An escalating crisis

An escalating crisis

Industry and water scarcity

In this scorching heat, water is becoming a hot issue. With temperatures soaring, and with the major reservoirs drying, the battle for drinking water is becoming louder and bloodier, day by day. Unable to get their daily requirement of drinking water, angry protestors in various cities are taking to streets.

In the months to come, non-availability of water is sure to adorn the news. The warning bells have been ringing for over 15 years now, but nobody cared. Even now, when projections show that 70 per cent more groundwater has been depleted in the past decade than in the last decade of 1990s, and that water sources across the country have been contaminated in almost all the states leading to serious health problems like cancer and fluorosis that damages bones, teeth and muscles, the nation is not perturbed.

Parliament was informed that 1.80 lakh villages (out of the 6 lakh villages in the country) are afflicted by poor water quality. What these villages drink is nothing but slow poison. In addition, what parliament is not informed is that almost all the tributaries of our major rivers have become drain channels for the industry. Take, for instance, Ammi river flowing in the outskirts of Gorakhpur. For years now, over 1.5 lakh people who live on the banks of the river have been protesting against industrial effluents that have turned the river — the only lifeline for hundreds of villages on its banks — into a source of misery.
Ammi is not the only tributary that has turned into a drain. Almost all tributaries of the major Indian rivers flow dirty. Somehow the policy makers and planners treat the dirty rivers and tributaries as a misplaced sign of industrialisation, and thereby treat it as an index of development.

Returning to the issue of shrinking drinking water availability, a parliamentary standing committee has informed that while more than 84 per cent of households in rural areas are covered under rural water supply, only 16 per cent population gets drinking water from public taps. However, just 12 per cent of rural families have individual taps in their houses. This too is highly skewed in favour of the more progressive states. In Orissa, for instance, only 9 per cent households have access to tap water. If you travel to Kalahandi district, the percentage of population having access to tap water drops to a mere 2.76 per cent.

The picture isn’t very rosy for the urban areas. Only 37 per cent of the households  have access to tap water. In other words, not only food entitlements, there is an urgent need to ensure right to safe drinking water.

Access denied

Isn’t it shocking that after 63 years of Independence, only 12 per cent of the rural households have drinking water taps? This is despite the National Rural Drinking Water Programme being operative, for which Rs 8,000-crore was provided just in 2009-10.

What is more shocking is that while the drinking water taps are going dry, there is never a shortage of water supply from tankers? In Mumbai, for instance, an estimate shows that nearly 48 per cent of the drinking water gets lost due to leaks from damaged pipelines. Some think it is simply because the tanker mafia is at work. Not only Mumbai, cities across the country are under siege by tanker mafia. In the rural areas too, the water mafia has been continuously at work. If the water sources are drying up across the country, I wonder from where the tankers get water. Every one knows that the tanker mafia is leaving the countryside parched and dry, but who cares?

Well, the corporate sector certainly gives an impression that it cares. It has to. After all, much of the water crisis is its creation. First the industries guzzle up water, and pollute the rivers and water bodies, and then they launch water saving initiatives under Corporate Social Responsibility. ITC for instance has launched a project in Gurgaon to teach housemaids on how to save water while cleaning the utensils. Teaching the maid servants on how to save one mug of water is surely some responsibility!

What the corporate sector refuses to point at is the recent decision of the Andhra Pradesh government to allocate 21.5 lakh litres per day from the Krishna River in Guntur district to Coca-Cola. While several hundred villages in Guntur district are grappling with acute drinking water shortage, the government perhaps thinks that rural poor can quench their thirst from drinking Coke instead. To justify its exploitation of water, Coca-Cola claims to be buying mangoes for its Maaza brand under Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative. Killing two birds with one stone, isn’t it? But who cares?

Unfortunately, providing clean drinking water is no longer a national priority. Somehow the government believes that the more pressing need is to make the water resources available to the mineral water industry. With the elite and the middle class satisfied at the easy availability of mineral water, the rest of the population continues to suffer. Over the years, the state and the Central government have shifted focus to the middle class, as if the rest of the country does not matter.