* Editorial 2

Individual States need to assume the responsibility for managing water resources in their territories

Delhi residents filling water in cans from a distribution tanker.Getty imagesThe India Today Group

India’s ‘water crisis’ took over social media recently. That India’s cities are running out of water, coupled with Chennai’s drinking water woes, made the ‘crisis’ viral, raising questions about the quality of the discourse and choice of water governance strategies in India. If there is a water crisis, what is the nature of the crisis? Where is the crisis prevalent? And how do we deal with it?

Usually, a delayed monsoon or a drought, combined with compelling images of parched lands and queues for water in urban areas raise an alarm in the minds of the public. Similarly, episodes of inter-State river water disputes catch public attention. However, this time, it was somewhat different. Videos and news reports claiming that Indian cities are running out of groundwater went viral. These news items could not have gained the traction but for the fact that they relied on a 2018 report of India’s own Niti Aayog, which was titled ‘Composite Water Management Index: A tool for water management.’

Zombie statistics

Later, thanks to yet another series of tweets by Joanna Slater of The Washington Post, the ‘crisis bogey’ lost some of its sheen. Ms. Slater investigated the “zombie statistics” in the Niti Aayog report, especially the piece of information that said: “21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting [nearly] 100 million people.” Her perseverance led to an eventual conclusion that there was no credible evidence for this assessment.

To be fair to Niti Aayog, its projection was only a means to an end goal: leveraging some action from the Indian States. The report’s central goal was to propose a tool, an index, to monitor the States’ water resource management strategies and provide the necessary course-shift, beyond supply augmentation approaches. The report may have had a lofty goal of promoting ‘cooperative and competitive federalism’ but was, in reality, a desperate move to engage with the States, in the absence of any substantive leverage to influence their approaches to water resources management. This also underscored that the fulcrum of any course correction lies with States.

Yet, what baffles us is the question: Just how did such ‘zombie statistics’ gain traction? This is disturbing on two counts: one, there is an absence of critical engagement or institutional accountability; two, a deeper hypocrisy surrounds the discourse on water governance in India. If there is a crisis, where is the crisis and what is the nature of the crisis?

For instance, what does the report mean when it says that “cities [are] running out of groundwater”? Does it mean that cities will not have groundwater reserves to meet their drinking water demand? If yes, this is not news.

Second, if the report means that the crisis lies in the depletion of groundwater levels in cities below safe rechargeable levels, then this is also not unknown. For almost two decades, the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) has been reporting on the increasing number of over-exploited blocks across India, the ‘dark’ category blocks. The recent annual book of CGWB has reported 1,034 units, out of the 6,584 units it monitors, as over-exploited. If this is the ‘crisis’, then we have had it for long. What has this not received enough attention? Is it because these zones are not in cities?

Just to be sure how critical the ‘crisis’ is, CGWB’s 2013 estimates say that the groundwater development in India is just about 62% of the utilisable groundwater reserves. Similarly, a recent report by the Central Water Commission, prepared in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), asserted that India is not yet in “water scarcity condition”. But it is certainly in a “water-stressed condition”, with reducing per capita water availability.

Here, we certainly don’t mean to say that India can continue with the present ways of water management. We also cannot remain in a state of denial that a crisis is not in the making. However, certain steps need to be taken to ensure a more useful and productive discourse about water governance challenges.

First, India needs to reconsider the institutional processes for dissemination of knowledge about water resource management. There is a certain amount of danger inherent in the casual manner in which knowledge about water resources is legitimised and consumed, particularly in these days of ‘viral’ information.

Second, we need to recognise the the crisis is not as much of scarcity as of delivery. The challenge is to ensure an adequate access to quality water, more so in urban areas where inequities over space and time are acute. We need to also realise that with the country’s rapid urbanisation, demand cannot be met by groundwater reserves alone. For instance, according to the Delhi Jal Board estimates, groundwater meets just 10% of Delhi’s drinking water needs. The rest is met by surface water sources, most of it transported from outside Delhi. The urban needs, which underpin much reporting on ‘water crises’, need to be met by robust long-term planning and preparation for droughts and other contingencies.

Responsibility lies with States

Finally, we need to reconsider our approaches to water governance. We must recognise that the fulcrum of change and action is with the States. For long, water resource departments in States have continued to follow the conventional approaches of supply augmentation. The challenge is that of reorienting themselves towards deploying strategies of demand management, conservation and regulation.

The Centre has to work with States towards an institutional change for the necessary course-shift. The Finance Minister, in her budget, repeatedly stated that the government will work with States to address India’s national water security challenges. Let us hope that the government intends to strengthen federal governance of water resources towards long-term water security.

Srinivas Chokkakula is at the Centre for Policy Research; Ashwin Pandya is with International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. Views are personal

Journalism, when not fettered, facilitates informed dialogue

In the aftermath of the First World War, sociologist Max Weber told his students that not everyone realises the demanding nature of producing good journalism and that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than that of a scholar’s. The conspicuous absence of reporting from Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) following the vivisection of the State last week helped in realising the full import of Weber’s observation.

Journalism performs many tasks. British journalist George Brock has mandated four irreducible core tasks: verification, bearing witness, sense making, and investigation. However, following the Union Government’s dramatic move to alter the political structure of J&K, Indian journalism was forced to temporarily abandon its ‘bearing-witness’ role and had to resort only to its ‘sense-making’ task. In this newspaper, there was a strongly worded editorial, “Scrapping J&K’s special status is the wrong way to an end;” a series of lead and Op-Ed articles; and an outstanding data story, “J&K’s vital statistics,” which debunked the claims of Home Minister Amit Shah that Article 370 hindered development. It is important to classify these writings within the rubric of the ‘sense-making’ task of journalism. While they were rigorous and insightful, there was a sense of incompleteness because there were no ground reports from Kashmir. A day before the government’s decision, all forms of communications — mobile networks, Internet services, and landline phone connectivity — had been shut down, leaving Kashmir and some districts in Jammu isolated.

Knocking on the judicial doors

Anuradha Bhasin, the Executive Editor of Kashmir Times, later moved the Supreme Court, seeking directions to ensure that media-persons and journalists from the State are able to freely practise their profession. She also challenged the restrictions imposed through the complete shutdown on Internet and telecommunication services and severe curbs on the movement of photojournalists and reporters. Her petition rightly contended: “The information blackout set in motion is a direct and grave violation of the right of the people to know about the decisions that directly impact their lives and their future. The Internet and telecommunication shutdown also means that the media cannot report on the aforesaid developments, and the residents of Kashmir thus don’t get access to information that is otherwise publicly available to the rest of India.”

This newspaper’s Srinagar correspondent, Peerzada Ashiq, documented the gruelling days of blackout in his “Diary of a Kashmir correspondent”. His last despatch prior to the blackout was a report on the house arrest of former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti and other leaders on August 4. Then, there was a complete silence for three days. What emerged clearly from Ms. Bhasin’s petition and the Mr. Ashiq’s diary is that we know very little about the opinion of the people directly affected by the government’s decision.

There are ethical and democratic angles to the task of ‘bearing witness’. Academics Richard Stupart and Katherine Furman explained how we rely on a division of labour to gain knowledge. They contended that no one person can know everything worth knowing; hence we divide the knowledge-producing tasks. “Journalists who venture into sites of conflict and suffering form an important part of our collective knowledge production, and one which [is] important to the rest of us as moral agents,” they argued.

American journalist Roger Cohen’s reflections on the ‘bearing-witness’ task brought out its stupendous role in informing and sensitising people. He wrote: “In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness... To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.”

For reasons known only to the state apparatus, it firmly believes that information blackout will lead to a political consensus. But, political processes gain their endurance only when people are active participants. Journalism, when it is not hampered, facilitates informed dialogue and provides a meaningful insight into people’s aspirations. Otherwise, they are left with either a deafening silence or an enervating exaggeration. The state media will not report the observation of David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression: “There’s something about this shutdown that is draconian in a way other shutdowns usually are not.”

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

It is time to consider out-of-the-box solutions to take water from a point of surplus to one of deficit

Last month, the ‘Chennai water train’ made its poignant, slow arrival into the city, carrying 2.5 million litres of water for its parched residents. At the very same time, in another part of the country, unspeakable tragedy had unfolded, with Assam and Bihar getting ravaged by the monsoons. And just when it feels that the country has been through enough, rain batters Karnataka and Kerala, taking many lives and causing more misery.

It is a cruel fact that it doesn’t rain evenly across the planet. With the havoc that rapidly-intensifying climate change is bringing, one man’s drought could well coincide with another man’s deluge.

These climatically turbulent times beg the question of whether it would be too far-fetched to use the ‘water train’ model widely and set up infrastructure to transport water from areas with surplus to parched lands. Historically, this notion has been toyed with and abandoned, mainly owing to how expensive it is to ferry water through thousands of kilometres of pipelines and against gradients, often involving pumping stations requiring a lot of energy. Yet, it isn’t as much a technical problem as one of money, and perhaps politics.

The American, Greek examples

In the U.S., the city of Las Vegas planned to use excess water from the Mississippi river through a multibillion-dollar project, a proposal that has remained a pipe dream. French engineers have dreamed up plans to helping water-starved African nations by hauling icebergs to their shores. Some of these plans have succeeded; for example, Greece has used the mega Spragg trash bag and its ‘world’s strongest zipper’ to haul massive amounts of water.

These schemes have yielded another novel idea, which is to use water to transport water. This has been implemented with success in the Caribbean, especially during the drought of 1983-84 in Antigua. The advantages of transporting water over water include the fact that one Horsepower of energy can move 150 kg on road, 500 kg on rail and 4,000 kg on water. Similarly, one litre of fuel can move 24 tonnes per km on road, 85 tonnes on rail and 105 tonnes on inland water transport. The disadvantages are that the loading and unloading facilities are expensive to construct and, in India, most rivers don’t have the depth and breadth to accommodate large barges all through the year. It will also require the dredging of rivers, which is exorbitant and might destroy natural ecosystems. Finally, though India recently forged ahead with its inland waterways development plans by investing in the National Waterways in the Northeast, the bigger problem is that there are too few large industries located near river belts. The impetus for investment simply doesn’t exist.

Nevertheless, exciting and path-breaking innovations in technology and enterprise still hold out much potential to solve our world’s resource problems. Desilting of lakes and rivers (concomitant with effective garbage/plastic disposal); extensive, state-mandated rainwater harvesting; desalination and, finally, recycling of water — all these can make a considerable difference.

According to Magsaysay awardee P. Sainath, there have been five principal migrations of water in India: from agriculture to industry; rural to urban; food to cash crops; poor to rich; and livelihood to lifestyle. These are all independent of seasonal droughts and have to do with our poor water management strategies.

But, in a country of contrasts — where animals frantically try to save themselves from floodwaters in Kaziranga National Park while, at the same time, innocent children carry back-breaking quantities of water in the blistering Chennai sun — perhaps it is time to consider out-of-the-box technological innovations.

The writer is based in Chennai

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