Perpetual Thirst

  • 27/02/1999

Perpetual Thirst The story so far...

nafisa is always ill. The nine-year-old girl was seven when her parents left their home in Khulna, a district in Bangladesh, and moved to India seeking better prospects. Now Nafisa stays in her makeshift home in a dingy, slum area of Noida, a sprawling industrial satellite town east of Delhi. Her parents work from morning to dusk: Nafisa’s mother works as a maid in different households and her father is a riskshaw-puller. For the better part of the year, Nafisa remains ill. “The doctor says it is because of the water she drinks,” her father Fakir explains. “But what can we do? We cannot move to a better place.” Their sole source of water is a municipal tanker.

Arun Zutshi is a businessperson living in Pamposh Enclave, a posh south Delhi residential locality. It would definitely qualify in Fakir’s terms as a “better place”.Zutshi has not much to complain about the area: "There"s just one thing. The moment you mix whisky with the water here, the drink becomes salty." So he prefers his whisky with soda.

For Rupa Bai, a resident of Bichhri, a small village in Rajasthan"s Udaipur district, the dictionary"s definition of water, "a transparent, colourless, odourless and tasteless liquid", is meaningless. Bichhri"s groundwater is dark brown in colour. Villagers avoid the water available from the village wells, and for good reason too. " Yeh to jahar ka khan hai (These are wells of poison)," she says. Now, Rupa Bai has to walk to a distant well everyday to get water.

Nafisa, Zutshi and Rupa Bai are not exceptions. Like them, millions across India have to live with water-related problems. For most, there is not enough water to go around. And where people do have enough to drink, the water is laced with toxins - arsenic, fluorides and nitrates. Faulty policies and practices, coupled with a decline in the traditional systems of water harvesting have taken effect, leading to falls in groundwater levels, contamination, and a thousand other problems.

Reality bites
According to the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission ( rgndwm) , since the launch of the first water supply programme in 1954, a total of 520 million people have now been given access to public water supply. Between 1954 and 1995, an estimated 478 million rural people were given access to supply of potable water. By 1994, ninety-five per cent of the rural population had access to "safe" water sources. More impressive figures follow: some 52 per cent of the rural populations have been fully covered with 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) or more and 48 per cent have been partially covered with 10 to 40 lpcd. This, in itself, could have been an achievement to be proud of. But sadly, these are mere statistics.

In the real world of perpetual thirst, there is not enough drinking water to go around. Data from the ministry of rural areas and employment ( See table: Water woes ) tell a tragic story. Before each survey, authorities identified the so-called "problem villages". These suffer either from a scarcity of water or from some water-borne disease. Strangely though, the number of these "problem villages" only grew with every survey, implying that the problems grew much faster than the government"s attempts to solve them. N C Saxena, former secretary, rural development and now secretary, Planning Commission, compiled the figures. Saxena thinks the government is trying, but its efforts are misdirected. "The money we are spending and the methods we have adopted are unsustainable," he says.

Water Woes
Growth of problems exceed the rate at which the government
is trying to solve them

Survey Year Number of problem villages identified Villages covered till the next survey Villages not covered till the next survey
1972 150,000 94,000 56,000
1980 231,000 192,000 39,000
1985 161,722 161,652 70
1994 140,975 110,371 30,604
April 1, 1997 61,747
Even though a large number of villages were covered during each survey, the number of problem villages keeps growing. There should not have been more than 56,000 problem villages in 1980, but there were more than 230,000. Obviously the money pumped in and the methods used were unsustainable.
Source: RGNDWM
One obvious cause for failure of projects is corruption. It eats into the heart of every Union and state government department. The controversy over noted activist Anna Hazare"s imprisonment after he accused the Maharashtra state government of corruption exposed the level of corruption that is rusting the innards of the Indian administrative machinery.

Hazare"s 1990 investigations into Maharashtra"s village water supply schemes and into those of the state forest department revealed that most of these began and ended on papers. Of 425 sarpanch s (village chiefs) that Hazare wrote to, some 165 replied that these schemes are all as good as dead in their villages. It turned out that a handful of people in key government positions had siphoned off the money intended for these projects. And the amount of money involved was astronomical - each of these projects had cost the government some Rs 7,00,000 (See Down To Earth , Vol 7, No 11).

l A total lack of public interest in government projects is another significant factor. Almost all instances highlight mass apathy. The state subsidises water. The people squander it without a thought. Then the state runs out of money for new projects and for maintaining the existing ones. The state then becomes a water source, arranging water supplies for the masses who just demand and complain and then demand more.

l Another suicidal practice is groundwater overexploitation. In this, both government and the masses have an easy route to mitigate a water crisis temporarily. The statistics say it all: the country has dug more wells: from 3.86 million in 1951 to it went up to 9.49 million in 1990. In the same period, shallow tubewells went up from 3,000 to 7.75 million; public tubewells from 2,400 to 63,000; electric pumps from 21,000 to 8.22 million and diesel pumps went up from 65,700 to 4.36 million. (see table: Last few drops ). This near-total dependence on groundwater has led to drastic falls in water tables across the country. Similarly, dependence on riverwaters has meant so much exploitation that already, many rivers have no water left in them during the lean months. The ministry of environment and forests ( mef ) is allegedly considering the need to legislate "minimum river flows" but none of the agencies involved with water resource development are listening.

l And as the population bomb goes on ticking, India"s water demands will only grow. And with more people, more urbanisation will follow, with industrialisation and agricultural modernisation in tow. These key elements of eco-nomic development will ensure steadily-growing pollution of the country"s water resources. Already, rivers like the Yamuna, passing along many of northern India"s industrial towns, have recorded drastic increases in pollution. And pollution ultimately leads to the planners" nightmare - water-borne diseases.

l These diseases stalk not only the parched areas but regions with abundant water resources too. Causes are varied: mineral contamination of groundwater, chemical contamination due to industrial waste dumping, ingress of saline water from the sea due to over extraction of groundwater and deforestation-led unchecked run-off. According to rgndwm , some 82,000 habitations or 44 million people suffer from water-quality problems - direct result of excessive fluoride, iron, nitrate and arsenic or extreme salinity. In over 16 states, water sources are replete with fluoride and 62 million Indians suffer from fluorosis, with severe dental and skeletal defects. Some 29 million people in Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu salinity .

If it seems daunting now, future scenarios can only worsen. By 2025, India will need 105 million hectare metres (mham) of water. In 1974, this figure was at a manageable 38 mham. By 2025, India"s irrigation needs alone will need 77 mham. Domestic and industrial uses - biggest water pollution sources - will need 28 mham more as against 1974"s three mham. India"s thirst, as the figures show, has only grown, and so have the problems.

Last Few Drops
Extraction of groundwater has skyrocketed
in the past 40 years

Source of groundwater 1951 1990
Dug wells 3,860,000 9,490,000
Shallow tube wells 3,000 4,750,000
Public tube wells 2,400 63,000
Electric pumps 21,000 8,220,000
Diesel pumps 65,700 4,360,000
Source: Fresh water for India’s children and nature, UNICEF, April 1998

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