Do we need to live with droughts?

An existentialist question or a rhetorical one? Come summer and everybody asks this question – more so in the “other India” – the one that is not part of the Indian growth train! The editorial in the current issue of Down to Earth (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/six-sins-make-drought-invincible) is a relevant read particularly the listing of “the six sins that make drought invincible”.

The two “sins” that I’d like to take forward for a discussion are the the fifth and sixth particularly in light of the Draft National Water Policy 2012 (available for downloading and comment at http://wrmin.nic.in/) currently under debate: The fifth sin – “we forget underground aquifers meet a considerable part of water demand. So we do not factor in the need for recharge of groundwater. Instead we extract more and more water, leading to scarcity”.  We seem to forget that we are largely a groundwater civilisation with groundwater meeting a large part of not just rural drinking and agricultural water but also urban potable water demands.  So unless groundwater management is made the centrepiece of this Policy we are not going to make a dent in addressing this problem.

We also forget that water is a common resource – while land can be owned by a private entity and a well on it may belong to the entity, the water below the land is not the private property of that individual / entity! Water is a universal right and therefore in spirit, letter and on the ground any water policy and resultant legislation must ensure  equity and social justice in the access to water. The doublespeak and schizophrenia in the Draft Water Policy is remarkable….the Preamble expounds the philosophy of social justice and equity while the body of the Policy advocates privatization as the panacea to the current water crisis. Nothing new here…..this schizophrenia is the norm be it the Food Security Bill, Land Acquisition Bill or the Water Policy.

The sixth sin  – “our inability to link investment in watershed and soil conservation to groundwater recharge. In the past few years, attention has been paid to building ponds and tanks and to protecting watersheds. But investment in these assets—coming largely through employment guarantee schemes—is hardly ever productive. The schemes provide jobs and do not care about the quality of the work. Watersheds are planted with trees but protection of trees is not ensured. The tank is desilted, but the channels or the catchment that bring water to the tank are not.” This country has been engaged in watershed management since 1880 with Government supported programmes coming into prominence since the 1950s. In spite of this vast body of experience we still do not link watershed management to groundwater conservation. Watershed development in some rain shadow areas has led to groundwater recharge BUT this has led to increased water withdrawal to irrigate water intensive crops leading to more severe depletion of the scarce groundwater resources in summer….yet another example of fragmented thinking – the hallmark of our Policy planning.

The agencies implementing these programme do not coordinate with local agricultural or livestock departments to support livelihoods that can be sustained in the long-term because of the improved groundwater resource.   E.g. as part of the activities under a watershed development programme provide support for rainfed crops such as millets. This could be in the form of access to hardy, local seed varieties, infrastructure to store, process and add value to the produce, creating local markets etc. Another e.g. could be to ensure that water-intensive white elephants (exotic breeds of cows that are best at home in the Netherlands) are not provided to landless women farmers in rain-fed areas!

Do we need NASA photos to tell us that groundwater levels are abysmal in the Gangetic plain thanks to the myopic agricultural and livestock policies?? And then we are shocked as a nation which passes when the next exciting bit of news appears on our 24×7 news.

To do anything seriously commonsensical about this our erstwhile leaders must find time in Parliament where they are so busy debating over “serious” issues such as the appropriateness of cartoons in textbooks.


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