Elections 2019: Voters Aren’t Letting Politicians Ignore Water Scarcity Anymore

(By Raj Narayan)

“Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink” 

These lines by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ring true for India today.

They also bring out the sordid state of our water economy and the criminal disregard with which political parties have dealt with the issue in the seven decades since the country began handling its fate and defining its future.

While successive Congress governments paid lip-service to the cause in the past, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the issue to fore by specifically articulating two issues – cleaning up the Ganges, and cross-linking the major rivers – in the 2014 BJP manifesto. Of course, nothing much has changed on either front.

Yet, the fact remains that as voters prepare to choose their leaders, the question of water scarcity looms large in several pockets. Sample this: a citizen’s group in Kuttanad (Kerala) have threatened to use NOTA if the political parties delay in setting up pipelines to the region, once known for its scenic backwaters– a jewel of God’s Own Country.

The situation in Maharashtra is worse. This writer toured extensively around Pune, Nasik and Nandurbar to find several groups of people strongly advocating the NOTA approach to “wake up the political class” to their travails. Of course, farmer suicides and the much-publicized march to Delhi are still fresh in people’s mind.

In Kerala’s Malampuzha assembly segment that falls in the Palakkad Lok Sabha constituency, residents of villages in the Palakkad-Pollachi stretch have taken candidates of all three political parties to task. Town-hall meetings, personally witnessed by this writer, saw irate residents question candidates of the LDF, UDF and the BJP on how they planned to provide Malampuzha river water to their homes and the timeframe that they need to do so.

That the situation is assuming alarming proportions is obvious from a recent report by the NITI Aayog. which suggests that baseline water shortage is critical in most of India, the worst affected being the western parts as well as parts of Andhra Pradesh. Baseline water stress is defined as the percentage of total annual flow that is withdrawn for human use.

It goes on to suggest that as many as two lakh people are dying each year due to inadequate access to safe water, while 21 major cities may run out of groundwater by end of 2020 with as many as 75% of the households running out of drinking water at home. Of course, close to three-fourths of the total available water in India would become contaminated by then.

Globally, per capita availability of water below 1700 cubic-meters is considered a water-stressed situation, and the NITI Aayog report says that from a level of 5100 cubic meters in 1950-51, the figure dropped to 2000 in 1991-92 and below 1700 in 2011-12. At present, the figure stands at 1500-1600, and by 2030 this could drop to about 1000 cubic meters, meaning that the haves would be differentiated from the have-nots based on drinking water alone!

Given this precarious situation, political parties continue to make the right noises. The BJP has promised a new ministry for water resources while Modi has also coined the “Jal Jivan Mission” to ensure piped water for every household by 2024.

While the BJP manifesto five years ago had promised drinking water for all, the fact remains that the Narendra Modi-led administration has reduced the outlay for the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NWRDP) steadily over the past five years. In 2014-15, only 0.6% of the total water funding went to the NWRDP which shrunk to 0.2% in 2018-19.

On the other hand, the Congress has once again waxed eloquent on water, devoting an entire chapter to it in its 2019 manifesto. Besides promising a Ministry of Water, it reiterates the importance of universal access to drinking water and says the party will double the budget for cleaning rivers and focus special attention on access to water.

Though potable water is a concurrent subject, this time the voters aren’t waiting for assembly elections to voice their angst. A recent survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) suggests that water stands at third place behind unemployment and healthcare in a list of governance issues.

For once, it seems voters aren’t ready to allow water reforms to gather moss!

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