Woebegone with water

If we could hypothetically wall up the coastline and prevent rainwater from flowing into the sea, there would be water one metre deep all over the country

“He under whose supreme control are horses, all chariots, the villages, and cattle; He who gave being to the sun and the morning, who leads the waters; He, O men, is Indra… you lifted up the outcast who was oppressed, you glorified the blind and the lame...”
— Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation of the Rig Veda

He who is considered the leader of all the gods in heaven in Hindu mythology, the twin brother of fire god Agni, has not smiled on India this year. Everybody from the Prime Minister of India to the farmer in his field is praying to Lord Indra at a time when the ongoing drought in parts of the country, including some areas that are agriculturally the most productive, is certain to negatively impact the already-adverse state of the economy. Food inflation will not be contained and this will hardly help the discredited ruling dispensation in Delhi.
It has become a cliché to state that “India’s Budget is a gamble on the monsoon”. Barely a year and a half ago, President Pranab Mukherjee, in his earlier avatar as finance minister, had invoked the blessings of Lord Indra when he presented the Union Budget for 2011-12. But this particular cliché, which is more than a century old, has more than a grain of truth, no pun intended.
Prof. R.R. Kelkar, former director-general of the India Meteorological Department (IMD), who has researched the origin of the phrase, points out the four factors contributing to the gamble. The budget is presented at the end of February. The financial year starts from April. The monsoon normally arrives in June. Most importantly, despite all the advances made in weather forecasting and the construction of scientific “models”, the IMD will be the first to acknowledge that predicting “extreme” situations and the spatial distribution of precipitation in India is still not possible.
Prof. Kelkar, who has gone on record stating that “it has never been possible to make a successful prediction of an all-India drought”, points out that the cliché about the Budget being a gamble on the monsoon is usually attributed to Lord Curzon who, at the age of 39 in 1899, became British India’s Viceroy and Governor-General. That year an estimated three million people died of starvation. India has come a long way not only since then but also since the “ship-to-mouth” years of the mid-1960s. It is often argued that the country’s economy is becoming increasingly “monsoon-proof”. True. But what cannot also be denied is a simple fact: if there is one respect in which India as a politically independent nation state has failed miserably over the last six and a half decades, it is in managing our water resources.
The subcontinent’s monsoon climatic system is unique in the world for more than one reason. The wind direction reverses (south-west to north-east) with the seasons. The Himalayas act as great natural wall that diverts rain-filled clouds along the plains of the Ganga. Of all the countries on this planet, India gets the maximum amount of rainfall per unit of land area but more than three-fourths of the total rainfall that takes place in a year occurs during barely four months between June and September. If we could hypothetically wall up the coastline and prevent rainwater from flowing into the sea, there would be water one metre deep all over the country.
There would have been enough water for every Indian, if only we were not so inefficient and wasteful. One group of individuals survives each day on what another group uses up in less than two flushes in a latrine. Despite one of the richest and oldest traditions of managing water, we have periodic crises, mostly of our own making because we have failed to learn the lessons that were taught by our grandparents and their grandparents.
Over the decades huge amounts of money have been wasted on building irrigation projects that have lined the pockets of a corrupt few and aggravated the misery of many. There is official data to indicate that between 1991-92 and 2006-07, the country spent an amount in the region of Rs 1,30,000 crore on major and medium irrigation projects, yet there was actually a decline in the net irrigated area under canals — this was compensated by irrigation using tubewells and groundwater with disastrous consequences. We have been drawing out increasingly larger quantities of groundwater faster than the aquifers can be replenished by natural processes, resulting in an alarming situation in the country’s “granary”, namely, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.
Over two-thirds of the total net sown area in India (nearly 137 million hectares) is not irrigated or, in other words, is rain-fed. Such arid or semi-arid areas have traditionally contributed around 40 per cent of the total production of all categories of foodgrains, provide livelihood to nearly half the agricultural workforce and fodder to 60 per cent of the total cattle population. Importantly, dry or non-irrigated areas in India produce three-fourths of the total production of pulses and over 90 per cent of the output of sorghum (or jowar), millet and groundnut. However, what has been neglected is cultivation of millets that consume little water, are adaptable to a wide range of ecological conditions and are pest-free. Whereas wheat and rice provide only food security, increased cultivation of millets could have provided additional security in the form of nutrition, livelihood and fodder and would also be environmentally sustainable.
The issues relating to water mismanagement are hardly new and have been discussed over and over again. These include silting of reservoirs and canals, lack of maintenance of dams and embankments, cultivation of water-intensive crops, diversion of water for uses other than irrigation, increased “mining” of ground water and absence of rainwater harvesting.
For a practising atheist, the prospect of the political economy of India being badly battered by the vagaries of Lord Indra is a disconcerting thought. Global warming is exacerbating the problem. But even in a drought year, the will to tackle the long-term and medium-term issues seems desultory.

The writer is an educator and commentator

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