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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Water crisis of Madhya Pradesh - a lesson for others

The Congress the other day flayed the BJP government of Madhya Pradesh (MP), holding it responsible for the current water crisis in the state. Its spokesperson for the state-level committee alleged that while the state was reeling under an acute scarcity of water the chief minister was busy in strategising for the oncoming general elections. He also alleged that crores of rupees were sanctioned for water conservation and recharging of aquifers but all the schemes failed because of pervasive corruption. He, reportedly, cited statistics and claimed, inter alia, that 15000 villages in the state’s 175 tahsils (administrative units below the district level) were facing grave water crisis.
Although it made a political statement, the Congress was, not very much off the mark. The state has, indeed, become acutely water-scarce. Reports have been pouring in from almost all parts of the state, except its northern districts, about sufferings of the people on account of the shortage of drinking water. Shrinking water bodies, plummeting groundwater levels, desperate moves of several municipalities to restrict routine supply of water are indicative of the prevailing cataclysmic conditions in the state. Even the government reports speak of acute water scarcity in 41 out of state’s 50 districts. Besides, 38000 hand-pumps in 55000 villages have become non-operational. With ponds and other reservoirs slowly drying up, one shudders to imagine the severity of the conditions in rural MP in May and June when the summer peaks.


Urban areas, too, are not better off, the worst affected being those located in Malwa Plateau. In many of these places routine distribution has been disrupted with water supply being restricted to once in three days or even worse, as in Ujjain where it is supplied once a week. All the water sources of Ujjain, including the once-perennial Kshipra, having dried up the city, for the present, is entirely dependent on water-tankers, just as many other small and big towns on the Plateau.


Bhopal, the state capital, known also as “the City of Lakes”, is in as miserable a state. The entire city now depends for water on the nearby Kolar Dam and, very marginally, on the practically dried-up Upper Lake – hitherto the city’s lifeline. Its around 90 square kilometres spread has shrunk by 90%. Vast areas of the lake-bed now lie exposed. The municipality was forced to cut down normal daily supplies to alternate-day supplies from as early as the middle of last October – soon after the monsoon withdrew from the state.


The acute scarcity of water is being blamed on inadequate rains. One, however, suspects that mismanagement of sources of water and its distribution have been equally, if not more, responsible. This is exemplified by Bhopal where, for want of proper governance, public and private wastes are legendary. Although by last August it had become clear that despite rains water was not flowing into the Upper Lake, no conservational measures were taken and it was “business as usual”. Worse, it now transpires that the streams that feed the Lake were heavily silted, elevating their beds to spread rainwater laterally over the farms in the catchments instead of allowing it to flow into the Lake. There are also reports of erection of check dams in the Lake’s catchments. The free flow of rainwater to the Lake was thus hindered, apparently, without anybody, including the state’s multiple water-management authorities, getting wise about it. If this is what could happen in the Capital, things must have been as bad, if not worse, elsewhere in the state.


There, precisely, seems to lie the nub of the problem. The government has organised management of water through its several departments – the Public Health Engineering, Water Resources Department, Department of Environment, etc. and sundry autonomous bodies and agencies – and, yet, it has failed to achieve its objective. Profusely manned at great cost by the tax-payers’ money, the lumbering, top-heavy government, with its apathy and negligence, has failed the people.


Things have not come to such a sorry pass overnight. They have slid over a period of time. When the state came into being in 1956 it was reckoned as a backward, mostly tribal state. Tribes and forests being largely inseparable, the state was then one of the most-forested areas of the country and consequently relatively water-rich. With passage of time, however, it progressively started losing that advantage because of unchecked rise in population, thoughtless clearing of forests for agriculture, industrialisation, mindless unplanned urban expansion and reckless exploitation of groundwater for agricultural, industrial and urban use. To all these was added the lackadaisical way of functioning of the government that produced a deadly brew. It is, therefore, sheer politicking to blame the current government for the mess. It has been happening right down the last half a century. That water was slowly becoming scarce all over the state never ever registered with any of the governments, regardless of their colour. There has never been any planning and management of this precious fluid.


That the Planet has been using up fresh water faster than it can be replenished has been generally known for quite some years. The need for its wise use, checking wastes, its conservation, its recycling and proper management has been emphasised by international environmental and other bodies time and again. As late as in 2005, John Briscoe, a World Bank expert, had warned that India was facing an “extremely, extremely grave situation” as “rivers dry up, groundwater is depleted and canals are polluted”. Making matters worse, he perceptively added, “There is widespread complacency in the government”. To head off the grave situation Briscoe had urged India to dramatically change the way it managed water. Surely, suitable directives must have, accordingly, been issued by the Centre to all the states. However, no sign of any change in the way water was being managed in Madhya Pradesh has ever been seen. What has been visible is a “Band-aid” approach – like the recent decision to have water pumped up the Vindhyas from an already-depleted Narmada River 60-odd kilometre away.


Water scarcity in once heavily-forested Madhya Pradesh should be an example for others indicating the consequences of lack of foresight, planning and initiative in management of the life-sustaining fluid. What happened in China due to mismanagement of water and its sources is also well-known. Things are going to become more difficult with climate change-induced reduced precipitation, droughts and degradation of cultivable lands. Ever-rising demand due to rising population, rapid urbanisation and an exploding middle-class will throw up greater challenges. While water throughout the country is becoming scarce, cost of its supply to industries and households is becoming astronomical. Clearly the “Band-aid” approach like that of MP will not work. Local water bodies will have to be revived, conserved recharged and immaculately managed. Hopefully, state governments will show enough gumption to tackle the acute problem that has already made its presence felt. Better management of water and water-resources all across the country is imperative. In fact, our survival, to a large measure, would seem to depend on it.

Published by Indian News & Features Alliance, New Delhi on 2nd April 2009

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