The air is heavy with precipitation of expectations. Traditionally, the annual budget, essentially a statement of accounts, is also the lighthouse for policy signals and programmes to catalyse growth. It is payback time for hopeful voters. There is the context of agrarian distress, demand de-growth, deficit and debt, and then there is the circumstance of global uncertainties.
The moot challenge is less about the catalysts and more about engineering a structure for sustainable growth. Can India aspire for high growth without addressing the water crisis? The anguish and rage witnessed in Chennai and the riots in rural Bundelkhand are but vignettes of a severe national crisis. In just the first nine days of the 17th Lok Sabha, MPs have shot off 37 questions on water-related issues–ranging from groundwater depletion to water-borne diseases to water in public hospitals to access to drinking water.
The road to damnation is paved with lofty intentions. Consider the following declarations. In 1987, the first National Water Policy said: “Adequate drinking water facilities should be provided to the entire population, both in urban and in rural areas, by 1991.” The 2002 National Water Policy repeated the promise without a deadline. The 2012 National Water Policy declared that governments “must ensure access to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all its citizens.” Three decades after the first water policy, the Niti Aayog, last June, bluntly stated that “India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history–600 million people face high to extreme water stress. India is ranked 120th among 122 countries in water quality index.”
There is much lather about the need for conservation and advocacy of measures such as revival of water bodies, of rainwater harvesting, need for desalination plants et al. However, the bitter truth is that while all these are necessary, these are too little and too late to stem the parching of India. The water economy is in this rut primarily because of palliative policies and perennial incrementalism.
By 2025, India will need water to produce over 350 tonnes of food to feed its people, and half of India will be urbanised. Patchwork policies have lived well past the sell by date and must be dumped. On paper India is blessed with water resources but is cursed with poor policy– annual precipitation of snowfall and rain of 4,000 bcm translates into 1,869 bcm of water in rivers, but barely a third is used and the rest flows into the sea thanks to poor utilisation and storage.
India needs to review its water resources and recast the usage map. Over 80 per cent of the water is used by agriculture. The matrix of poor per litre yield is simply indefensible. India needs to redesign its crop map–shift water-intensive crops from water-scarce areas and adopt a climate-conscious crop calendar. Budgetary incentives can enable shifting from sugarcane to sugar beet, which consumes less water and delivers more. There is also a need to incentivise adoption of technology to modernise irrigation and dismantle the free power regime which has aggravated groundwater levels.
In less than two decades after the drought crisis, Israel is exporting water. Singapore, faced by an existential threat, invested in systems and now recycles nearly 40 per cent of its water. So what is stopping India from adopting the best principles from across the world? There is a dire need for India to incubate solutions like thermal hydrolysis to treat municipal solid waste. This will require central funding for panchayats and municipal bodies to come together for scale. This will deliver recycled water, bio-solid fertilisers and even electricity.
The promise of piped water is simply a pipe dream given the structural issues involved. The better option is to bring groundwater under the community and get start-ups and civil society organisations to deliver potable water to rural households via modern off-grid water treatment plants using the principle of water ATMs. Nearly a third of piped water in India is lost in leakage. This calls for compulsory metering and opening up of competitive bidding for last-mile delivery of water, and those who are willing to pay Rs 20 per litre of bottled water must pay for at least the maintenance of services.
There are other ideas and solutions being adopted successfully across the world–particularly the reinstating of water management rights to communities. These could include graded recycling for industrial units, assessing the cost-benefit of small hydro projects, and pushing the interlinking of rivers, where feasible.
The national character of the crisis demands that Budget 2019 focus on the water crisis. For sure water is a state subject. But the states are scarcely in a position to even study, leave alone fund solutions for the crisis. The budget could be deployed to set up the necessary platforms for design and for delivery–set up a special purpose vehicle to raise funds, earmark a portion of the cess that it collects to fund panchayats and municipalities to do feasibility studies, involve the private sector to invest in R&D for water-conservation tech, set aside a part of the windfall from RBI to fund waste-management-recycling projects in major metros. The water economy is critical for national security. Yes, there will be disruption, but remember, there is a cost to doing anything and a price to be paid for doing nothing.
(Shankkar Aiyar is Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)