Prof.T K Thomas

Fifteen monkeys were found dead by a shepherd boy in and outside a cave in the Punjapura Joshi Baba forest range in Bagli 65 kilometers from the Dewas district headquarters of Madhya Pradesh. As this was unusual, the forest officials investigated. They later said that a battle over water is likely to be one of the reasons for the death of the hapless simians!

It is common to see village women in the 12 drought affected districts in Marathwada and north Maharashtra traversing long distances to fetch a pot or pitcher of water. An ANI report, yesterday [10th June] from Amravati quotes Vimla Dhote of Bihali village on her nightmarish daily grind thus: “It’s been four months since we are facing acute water shortage in the village. I come early in the morning and fetch water till 12 or 2 in the afternoon. The situation is so severe that sometimes the villagers have to stay overnight and fetch water from the well the next day. We feel helpless and the government has not done anything in this direction.”

Similar is the story in the scarcity hit 51 talukas in eleven districts of adjoining Gujarat. Often the water, people in the scarcity hit get, is contaminated leading to waterborne diseases responsible for high infant and child mortality rates in the country.

Serpentine queues of women waiting with multi hued plastic pots and buckets for an occasional government water tanker to show up to collect some water are ubiquitous in perennially water thirsty Chennai. Such scenes are not rare in the national capital and elsewhere in large number of cities across India! The tankers in Chennai, reports indicate, supply water twice or thrice a week according to local residents. At one of the points close to an old urban village in the trans Yamuna area of Delhi at a tri-junction, long before dawn people reserve their turn by placing their vessels in the queue and wait for the water tanker to arrive. One has spoken to some of them. They have infinite patience in waiting and do not understand why they are not as fortunate like their compatriots living in the posh apartments nearby who do not have such painful daily grind. They hope that the Delhi government will provide them piped water-SOME DAY!

Almost the whole country is experiencing water shortage on account of insufficient rains, unauthorized and uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater, depletion of groundwater levels, dying rivers and water bodies, pollution of rivers and the storm water drains, an exploding population etc.

Mr. B. R Taneja, a former Chief Engineer of Delhi Water Supply and Sewage Undertaking, [ Delhi Jal Board since 1998] once said how almost all the water bodies in Delhi from the ancient “Baolis” or step wells have dried up; the storm water drains and little streams have become sewages dispatching dirt and filth into Yamuna. Earlier even today’s dirty Najafgadh Nallah used to carry rain water to the river. Haven’t we killed almost all the beautiful rivers of our country reducing them to drains? Haven’t we dammed [damned] all our rivers in every part of the country? For someone who grew up in our ancestral home, right on the banks of what was then a beautiful River Pamba, almost opposite the famed Aranmula Parthasarathy temple, it was a pleasure playing on the vast sand beds and then an elaborate bath and swim in the pristine waters. Gone are those days; instead of sand beds we have slush; the water is dirty and smelly. Like other rivers across the country we have destroyed Pampa too, using it as a garbage dump, and mining the sand indiscriminately.

Haven’t we also indiscriminately cut down magnificent trees that gave oxygen, shade, fruits and flowers by changing the norms of land use leading to commercial exploitation of land? Not to speak of denudation of forests?

The above thoughts came to one’s mind as the United Nations “celebrated” the World Environment Day last Wednesday [5th June]. It was rather paradoxical that a well meaning Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change [MoEFCC] Prakash Javadekar launching “Selfie with Sapling”; cricketing legend Kapil Dev and Bollywood former action hero, Jackie Shroff were in attendance. Citizens have been exhorted to take a selfie as they plant a sapling. It is considered paradoxical because even as the minister was watering the sapling in Delhi for a selfie, women in his home state of Maharastra and the neighboring state of Gujarat were trekking long distances and struggling to get just enough water to survive. Tree planting is a very novel idea if those who plant the saplings can look after them. Otherwise they will be used as photo ops for celebrities!

It is worth pointing out that, Kulapati Kannaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, the then Food and Agriculture Minister, in the 1950s had launched an annual week long tree planting drive between 1st July and 7th July called “Vana Mahotsav” or festival of forests. The first week of July was probably chosen to coincide with the onset of monsoon in northern India. The Vana Mahotsav was launched with the objective of creating awareness among people about planting trees and conserving forests. Had this programme been implemented seriously, seventy years down the march of India, there would have been no need for “Selfie with Sapling” to mark the June 5th World Environment Day!

The World Environment Day, incidentally has a theme every year and a host country. This year’s theme was Air Pollution and China was the host country and it was celebrated in over 100 countries.[ Last year India was the host country and the theme was Fighting Plastic Pollution] Environmentalists question whether “Selfie with Sapling”, the theme adopted by our Environment Ministry is focusing on air pollution. Of course, planting trees can help in fighting pollution but it was ideal to focus on pollution as ours is one of the most polluted countries and our national capital too have the dubious distinction of being a topper in pollution. The national capital itself has the worst polluted air with vehicle exhausts, ‘smog’, carbon emission and choking smoke from stub burning in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

When we refer to air pollution some of the main issues include air pollution, water pollution adding to paucity of clean drinking water, keeping our rivers clean and alive, solid waste disposal, keeping our villages and urban areas clean, public hygiene must also include a campaign against spitting in public which almost a national pastime, preservation of our trees and forests and of course getting rid of the plastic menace.

There is plenty of evidence to establish that we have a water crisis. The Niti Aayog in a report “Composite Water Management Index” released last year had admitted that the country is “suffering from the worst water crisis in history with about 600 million people facing high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water.” Union Minister Nitin Gadkari releasing this report had added that the crisis is going to get worse. The report had also quoted other sources to say that “with nearly 70 % of water being contaminated, India is placed at 120th among 122 countries in the water quality index.”

Such candid admission by the government may be responsible for including in its 2019 manifesto of the BJP and creation of a new ministry by the new government to have a “Jal Shakti”[Water Power] Ministry under Gajendra Sigh Shekhawat. There is yet another promise of “Nal se Jal”[Water from Tap], a promise for providing piped safe drinking water for everyone by 2024. It is said that PM Modi has replicated from KCR’s Telangana a Rs.53,000 crore scheme called “Bhagiratha” [named after the mythological character Prince Bhagirath who with extreme hard work -Bhagiratha Prayatna- brought down from Lord Shiva’s hair River Ganga from heaven to earth!] to provide piped water supply to 23,000 villages.

Well, the million dollar question is whether the new government will be able to do the impossible task of providing piped water to every Indian household by 2024 in an extremely water stressed country. First of all, where will we find such huge quantities of clean drinking water? Of course there are talks about linking of all rivers, a dream of the former Union Irrigation and Electricity Minister [in the governments of Jawahar Lal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi] and water technocrat Dr. K L Rao of National Water Grid. He proposed that the water scarce South could benefit if the water surplus of Brahmaputra basin and Ganga basin, often ravaged by floods, could be linked. Even after Rao, there were studies and number of reports, but the National Water Grid remained in the realm of dreams.

During his first NDA reign PM Modi had envisaged a Rs. 5.5 lakh crore Inter Linking River programme, linking over sixty rivers from across the country that would solve the water problem in the country. The ambitious programme is fraught with major problems needing a herculean task to succeed- a real Bhagiratha Prayatna! Can PM Modi do the almost impossible? Mumkin Hai?