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Last man, turn off the tap
Pamela Philipose

Access to water was, and is, central to the perpetuation of castehierarchies through rituals governing purity and pollution. The well in avillage was more than a source of water, it defined social status. Dalitwriter, the late Daya Pawar, recreated this world meticulously in hisautobiography, `We are kings!': ``The Mahars' well was to the west of thevillage...The Chamars never drank from our (the Mahars) well. They wouldhave lost caste by doing so. The women of the Chamar families used to sitfor hour after hour by the Marathas' well to beg a potful of water...''

Water, the technologies that have characterised its use; the injustices thathave marked access to it and the conflicts that have arisen as a result,could well be the story of human civilisation. From the days when the basinsof the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus and Huang rivers provided the backdropto great civilisations, one of the primary preoccupations of administratorshas been in managing this resource. They understood that water is life andput in place systems and policies that would ensure its sustainable use.

Kautilya, in his Arthasastra, carefully mapped regions according to theirwater resources and listed irrigation facilities carefully. Yet, today, atragic shortsightedness marks the use of water. Rivers have been reduced tosewers, lakes have become silted, groundwater reserves have been ruthlesslyplundered and everywhere there is a great thirst for more.

The recent two-day World Water Forum at The Hague attempted to make water apolitical issue. It already is one. Ask Home Minister L.K. Advani. Hediscovered to his chagrin how political it could be when slogans like pahelepani, phir Advani (first water, then Advani) were raised against him inGandhinagar during the last elections. The most important insight emanatingfrom The Hague conference was the acknowledgement that if the common goal ofproviding water security in the 21st century is to become a reality, the old``business as usual'' response to water won't do.

Just what does ``business as usual'' mean in a country like ours? At onelevel, ``business as usual'' pollutes. On the other, it depletes reservesand causes scarcities. To understand the first, visit Bichhri, a villagenear Udaipur in Rajasthan. In the late '80s, five chemical factoriessprouted in its vicinity and within months the villagers discovered thattheir water had turned into the colour of Pepsi Cola. It was only eightyears later, in February 1996, that the Supreme Court ordered the seizure ofthe five units producing the H-acid which had irreparably destroyed thevillage's water supply. As for the people of Bichhri, their ordeal can neverbe adequately comprehended. Not only did they get no compensation, they haveto depend on water tankers and can only dream of clear drinking waterflowing from a tap.

But ``business as usual'' also means systematic plunder. The magical abilityof the farmers of Punjab and Haryana to grow paddy in an arid region issustained by sleight of hand: ever deeper tubewells, ever more powerfuldiesel pumps. This ruthless extraction has even led to saline ingress insome areas of this region.

The unthinking exploitation of groundwater is one of the big scandals of ourtime. Everybody recognises a polluted river or one that has been grievouslyover-exploited. Few realise that precious water-bearing aquifers deep underthe earth are being subjected to the same pressures. In 1994, the CentralPollution Control Board undertook the first survey to monitor groundwaterquality. It revealed that although at least 80 per cent of the country'sdrinking water requirements were being met through groundwater reserves, innumerous regions of the country industrial effluents had either beendirectly injected into aquifers by unscrupulous industrialists or hadleached their way into them.

Random testing yie-lded bizarre revelations. When the science andenvironmental magazine, Down to Earth, tested a sample of water taken from atubewell near an industrial area in Panipat, it contained mercuryconcentration that was 268 times the permissible limit. The magazine alsoreported that the residents here and in other danger zones, like theMumbai-Thane belt in Maharashtra, the Vapi belt in Gujarat, theDurgapur-Asansol region of West Bengal, generally believed that groundwateris ``pure''. There is to date no comprehensive policy, no attempts to listpriorities, no specific laws to regulate groundwater use in India, althoughthe Central Groundwater Board has stated that watertables around almostevery Indian town and city are declining at a rapid rate and that extractionis far exceeding annual recharge.

A blind adherence to the ``business as usual'' approach has also led to someof the most intractable internal conflicts that the country has ever known,like the battle over the gigantic network of dams in the Narmada Valley.

Gujarat now cries for water from the river, but what is its record inpreserving the water resources that it had? Visit Dhoraji town near Rajkot,a region that has become synonymous with Gujarat's water fa-mine, and askpeople there what became of the Bhadar river that had once provided themwith drinking water. A 90-km stretch along the river was rendered dead, witheven the subsoil polluted. Ecologists estimate that it could take a hundredyears for the river to regenerate itself. In Valsad, it's the same story,where the river Kolak received untreated and partially treated effluentsfrom the several hundred companies of the Vapi Industrial Estate.

Critics of the Narmada-Sardar Sarovar Project maintain that while theauthorities claim that the project will provide irrigation to 18 lakhhectares of agricultural land in 12 districts of Gujarat and permanentlyeradicate droughts in the state, the reality could be quite different. Theyargue that it is the rich farmer of central Gujarat, who stands to gain themost. They also point out that an estimated Rs 70,000 crore of industrialinvestments in the state are likely to come up here and these proposed unitshave no source of water other than that from the Sardar Sarovar Project. Inother words, the water from this much disputed project may not go very farin quenching the thirst of the really needy in Saurashtra and Kutch.

All this raises serious questions about the use of, and access to, water inIndia. As the years go by the tensions will only increase. According to dataput forward by the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission, in 25 years Indiawould require 105 million hectare metres (mham) of water a figure thatstood at 38 mham in 1974. Already, an estimated 44 million people sufferfrom lack of access to potable water. Today, women and children in someforsaken regions of the country dig into a dry river bed and wait for thewater to seep into the holes. It could take a couple of hours to harvest apot of brackish water in this fashion. The rest of us may avoid this fate bypurchasing mineral water. But for how long?

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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