Category Archives: Water

Is water a human right in India?

On June 18, 2014 the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further cut-offs in Detroit ( In their submission they say that Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic human rights – right to water, in this case. Residents of Detroit city, the United States and the United Nations have been grappling with this issue for the last couple of months. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. (For more on this see

This act is being considered a violation of the human right to water with the argument that the U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water. Activists are now putting pressure on the United Nations to put pressure on the Federal Government and through them on the State of Michigan to take action.

As I was reading this I was thinking about the right to water in India and the associated inequity. Millions of urban and rural poor do not have access to drinking water on a daily basis irrespective of whether the country has had a good monsoon or not. No water (both in cities and villages) is a general condition. Standing in long queues to get 2 pots of water is normal for the vast majority of Indians. Why is it that nobody in India has challenged the Government on behalf of these people?

In our corner of Rayalseema, like in many other villages, drinking water is just not available in the summer months. Over the last 3 months people have been receiving water in tankers probably once in 3-4 days and each home can fill only 3-5 pots of water which they have to use for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and for personal hygiene. There are not enough water sources available to fill the tankers. People approach the Panchayat which had no funds till a week ago. The Water Supply and Sanitation Department which is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation to the villages Panchayat does not seem to think this is really an important issue…but considers it a routine matter that has to be dealt with in the course of time. Desperate some families try and get water from the agricultural borewells of neighbours who provide the water as an act of compassion at no cost! When these agricultural borewells started failing several people from some of the villages marched to the local Mandal Development Officer and expressed their anger and frustration. A special officer who has been posted to manage watershed development in the area took action last week which has provided some relief to some of the villages. Why is it that these small farmers, who produce 50% of the food in India, have to work so hard chasing the Government functionaries to get what is a human right?

This begs the question for India and particularly its poor….do we not consider access to water to be a human right? Why are we not demanding this of our Government? Maybe it is time for all of us to appeal to the United Nations to help us help our urban and rural poor to assert their right to water.


Ecosystem Specific Governance…….Is there such a thing?

Two recent events triggered this question in my mind…….

The first was a recent discussion, that I was a part of, on livestock dependent livelihoods. This was held under the auspices of the Centre for Economic and Social Sciences in Hyderabad. The discussion was very rich since it brought in experiences of indigenous communities and pastoralists and small farmers from the rural plains….experiences related in people’s own voices. While the focus was on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) the heart of the deliberations was the increasing severing of the inextricable linkage between animals, agriculture and people (so much more lyrically expressed as paadi-pashu-panta in Telugu) that has been brought about by industrial farming and the supportive legislation and policies. People’s experiences, be they adivasis, dalits, pastoralists, was the same! Obfuscation, ambiguity, confusion reigned supreme in the legislation and its implementation. On one hand a progressive legislation (the FRA) was enacted by Parliament with a stirring Preamble raising the hopes of millions of marginalised people for whom justice would finally be served. This legislation would also enable communities to practice traditional livelihoods which had co-evolved with the surrounding ecosystem. On the other hand,  in implementing this law, Government Departments were pointing fingers at each other saying the law was not clear, they were not sure who it was applicable to, refusing to review submitted documentation, harassing people when they field documentation to assert their rights etc.

Having heard these stories which emerged from a research study facilitated by CESS the question now is what is the next step? How do research studies such as these, done by think tanks across the country,  translate to action? Are policy makers even interested in these studies? Is there a proactive role that such think tanks can play? Will the Planning Commission or the Ministry of Rural Development (through its flagship programme NRLM) take cognizance of such findings before allocating and spending crores of rupees in designing and implementing yet another “livelihood” programme?

The discussion also showed us how the issues are distinctly different for forest-dwelling adivasis compared to forest-dependent pastoralists. The challenges faced by pastoralists (with sheep) dependent on grasslands is a different story. Sheep rearing programmes (as a livelihood promotion effort) cannot be thrust upon adivasis who live in forests and do not have access to grasslands. Ecosystems are different across this diverse country and dwellers native to each ecosystem require different policies and programmes.  Not appreciating this difference and diversity has resulted in thrusting exotic cows on dalit families living in dry deciduous ecosystems (e.g. Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh) and sheep on adivasis living in tropical rainforests. The resultant ecological and livelihood crises is there for all to see across the length and breadth of this country.

The second was a moving account titled When the Ganga descends…( by Chitra Padmanabhan of the unfolding tragedy in Uttarakhand. Once again, an apalling lack of connection between policy and several decades of grassroots action by the local communities against a destructive development paradigm that does not understand the local ecosystem.

How much more ecological and human devastation and how much more proof of the absolute inequity and social injustice do we need to see before we realise that there is a need to recognise Ecosystem Specific Governance? Grassroots action, wisdom and knowledge needs to find a place in policy making and not merely be maintained as studies.

Water …..what is its real value?

In this era of climate change all of us behave like the English – we discuss the weather a lot, more specifically the monsoon. The south-west monsoon which has been playing truant this year has decided to drench some parts of the country and pass  others by leaving communities reeling in drought. In our part of the world the monsoon has been watering our land like the proverbial gardner – rain-fed crops like groundnut and millets seem happy but we are not sure what our potable water situation is going to be like for the next month.  Borewells continue to dry up even as new ones are being drilled. Small and marginal farmers are spending anywhere from Rs. 1-2 lakhs to drill a borewell hoping and praying that it will not turn up dry…..sucking them further into the quicksand of debt while they continue to look for that elusive groundwater that they hope will help pay off their debt.

Communities in search of alternatives to the drying public potable water wells either take water from obliging neighbours who have borewells that are still yielding water or are at the mercy of the Government. Rural water supply departments try and drill yet another borewell as an emergency source of water. The well hits water and everyone is happy. A precariously rigged up electrical connection provides much needed electricity to power the motor that draws water from the well. This is where the question of the real value of water needs to be asked. As the water comes gushing out of the ground people queue up to fill their pots and pans while the erratic electrical supply lasts. Between successive pots the water flows onto the street wasted! The Government or the community does not even consider setting up a holding tank to collect this flowing water that in this water scarce area is like blood pouring from an open wound. It is nobody’s problem. Who will pay to set up some sort of temporary storage? Every solution is adhoc and temporary till the next emergency!! Why can’t we have prescribed guidelines and pre-cast systems to make water available efficiently in water scarce areas? The Government’s norms and guidelines for water supply and sanitation have detailed drawings of toilets, rooftop rainwater harvesting systems….why not groundwater based emergency rural water supply systems? Do we not have the wherewithal or technology to supply water under drought condition without it gushing out of a borewell into drains?  As communities we come together when we don’t have water. What will it take for us to come together to  set up a simple solution to stop this precious resource from flowing away? The new borewell dries up and the story is repeated.

This time around there is another option – water tankers to tide over the emergency condition. What is the cost of this tanker of water – Rs. 280 for a 5000 litre tanker. How can water be sold at such a low price when we are in a drought condition? Nobody has a real answer. Mango orchard farmers in Chittoor have high yielding borewells and they are able to provide their surplus water for tankers OR Not sure where the water is coming from OR How does it matter, let’s just be happy that we are getting this water now. Once we have a good rain the water situation will improve. How long will it be before what is an “emergency condition” today becomes the norm?

A new Water Policy has been drafted in 2012 for the country with very little attention being paid to groundwater and its management. Groundwater  is the main source of water for most of our rural and urban areas – definitely the only source of water for rain-fed agricultural areas. When will we as a country and a society realise the real value of water? When will we collectively rise up and empower ourselves to treat this resource as it should be?

Gangamma and Rain……..where the “rationalist” and the believer’s lives intertwine..

The Dravidian Goddess Gangamma is believed to be the symbol of water and is the chief goddess of the shepherd. Water shapes land and life in the Rishi Valley as it does everywhere in the world where lives and livelihoods are close to the elements. So when the rain gods desert us or when the monsoon plays truant as it has been this year, Gangamma is called upon by her believers more often than the once a year “jatra”. She speaks through her oracle, directing her believers to take action that will appease the elements and bring rain. Sometimes it can mean realigning rocks and at other times it could require shifting the location of a deity’s shrine. In a land where water was, is and always will be the defining resource, these dictates of Gangamma are taken very seriously.

What is interesting is that we urban “visitors” in this rural landscape (even if some of us have lived here for more than 30 years) , we who consider ourselves rationalists find our lives intertwined with that of our neighbours in this “thirst” for water and the rain.  Gangamma recently directed her believers to shift the location of a deity outside the valley if we were to be blessed with rain. After much deliberation the decision was made to shift the deity and this would cost money. Some of the women farmers with whom I was having a rambling conversation about life, the universe and everything else remarked that they will have to collect contributions. To which I said that when they were already in debt because of poor rains where would they find the money for this and why not use the money for something else that would bring food into their home. The response was – we know these are superstitions but it is our superstition! Let us appease Gangamma. Lo and behold the next day we had our first set of showers! and the faith in Gangamma becomes stronger.

The goddess reigns supreme, mobile phone toting shepherds graze their flock on hillocks and in its midst is a rationalist  philosophy driven urban community. Life in this rural corner of Rayalseema continues with never a dull moment. What a  microcosm of India this is……

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 ( 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 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.

Water – the Mrigtrishna continues………….

In the last month two paradoxical events occurred in the midst of what could become a serious water crisis if Indra or the equivalent local deity does not bestow his / her benevolence upon us in this corner of Rayalseema.

In one hamlet which is reeling under severe drinking water shortage, the women marched to the local MLA, blocked the Tahsildar’s path etc. and managed to get a drinking water well drilled. Water was spied at around 500 plus feet and all seemed well – many a slip however between water in the ground and in people’s homes.  A motor needs to be lowered into the well to pump the water out for use. As it was being lowered it reached a point and refused to budge – stuck motor – this well can be used only if the motor is removed – nothing new in this hamlet. This has happened time and time again when the Government has tried to ensure drinking water supply here. Everybody knows this -people, Government Engineers, geologists etc. Three months after the installation of the well and constant follow up on a daily basis, the Government managed to get a drilling rig to either remove the motor or push it into the ground so that at least the well could be made operational. No luck…..motor was well and truly stuck. The well cannot be used!

After much hand waiving by the engineers and frustration expressed by the community (mainly women) the real story emerged……the inner diameter of these wells drilled by the Government is approx 166 mm, the outer diameter of the motor being lowered into the well is approx 143 mm. This wafer thin space of course does not allow for any accommodation should there be rock pieces in the formation or some protrusions in the motor. Why are we living on such an edge? The response of the engineers is – It is expensive to drill a larger hole BUT of course it is not expensive to repeatedly spend resources to bring in rigs to pull or push stuck motors out…..Rs. 50,000 for the motor which cannot be used, rig charges to try and get this motor unstuck and of course the most important issue (in case that had slipped your mind in the midst of this narrative) people are still struggling for drinking water – 3 months after the installation of the well. What is Plan B? Drill another well, another Rs. 2 lakhs down the hole (literally) and hope and pray this is not repeated…..

Mr. Jairam Ramesh – is the Rural Development Ministry factoring this in its policy of inclusive growth and in the race to meet Millenium Development Goals or other such Goals of enabling access to safe and clean water, universal health, nutritional security etc. etc…….? This is not rocket science….it is commonsense. The Rural Water Supply Department  has tomes of guidelines on water and sanitation systems which are followed to the letter by the engineers and field staff. Are these tomes not prescribing guidelines for a way out of this Chakravyuha?

A story of hope from the same area – a small farmer about 4-5 km from the above water starved hamlet took a loan to drill a private borewell and hit water at 90 feet. He installed the motor with none of the above drama since the geology in that area is more forgiving. He realised that he needed only a small share of this groundwater for his tomato crop and since agricultural power was available for longer he released the additional water into a pre-existing natural animal water hole so that livestock from the surrounding hamlets could drink water during the summer… and let live, I guess….

In the midst of the hopelessness that Government spreads these stories of generosity in rural communities make me feel optimistic and hopeful about India and the world. Stories of generosity in communities living on the edge!