundwater sources has increased to 4.60 crore hectare from 65 lakh hectares in 1951.

    Boring for tubewells is to be done to a great depth now, sometime as deep as 250 feet. The Gujarat Minister, Mr Jaynarayan Vyas, disclosed at the Second World Conference held at The Hague recently to discuss the drinking water problem that in some parts of his State the water table has gone down as deep as around 800 feet.

Centre’s Initiative

    To tackle the problem of drinking water in a systematic manner, the Government of India started an accelerated rural water supply programme in 1971-72. In 1986 it was converted into a technology mission. It approached the task through various mini-missions. One of these addressed to the problem of salinity, fluorosis and excess amount of iron and arsenic in water. A chain of over 400 laboratories was set up to test water quality.

    In order to ensure planned execution of work, the Government divided the 5,80,000 villages of the country into 14,30,000 rural habitations. According to Mr S K Tripathi, Secretary of the Drinking Water Department, an estimated 11,60,000 habitations have an assured supply of 40 litre per capita daily of safe drinking water. This works out to 81 per cent of the total number of habitations. Another 16 per cent, that is over 2,30, 000 habitations are partially covered. The real problem calling for Government effort relates to only 34,000 (or only three per cent) habitations in the country.

    The Government focus all these years has been on increasing coverage without attention to ensuring sustainability of already created drinking water sources. Today, lakhs of hand pumps are in a state of disrepair and lakhs of wells and tubewells have gone dry. Waking up to the reality, the Government has now decided to hand over maintenance and sustenance of drinking water sources to the community. The community-based management experiment will initially cover 58 districts in the country. The Government is restricting its role to that of facilitator rather than that of supplier.

Conservation

    The idea of water conservation through community participation has also been mooted. It has been advocated by none other than the President, Mr K R Narayanan. Water conservation programme so far being carried out separately by Agriculture, Rural Development, Water Resources and Environment Ministries will now be executed by a single agency under the charge of the Rural Development Ministry. The President has also stressed on the need to adopt traditional technologies of water conservation.

    India possesses a large number of traditional technologies in different areas.

    An all-out war is also called for to improve the quality of drinking water. Today, all rivers, rivulets, reservoirs, tanks and other drinking water sources have been gravely endangered due to unabated pollution. This is resulting in water-borne diseases.

    At a conference of Chief Ministers held in July 1996 a programme for hundred per cent coverage in respect of provision of potable drinking water in all rural and urban areas was finalised. The target was supposed to be achieved by the year 2000. The same stipulation underlies the specific objective of provisions of basic minimum service of safe drinking water as laid down in the Ninth Five Year Plan. The present Government has resolved to solve the drinking water scarcity in all problem villages of the country under a time-bound programme co-terminus with the Ninth Plan. This calls for an investment of Rs.40, 000 to Rs.45, 000 crore to tackle the problem in the rural areas alone. Similarly, estimates of investment required for urban water supply is about 30,000 crore. This order of investment does not seem to be forthcoming.

    What then is the answer for India? Conservation of monsoon water of course. India gets more rain annually on an average than almost any other part of the world. But only a fraction of monsoon water is harnessed due to topographical and hydraulic constraints. The constraints have to be overcome with the aid of science and technology. Environmentalist Anil Agrawal has warned: "If the rain is not caught and stored, it will be impossible to live in this country".

* Senior Journalist