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Desert sands of habit

Several parts of the country are in the grip of a severe drought. But it is not just a drought in terms of water availability, it is a drought of ideas, of practices, of long-term perspectives. Above all, it is a drought of common sense, about how to utilise and conserve the world's most precious natural resource water.

This summer, people in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and in numerous pockets in several other states, are struggling to acquire a potful of water to call their own. They are learning the hard way that water scarcity is the logical outcome of their own apathy and bad governance.

The consequences are nothing short of tragic. As recent Indian Express news reports and photographs have highlighted graphically, the drought has disrupted normal life completely. It has driven every member of the family, whether seven years of age or 70, on to the streets in frantic search of a bucket of water. Riots over water, previously unheard of, are now a frequent phenomenon and people think nothing of risking life and limb to procure half a pitcher of the stuff.

Politicians and bureaucrats appear singularly clueless about how to deal with the situation. Their intervention is seriously flawed precisely because it comes as a last minute rescue act. Instead of adopting a long-term approach to the problem of water scarcity, they have allowed the situation to deteriorate dangerously until it has reached a point of no return and then they have rushed in tankers with water carelessly mined from some other source. There has also been an element of inscrutability about some government measures.

ake the reaction of the TDP government to the news that farmers in are being driven to commit suicide because of the prevailing drought. Naidu's factotums chose to dispatch psychiatrists to deal with this situation. This would have been amusing if it was not tragic. The fact is that the fields that are staring the farmer in the face are parched, the crops are withered, and no psychiatrist can make a difference to the view.

Far better then to plan for scarcity in times of normalcy. Far better then to make a habit of sustainable water use than to wait until a situation comes about when nothing will make a difference. The one lesson the present devastation holds out to the citizens of this country is the need to value water as one values life. Indeed, without water, there is no life. These are early days yet. India's water use could double in 25 years.

The country needs to map its water resources and ensure its equitable use, especially since scarcities sometimes have to do with geography. For instance, 80 per cent of Gujarat's water resources happen to be located in 20 per cent of its land. Apart from equitable use, there is the need to put into practice methods to conserve water and regulate its use. Ironically, Gujarat, with its careless pattern of industrialisation, has ensured that many of its precious water bodies have been polluted beyond repair thanks to noxious effluents.

This is where a proper regulatory and pricing system would have helped. Unfortunately, most state pollution boards have become either too weak or too corrupt to function as proper regulatory bodies. Finally, the people of this country have to realise that it is in their interest to protect water resources -- this is too important to be left to politicians.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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