While rainfall deficit for two consecutive years has had its cumulative impact, experts argue that the water crisis has been caused more by mismanagement and neglect. The current crisis has affected 330 million people, in 250 thousand villages, in 266 districts and across 11 states in India. Concerns about the crisis range around issues of welfare and citizen’s entitlements and also the developmental model being followed which focuses on big, resource-intensive projects. What is needed is a people and community-centric water management and development approach.
While rainfall deficit for two consecutive years has had its cumulative impact, experts argue that the water crisis facing more than 330 million people in India has been caused by mismanagement and neglect. The scale of the crisis is unprecedented. More than 250 thousand villages in 266 districts across 11 states have been impacted, not just in terms non-availability of water, also in agriculture damage and livelihood loss. This has severely affecting food security, food sovereignty, the status of natural resources and ecology, and finally the exchequer.
If not wholly due to the weather, what then has caused the current water crisis? We have reached this situation because of a number of reasons. We follow policies and engage in practices that overwhelmingly focus on extraction and exploitation of surface and ground water without making enough efforts for maintenance and preservation of surface water or recharge of aquifers and groundwater. We persist in following cropping patterns that are ecologically unwise. We have focused too much on big irrigation projects – without considering the environmental impact, or the long term efficiencies of big dams, or even the harmful effects of water logging and salinization caused by badly designed canals. We have not investing into micro-irrigation projects to reduce dependence on rain in rain-fed areas. Our investment priorities are biased against agriculture, and the projects that are implemented tend to be big solutions that are imposed top down, when agriculture and natural resources management requires bottom-up processes building on local peoples’ knowledge, experience and practices. Finally it was the failure of providing timely relief and undertaking mitigation measures that has created intense human suffering in the face of the present crisis.
Central and state governments were slow to respond to the crisis, and the efforts are insufficient to address the crisis of this scale and extent. Reservoirs and water bodies have become bone dry, tankers and railway wagons are supplying water, restrictive orders under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code have been invoked in places to avert conflict among people queuing up for water at water sources. In a situation where parched lands have no access to water, millions are migrating in search of water and work. There is distress sale or abandonment of livestock and sale of other assets. The water crisis has impacted the whole spectrum of rural communities, but has proved especially disastrous to the landless poor, small and marginal farmers, the oppressed communities such as Dalits and stigmatized communities amongst the nomadic and de-notified tribes (NTDNT). The burden of water collection has fallen squarely on the shoulders of women and children. The situation of the most vulnerable populations including the aged, single women, persons with disability or with chronic ailments, are very precarious. The Supreme Court in May had to issue orders for the implementation of the provisions of the National Disaster Management Act related to drought. The court has also called for the revision of the existing drought management manual.
Civil society and peoples’ organizations have struggled to respond to the crisis by activating the existing public provisioning entitlements like Public Distribution System, ICDS, (Integrated Child Development Scheme), Mid Day Meals and MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). Despite these dismal conditions, there are islands of hope that have emerged from peoples’ initiatives that have constructively promoted water harvesting models and drought resilient farming systems with their traditional knowledge and wisdom across the country.
Concerned people engaging with the current crisis have delineated different arenas of concern. The first revolves around the issue of welfare and citizen’s entitlements. There is great concern about the failure of welfare schemes to reach those who need them the most. There is worry about the dilution of rights and entitlements of the communities to food, to employment schemes and MGNREGA jobs. There was outrage about the lack of relief efforts, the absence of a proper response to drought, the lack of long-term mitigation plans. The argument was that the current crisis of water has been exacerbated by the inadequacy of the efforts to make right to food and right to work more meaningful. There is felt need to now demand for the right to water, in terms of ensuring community ownership of water resources such that the most oppressed and vulnerable have full access to them.
Another arena of concern emerged from the developmental model being followed which focuses on big, resource-intensive projects such as mega dams, river interlinking, high input agriculture, corporate-controlled genetically modified crops and production-centric technologies. The fear is that long-term drought mitigation efforts may be taken over by what has been called “disaster capitalism” – utilizing the crises as a means of earning profit, by promoting technologies owned by corporates and private initiatives. The current drought or water crisis does not require a simple “technology-fix”. As mentioned earlier the crisis has emerged from a variety of reasons closely linked to land use patterns, cropping patterns, management and protection of eco sensitive zones and commons, the privatization of water resources, improper river basin management, ignoring the culture and traditions culture of water conservation and its protection, investment priorities on major irrigation projects at the cost of a host of local and small projects, policy-investment neglect of rain-fed areas, little response to climate change and many more such factors. The current model of development seems to favour private ownership and commoditisation of natural resources of water, forests, fossil energies and minerals.
What is required to deal with the water crisis is a more people and community-centric water management and development approach, sustainable solutions around reclaiming and rejuvenating river systems, water bodies and commons, sustainable groundwater use in the public interest and also a concern on social justice and equity issues. As an immediate task we need to demand the recognition of the right to relief and the call for a policy and legal instruments to advance the people’s right to water.