India is in the grip of a severe drought that has left over 330 million people in dire suffering. A look into the practices adopted by governments and people over the years indicates that the crisis that today threatens the existence of many could well have been avoided.
Due to intense heat wave, the district administration in India has banned daytime cooking. In Gopalganj and Aurangabad in Bihar (East India), the administration has urged people not to burn anything during the daytime, when westerly winds blow and followed this up with an awareness campaign using audiovisual clips and distributing pamphlets.
. Armed guards stand vigil around water bodies in Tikamgarh, in Madhya Pradesh due to the acute scarcity of water in the region.
. Worse still, the district administration in Latur in neighbouring Maharashtra has imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code around water bodies prohibiting assembly of more than five people at one place.
. 300 people have their lives on account of heat wave across India.
. Since this January about 338 farmers in Marathwada in Maharashtra alone have taken their lives as there is nothing to eat and no water for land or family. Crops have failed and there is no money to repay mounting debts that amount to anywhere between EUR 330-660. Farmer suicides are on the rise in Marathwada region. The tally stood at 198 farmers in 2012, it increased marginally to 207 in 2013, to 574 in 2014 and 1300 in 2015.
These and several such unfolding events have failed to stir either the government machinery or the hundreds of lawmakers in the country’s parliament or state assemblies who prefer to be busy in discussing VVIP chopper scams or sanctioning twofold hikes in their own salaries and perks.
Yet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dreams of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 when India will celebrate the platinum jubilee of its independence. His dream is akin to the clarion call of late Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who coined the slogan, Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan (victory for the Indian soldier and farmer) and also resonates with Indira Gandhi’s (Prime Minister of India from 1980-84) Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) slogan. Neither India is new to droughts nor are droughts new to India. Over the last century, India has faced more than twenty major and several minor droughts. One-third of India’s districts have faced more than four droughts over the past decade and 50 million people are affected by these droughts every year.
“Drought in the 1990s was essentially the drought of a poor India. The 2016 drought is of richer and more water-guzzling India. This classless drought makes for a crisis that is more severe and calls for solutions that are more complex. The severity and intensity of drought is not about lack of rainfall; it is about the lack of planning and foresight, and criminal neglect. Drought is human-made,” avers Sunita Narain, director general of Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), comparing the drought of the 1990’s with the current one.
Shockingly, there has been little response either from the Centre or state governments so far. Well-known political scientist-turned-activist Yogendra Yadav’s Samvedna Yatra (sympathy journey) across droughtaffected regions in Karnataka, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana in October last year to call upon authorities for immediate measures also fell on deaf ears.
The logical question is how India landed itself on the brink of a disaster even as millions continue to teeter on the edge for their survival. “Compared to western India’s Marathwada, the situation in Bundlekhand in Central India is still worse. It is facing multidimensional crisis in terms of drinking water, nutrition and milk for children. Pulses have become a luxury for the ordinary people in Bundelkhand. We fear of all the drought affected areas that may fall to famine,” Yadav, who recently launched his own political outfit Swaraj Abhiyan, warns.
Mega water crisis
Post-Independence, India had access to 5,200 cubic metres of water in 1951 when the population was 350 million. With a population of 1.2 billion, according to the 2011 census, India has only 1,000 cubic meters of water per person, as per higher estimates. Whereas a country is considered water-stressed if it has less than 1,700 cubic meters per person per year.
It is estimated that 29 pc of rural India, or 244 million people, and 23 pc of the urban population, or 90 million people, still lack access to adequate, safe and sustainable water. Still, the water crisis in India seldom bothers anyone barring a handful of grassroots workers, environmentalists, experts and academicians.
As for the facts, the Indian government was well aware of the crisis long way back. “Availability of water has been taken for granted till recently. It is not the case anymore. The rapid growth in population, coupled with increasing economic activities, has put a tremendous pressure on the available water resources,” stated a report titled ‘Reassessment of Water Resources Potential of India 1993’ by Central Water Commission.
India is in the midst of mega water crisis, reports P Sainath, noted journalist, author and Magsaysay award winner (awarded by Philippines-based foundation to Asians for excellence in government service, public service, community, leadership and journalism), explaining how water usage has undergone a paradigm shift.
California-based hydrologist Jay Famigliett warned in Nature magazine in 2014: “Groundwater depletion the world over poses a far greater threat to global water security than is currently acknowledged. In many regions around the world, groundwater is often poorly monitored and managed. In the developing world, oversight is often non-existent. Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned.”
This is exactly the case of mindless agriculture development pursued by India. Farmers have ditched droughtresistant crops such as sorghum and chickpea for water intensive cash crops such as sugarcane. An apt example is that of drought-hit Marathwada region, which receives an annual average rainfall of 844 millimetres. Still, it pursues large-scale cultivation of sugarcane, which needs 2100-2500 millimetres of rainfall.
India’s agriculture does not take its local agro-climatic conditions into consideration. “Anything can grow anywhere for exports – this motto is wrong and is proving disastrous,” lamented Sainath.
Echoing a similar sentiment, Devinder Sharma, a well-known Indian farm expert, says he sees no reason why Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh should be cultivating mentha crops, which requires 125,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of mentha oil or why Rajasthan, a semiarid region, should be cultivating water-guzzling sugarcane, cotton and rice crops. “In rainfed regions, which occupy 65 pc of the cultivable area, crops requiring less water should be grown. But the reality is just the opposite and thus accelerating the water crisis,” Sharma rues.
Besides, market-oriented diversion of water for non-irrigation purposes in big cities and industries has led to acute shortage of water in rural areas.
“Inequality of water usage is central to the current drought crisis. Water usage is shifting from rural to urban, agriculture to industrial, community to corporations, life-saving to lifestyle,” says Sainath who authored the book – ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought.’
Other culprits fuelling the ecological disasters include building of ultra-modern skyscrapers with swimming pools on every floor, multi-million dollar bottled water industry, golf courses and cricket matches.
The scorching summer has just begun and India has to sail through over the next two months. It is estimated that water levels in 91 major reservoirs in the country is just at 23 pc of their capacity. Consequently, water scarcity and power cuts will be the norm.
Interestingly, the Indian Metrological Department has devised a nomenclature for drought and instead will use the term deficient monsoon. “Deficit monsoon creates situations for drought. But it is not deficit monsoon, rather lack of policies and mechanisms to droughtproof susceptible areas that turn situation into a crisis,” observes Richard Mahapatra, managing editor and publisher of Down to Earth magazine, a CSE publication.
With the federal and state governments virtually doing nothing, the Supreme Court of India heard public interest litigation by Swaraj Abhiyan (the political outfit of Yadav) to declare drought as a national emergency. “While government informed the Supreme Court that some 366 million people were affected by the drought, but on counting the unlisted regions, over 540 million people were found affected by it,” Prof Yadav pointed out. He was escalated with the court’s final order that said “No household in a drought affected area shall be denied grains even if they do not possess a ration card.”
Brace for the future
One serious ramification of the current drought, brought to light by India’s Nobel Peace Prize winner and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, is its impact on children. In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Satyarthi expressed concern over164 million children who were affected by the situation due to drought across the states and has led to rampant child marriage, child labour, abduction and trafficking of children.
As political apathy continues, several civil society organisations are holding processions and protests in the national capital to highlight the seriousness of the drought before the government.
One such leader, Rajendra Singh – a well known water conservationists, known as ‘waterman of India’ – wants an effective legislation on water on all three tiers of governments. “How can India have food security if it does not have water security? Current disaster is not only horrific. It is a warning for this century and many to come,” he warned. Several experts stress there is a need to catch and store every drop of water, develop sustainable farm practices, recharge ground water and use the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, amongst others, to build better water structures to hold water for future use.
The situation that India is reeling under currently can manifest if we do not take urgent measures. Failure to do so would have far-reaching ramifications, much worse than what we or our government could have imagined. The war against drought needs to be permanent. Not doing so, warns Sunita Narain of CSE, will make drought permanent.
Drought in India: A Fact File
23 major droughts between 1871-2015
70 pc of sown area subjected to drought every year
50 million affected every year
Drought Affected States
Western India: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan
Central India: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh
Chhattisgarh Eastern India: Odisha
South India: Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka
Districts affected: 302 out of 678
Villages affected: 255,000
Population affected: 330 million
Why is 2016 a Drought Year for India?
Rainfall: National Average is 1,183 millimetres
• Drought prone areas get 750- 1125 mm. Rainfall below 90 pc of the Long Period Average (LPA) is considered a drought.
• LPA of the seasons rainfall over India as a whole for the period 1951-2000 is 89 centimetre, which is taken as a standard base to categorise the monsoon.
• India faces back to back drought in 2014-2015 as it recorded rainfall below 90 pc of the LPA consecutively.
Grand Designs or Chasing Delusions
Fast track irrigation projects: Launched in 1996-97, the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme provides financial assistance to expedite completion of ongoing Major and Medium Irrigation including extension, renovation and modernisation (ERM) of irrigation projects and Surface Minor Irrigation schemes, as well as Lift Irrigation Schemes. When Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the Federal Budget for 2016-17, he pledged to fast track all the 89 projects and to raise the required Rs 86,500 crore to finance it.
A new blueprint: India is preparing a blueprint for better management of water resources to face the emerging challenges in the water sector, reuse of waste water after treatment, the likely impact of climate change on water resources, importance of river rejuvenation and the issue of water contamination.
Inter Linking of Rivers: India has embarked on an ambitious river linking project worth USD 168 billion to connect 37 big Himalayan and Peninsular rivers.
Merits: Build 30 canals and 3000 small and large reservoirs, generate 34 gigawatt of hydroelectric power, raise irrigation potential to 175 million hectares by 2050 and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year.
Demerits: Submerge 27.66 lakh hectares of land needed for building dams and canals and displace half a million people in the process.
Shielding Against the ‘Drought’ Demon
Several villages have fought droughts with traditional water conservation methods. Some success stories:
Laporiya in Dudu district, around 85 kilometres from Jaipur – a tourist hotspot in Rajasthan, has brought prosperity to farms by building tanks such as Anna Sagar (Sea of Foodgrain), Dev Sagar (Sea of the Gods) and Phool Sagar (Sea of Flowers) respectively by revisiting the chowka system based on a traditional method of water harvesting – small, interconnected, sloping rectangular pits, nine inches deep, are made in pasture land.
Ralegoan Sidhi village lies in the drought-prone district of Ahmednagar in Maharashtra and is known for its watershed development – that stops water and allow it to percolate and increase the ground water level and improve irrigation in the area, promoted by well known social activist Anna Hazare.
Kadwanchi lies in Jalna district in Marathwada region in Maharashtra. Kadwanchi is discussing farm expansion due to a robust watershed programme built two decades ago by digging ponds. Hyderabad-based Central Research Institute of Dryland Agriculture has found that the average annual income of farmers here has increased by 700 pc from EUR 528 in 1996 to EUR 4240 in 2012.