Promising water

  • 14/09/1999

Politicians do more to deplete water than provide people a sustained supply

At the recent meeting of the World Water Commission in Stockholm - set up last year with the support of several governments and United Nations' agencies - to develop a vision for water management in the next century, one of the members wondered how we would get the world's politicians to understand the importance of water, which is going to become increasingly scarce and polluted in the years to come.

I immediately pointed out that I had not met a single politician at least in India - who did not recognise the importance of water, particularly drinking water. But I had hardly met a politician who knew what to do about the problem, except to throw money at it. And teaching people that it is going to be quite difficult.

The problem is that management of water is really a question of good governance of a natural resource - which includes a variety of issues ranging from the establishment of proper property rights and good stakeholder involvement to the establishment of varied forms of institutions - from the state level to the private and community level, proper pricing, transparency and accountability, strict regulation, integrated economy-environment management, comprehensive environmental management, appropriate choice of technology, and good research, data collection and mass education. How do we get politicians to govern properly?

In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) as a party and Shri Atal Behari Vaypayee as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (nda) understand water is important but are clueless of what has to be done. Both in its 1998 National Agenda for Governance and the 1999 election manifesto, the nda has promised that it "will spare no effort to ensure that potable drinking water is available to all villages in the next five years." This is an absolutely wonderful promise. Moving and delightful. Water is a matter of life and death in some ways as important as, if not more, than Kargil. Have you ever suffered from cholera or cancer because of polluted water or walked miles to get yourself a pot of that wonderful liquid because of all-round shortage?

But will the nda be able to deliver this beautiful liquid in a potable form to India's people? To that beautiful sentence, the 1999 election manifesto merely adds that "Age-old and traditional methods of water utilisation, in both rural and urban areas, will receive urgent attention." As one of the editors of The Fourth Citizens' Report on the State of India's Environment which focussed on India's traditional technologies and water management systems, I feel proud that the nda has taken note of India's valuable traditions in this field. But will this be enough to meet the nda's glorious objective?

The reality today is that nobody, absolutely nobody, today gets potable water. Even the rich and mighty who have dozens of taps in their houses. Otherwise the bottled water industry would not be recording a growth rate of 300-400 per cent every year, if indeed that is true of bottled water, which is more expensive than milk.

I was one of those who had heard Vajpayeeji wax eloquent about drinking water in Parliament when it debated the nda's plan of action in 1998. Vajpayeeji had pointed out, "Water can also catch fire. The problem of water is going to become even more complicated. The problem of water is not limited only to India. This has become a world problem. It is possible that the next major source of tension in the world will be water, not petrol. The pollution of water is increasing. The quantity of water is getting reduced. The water-table is falling. We all see this in our constituencies. We feel disturbed by the problems people are facing. Sangmaji, we have not given the assurance that we will do everything in five years. Only in the case of water, we would like to give the assurance that in five years there should be good drinking water everywhere. And this is our commitment." There are such wonderful words. I was absolutely thrilled to hear them.

But my joy was shortlived. About a year later, after as much as 20 per cent of the time allotted by Vajpayeeji had gone by and after the country had exploded atomic bombs, fired missiles and what not, showing clearly where Vajpayeeji's priorities lay, I checked with the Planning Commission on what was happening as there was total silence about this issue in the media. I asked if the Prime Minister had provided any directions or vision on how the task should be accomplished, recognising that water management is a very complex problem and past experience has a lot to teach us about what to do and not to do. The simple answer was 'no'. So is nothing happening, I asked? "No, that is not true either" said my respondent, "we have been asked to allocate more money for this sector." But what about all the new learning in this field? "Well, it will all be written in the plan document." "Fine," I said, "but how will you ensure that this learning is implemented?" My respondent shrugged his shoulder. It was obvious that no one in the nda had learnt anything from the innumerable Indian experiences of the past.

It was during Vajpayeeji's regime that an officer as senior as N C Saxena who, as secretary in the ministry of rural development, had produced stunning figures on India's deplorable record with drinking water programmes. In 1972, surveys had revealed that there were 150,000 drinking water 'problem villages' in India. By 1980, some 94,000 villages were covered and some 56,000 were left uncovered. But the 1980 survey revealed that t

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