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The Hindu on : Water crisis

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, April 25, 2000

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Water crisis

ONE OF NATURE'S scourges is making its periodic visitations on large parts of the country. Officially the country has enjoyed 12 consecutive years of a `normal' monsoon, but particular areas did not escape a deficiency in rainfall in 1999. Though that should have alerted the administration to the emergence of a regional drinking water and fodder crisis, as is often the case the Central and State Governments are only now waking up to its severity in drought-affected areas of western Rajasthan, the Saurashtra and Kutch regions of Gujarat, Malwa in Madhya Pradesh and Telengana in Andhra Pradesh.

Since the next two months are going to be a critical period, the response to the appeal for public contributions by the Prime Minister, Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, has to be immediate and overwhelmingly positive if the people in the affected towns and villages are to be helped tide over the summer. The Centre cannot escape its own responsibility to provide more funds than it has so far. The decisions that the Centre has recently taken - larger allocations of cereals at lower prices and the provision of more grain for `food-for-work' programmes - are important but insufficient given the challenges before the 2000 monsoon hopefully brings the drought to an end. There will be corruption in the use of such funds, as the allegations of misappropriation during the relief operations after the Orissa cyclone of last November demonstrated, venality shows no respect for the human condition. But the likelihood of corruption is no reason to close the tap on financial assistance. The horrifying reports from the afflicted areas of women walking more than 10 km to fetch a pot of water, of towns receiving water once a week for less than a hour, of `water riots' and of cattle dying in `cattle camps' because of a lack of fodder should have galvanised the local administration into action. While some State Governments are indeed doing their best to cope with a difficult situation, it is astonishing that Mr. Keshubhai Patel, Chief Minister of Gujarat, still insists that there is ``absolutely no crisis'' in any part of the State. There can be no ambiguity about the emergency action that is required. First, new borewells have to be dug, existing ones deepened if possible, damaged hand-pumps repaired and in the extreme `water trains' arranged - all for drinking water. Second, since employment disappears as the crops wither in the fields, public works programmes that combine cash with kind payment are essential to prop up incomes. Third, expensive it may be but if necessary fodder has to be transported to the affected areas to prevent large-scale death of livestock.

The immediate task is to alleviate the blight of this summer, but there is a long-term agenda that the country should not lose sight of. The severity of the drinking water shortage in Gujarat and Rajasthan tells us that the `water crisis' that many have warned will strike India in the 21st century has already arrived. A crisis has been brewing over years in different parts of the country as groundwater resources have been over-exploited, water- intensive crops grown in dry areas and Government-planned projects implemented with little regard for local concerns and local conditions. When a monsoon fails, it does not cause a crisis, it only worsens one - whose severity increases in areas that traditionally receive only moderate amounts of rainfall. But this need not be the case. As the fairly large experiments in Alwar by the Tarun Bharat Sangh and in Ralegaon Siddhi by Mr. Anna Hazare have shown, dry areas can be made green and drinking water available for all with people's involvement in a methodical harvesting of rain water and a careful use of available surface and groundwater resources. If the ongoing crisis gives a new direction to the harvesting, use and conservation of the country's water resources then it may yet have given a painful but necessary lesson for a better future.

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