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Depleting blue gold stocks

Mayank Mishra 

Priorities for India’s Water Sector
Joseph P Quinlan, Sumantra Sen and Kiran Nanda

Random House India
179 pages; Rs 399

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) conducted pre-election surveys in all 70 Assembly constituencies of Delhi to get a handle on people’s concerns. Water-related issues turned out to be the primary concern for Delhiites. No wonder one of the first decisions of the AAP government, which was led by Arvind Kejriwal, was to supply more than 600 litres of water free of cost to all metered households every day. As far as intent goes, ensuring regular water supply to each household was spot on. However, was the decision to supply it free of cost anything more than a cheap election gimmick?

Gimmick it was indeed, and harmful too in the long run, if one considers the water situation in the country. The book under review provides a glimpse of the gloomy situation that confronts us. The central argument of the book is that growing economies and expanding population need more water that can be made available only through sustained investment in the sector and through constant conservation of this seemingly plentiful resource. India is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population, but possesses only four per cent of its usable freshwater resource. A rising population has ensured a consistent fall in per capita water availability in the last 60 years — from 5,300 cubic metres per annum in 1951 to 1,544 cubic metres in 2011, according to the authors. “Thus, the country is already in a water stress situation,” they observe.

Does such a situation warrant a freebie, and that too of a resource that is increasingly becoming scare? Not really. What is needed is right pricing of the resource to induce its judicious use, not a policy that encourages carelessness. Advocates of such freebies argue that something as basic as water is the fundamental right of citizens and should be made available to them, irrespective of the cost involved.

In Delhi’s case, the cost involved was not more than Rs 300 crore, which the government was in a position to bear. But the subsidy culture has spawned inefficiency and has failed to expand the list of beneficiaries. The current system has led to wastage and corruption and has even discouraged genuine investment in sectors dominated by the subsidy culture.

What is the way out, then? A sudden shift to a full-cost recovery regime will be disruptive and, therefore, hard to implement. In the case of water, the bulk user of this resource has been the agriculture sector. A substantial price hike in a key farm input like irrigation will have a cascading effect. So the switch to a cost-recovery regime should be gradual.

The Singapore model, which is mentioned in the book, offers some answers. “Singapore’s water management ... shows that basic utilities do not have to be subsidised or discounted for better access... It has also introduced separate tax rebates on utilities and subsidies directed at lower-income households in order to separate distributive impacts from over-utilisation,” the authors write.

The book is a timely reminder to policymakers ahead of the Lok Sabha elections that the issues of water availability, its conservation, its recycling, and its pricing are as important as any other pressing concerns facing the nation. While there are multiple challenges, we must develop ways and means to conserve rainfall to begin with. The fact is “only 48 per cent of the rainfall ends up getting drained into India’s rivers and of which only a mere 18 per cent is utilised due to a lack of storage facilities and related infrastructure”. Can a water-stressed country afford so much wastage?

The pollution of rivers, the country’s most dependable freshwater resource, is another major concern. The authors estimate that “14 per cent of the rivers in India are severely polluted, while another 19 per cent are considered moderately polluted.”

Another area that needs urgent attention is improvement in irrigation infrastructure. The present system is not based on the principle of water conservation. The country’s irrigation sector uses water the most and accounts for nearly 84 per cent of total water withdrawals. A more efficient technique could help in considerable water conservation.

The book is full of relevant facts and figures that highlight the urgency of the situation. However, it has several shortcomings too. The tone is alarmist, the structure is haphazard and there is a lot of overlap in the arguments. It could have avoided wasting 15 pages on providing the justification for writing the book in the section “Why this book”. The content is powerful, the topic is relevant and the timing is right. The book needs no justification. Still, for anyone who believes in a sustainable development model, this is an important addition to the available literature because it shows how we can go about it.

First Published: Wed, March 12 2014. 21:25 IST