India is not a water-short country. We have merely managed our plentiful water very poorly. What we need, therefore, is a paradigm shift in policy. Could the finance minister (FM) be said to have risen to this challenge?
Historically, India has suffered from “hydro-schizophrenia”, wherein the left hand of drinking water did not know what the right hand of irrigation was doing. When the drinking water aquifer was also used to irrigate water-intensive crops, it led to an exhaustion of drinking water. The formation of the Jal Shakti Ministry is a positive first step in overcoming this problem. As the FM says, “This new Mantralaya will look at the management of our water resources and water supply in an integrated and holistic manner.”
The main water-related announcement in the budget is of “piped water supply to all rural households by 2024”. The FM has rightly spoken of a “focus on integrated demand and supply side management of water at the local level, including source sustainability and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture”. This is a very welcome departure from the earlier focus only on the supply side.
But for this scheme to be a success certain preconditions must be met. First, we need a clear understanding of the aquifers to be used for water supply. The National Aquifer Management Programme and the Atal Bhujal Yojana are both pioneering initiatives but they have failed to take off, primarily because the requisite multi-disciplinary capacities are missing within government. Paradoxically, as groundwater has become India’s most important source, groundwater departments, at the Centre and in all states, have only become weaker. We need to urgently reverse this trend. We must also recognise that aquifer management at this unprecedented scale cannot be left to government alone. It demands a large network of partnerships with relevant stakeholders, across the board.
We also need to ensure that the entire water supply system is operated and managed by local institutions led by women, adequately empowered to do so. They should decide upon tariffs for this water in a transparent and collective manner. Only then can these systems become sustainable and overcome historically inherited gender, caste and class inequities.
While drinking water is the first priority, we must remember that 90 per cent of India’s water is consumed in agriculture. Without reducing this number, we can never hope to meet the domestic water needs of rural and urban India. Irrigation is monopolised by a few water-intensive crops like wheat, rice and sugarcane, even in chronically drought-prone states. A small reduction in the area under these crops would go a long way in addressing India’s water problem. Any player in the stock market knows that to counter market volatility, we must diversify our stock portfolio. Farming faces an additional risk: Unpredictability of the weather. For such a risky enterprise to adopt monoculture is patently suicidal. But that is what policy has implicitly driven farmers to do. We have failed to incentivise crop diversification.
Farmers grow water-intensive crops mainly because these are the only crops with an assured market, thanks to government procurement or private purchase. We need to urgently diversify public procurement to include less water-consuming and more nutritious crops such as traditional millets and pulses. If we were to introduce them into the diets of the Integrated Child Development Services and Mid-day Meal Programs, globally the largest nutrition initiatives for children ever, we would create a large and steady demand for these crops, while also generating multiple win-wins: Greater water security, better soil health, higher, more stable net incomes for farmers and robust consumer health.
The most encouraging announcement in the budget in this direction is the historic decision by government to “go back to basics” by promoting zero-budget natural farming. I have some reservations about the possibility of farming becoming totally zero-budget. But there is no question that we urgently need to explore all possible alternatives to the 20th century paradigm of chemical agriculture. Here, what is not so encouraging is the fine print of allocations in the budget tables. It is disheartening to find that a government committed to natural farming continues to provide as much as Rs 79,996 crore in chemical fertiliser subsidy, a rise of nearly Rs 10,000 crore over last year.
Most of this subsidy (which in any case accrues mainly to fertiliser companies and not to small and marginal farmers) must be urgently diverted to facilitating the production of organic inputs by Farmer Producer Organisations and women’s SHGs, to meet the huge demand likely to arise from the move towards natural farming. Only then can the FM credibly claim that “steps such as this can help in doubling our farmers’ income in time for our 75th year of Independence”.
It also appears that the Department of Water Resources within the new Jal Shakti ministry has not yet had the time to shake-off its outmoded pattern of budgetary allocations and its silo-based approach to surface and groundwater. This is totally in conflict with the refreshingly bold pronouncements of the new Jal Shakti minister who seems fully committed to holistic, bottom-up river-basin management and river rejuvenation. It is also very strange to find that the watershed programme is not within the Jal Shakti Ministry, even though it is part of the PM Krishi Sinchai Yojana. Pathetically low allocations for this key programme are also a cause for serious concern.
I remain optimistic that the Jal Shakti ministry will make urgent course corrections so that India can head towards a real paradigm shift in water management, the intent for which has been clearly signalled by the FM in her maiden budget speech.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 6, 2019 under the title ‘Faint lines in water’. The writer is Distinguished Professor, Shiv Nadar University and former Member, Planning Commission