The water and power crises frame the need for a coordinated national response
Long spells of power cuts may have been the immediate provocation for Gurgaon residents to take to the streets this week,but the larger responsibility must be shared by the Centre,states and misguided environmental activism. Just a week before Gurgaon,it was Delhis turn to protest inadequate water supply. These protests highlight the fact that there are no simple answers to the crisis in the city. India needs to frame a better response to the power needs of a young population,and it needs to provide water to its expanding cities,home to an increasing number of migrants from rural areas in search of job opportunities. The Centre and the states have to come together to work out solutions.
For now,in response to the crisis,each state has made an attempt to ring-fence itself with power stations and committed water supply sources,and has tried to keep specific vote banks happy. This has created a piquant situation where several states,including Haryana,are building costly thermal power projects on land hundreds of kilometres away from coal or even water sources. The repeated fights over the Cauvery waters between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka,which have become more acerbic every year,could show up soon as water wars. At one level,an enduring solution would require an amendment to the Constitution to bring water into the Concurrent List. It is too vital a commodity for each state to enjoy the luxury of legislating at will. There must also be urgent investment in the national electricity grid. The Manmohan Singh government must use whatever is left of its political capital in the rest of its term to address these two problems. Letting them fester,as recent events show,can extract a heavy national toll.
At the same time,crises like these are opportunities for governments to speak to the people on the kind of environmental activism on water and power that prevents a workable solution. While nuclear power or even thermal energy has its problems,alternatives like solar energy will take time to be ratcheted up to corresponding levels. As the cities turn restive,India does not have the space to postpone long-overdue decisions in these sectors.