Devastating floods in Assam in the beginning of the belated monsoon season and widespread water scarcity in most urban centres in the pre-monsoon summer months are grim pointers to India’s mismanagement of its water resources. The flawed strategies pursued so far focused more on exploitation than on its conservation, storage and sustainable use. Going by official estimates, the country receives, on an average, about 4,000 billion cubic metres (BCM) of rainwater annually. However, a sizable part of it is allowed to flow down wastefully to the oceans for want of capacity to impound it in surface ponds or guide it down to the underground water reserves. Even if the country’s 84 major reservoirs get filled up to capacity, no more than 154.4 BCM of water can be held in them. Other water bodies, natural or man-made, dotted all over the country, too, cannot hold much water due to a lack of proper maintenance and unchecked siltation. Percolation of rainwater down to underground aquifers is waning because of denudation of forest and vegetative cover. As a result, the total conserved water fails to meet even a few months demand.
This apart, the bitter truth also is that listing of water as a state subject under the Constitution was a historic blunder that had disallowed the management of water as a dynamic common resource. Most rivers and water streams, as well as groundwater aquifers, cut across state boundaries. Giving a free hand to states to meddle with them the way they want is unwarranted and gives rise to needless inter-state water sharing disputes.
Sadly, water is not treated as an economic good. Nor is it priced to make the consumer realise its scarcity value. This is true for its agricultural as well as industrial and domestic use. Groundwater, too, continues to be treated as virtually the personal property of land-owners under archaic Raj-era legislation, the Indian Easements Act of 1882. In the rural belt, where the bulk of groundwater is consumed, no limits have been imposed on its mining; in urban areas, enforcement of rules is poor. In fact, on the contrary, many states are subsidising power to encourage its indiscriminate use, causing rapid depletion of ground water.
Such outmoded policies and statutory provisions, obviously, need to change. Promotion of rainwater harvesting is unavoidable to rebuild fast-shrinking underground water reserves. This can be done in the urban areas by collecting and preserving rainwater from all open spaces, including those along roads, and by mandating rooftop water harvesting in large building complexes. Some cities, notably Chennai, have overcome their acute water stress through this approach. In the rural belt, on the other hand, rainwater harvesting needs to be done on a watershed basis, regardless of block, district or state boundaries. The check dams for this purpose should, preferably, be put up prior to the onset of the monsoon and not during a deficient monsoon season as is the case this year. Without a national attempt to rationalise water and power tariffs, impose regulation and build more infrastructure, India’s water woes will worsen.