Drought in India’s rural hinterland is centrally a political issue and not exclusively a meteorological effect. For over a century, colonial and post-colonial governments in New Delhi have been slowly starving the Indian countryside and the majority of its rural populace with policies and technologies that have systematically eroded the ecological viability of village units. The creative traditions of rainwater harvesting, cropping strategies to cope with rainfall variability and the careful tapping of drainage basins have been relentlessly snuffed out. What we are witnessing today is not drought per se but rural India’s extreme social and economic vulnerability to meteorological variation. A technology-first central bureaucracy has rendered it unable to respond creatively, locally, to varying levels of rainfall.
Simultaneous with the dramatic transformation of the rural ecology, urban myths about the agrarian world and its productive possibilities have flourished. Notably, the idea has been promoted that there is an intrinsic worth to indiscriminately extending perennial canal irrigation, cash crop monocultures and increasing crop yields by industrialising agricultural inputs and operations. If anything, the drought of this year has clearly revealed that there is a heavy ecological price tag on the sustained reorganisation of the countryside as a colony of the city. Further, highly skewed property and power relations in the village, along with a sharp imbalance in the terms of trade between the rural and urban sectors, have also significantly sapped the ecological resilience of India’s vast agrarian hinterland. In other words, the national economy’s relentless demand for a specific type and level of agricultural productivity is undermining the fragile equilibrium of land, forest, river and field.
The Indian prime minister’s recent plea in parliament that the opposition not ‘politicise’ the issue of drought is another attempt to sidetrack a potentially important debate on the future of rural India. Thus, an essentially political issue is being unfairly projected as a technical problem, with the absurd claim that the interlinking of India’s rivers through a canal grid is the “only solution to drought”. Responding to a petition by a Delhi-based lawyer, on 31 October, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to constitute a task force to look into the possibility of realising the plan by 2012 instead of 2046 as had been originally envisaged. What the judiciary, the executive, the bureaucracy and the legislature do not seem to understand, or perhaps wilfully ignore, is that a river is not merely a mass of water moving with a certain velocity. It is primarily a geomorphologic phenomenon that feeds into several biological and chemical processes. Rivers nourish, link and sustain a variety of ecosystems which span various grades of floodplains and wetlands. Hydrologists have for long pointed out that tampering with flood patterns or altering the water’s temperature with dams or barrages can negatively impact flora and fauna, besides irrevocably damaging habitats.
The argument heard over and over again, that there are rivers with ‘excess’ water and others that suffer from deficits is entirely spurious. Flow regimes, especially of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, are highly variable, and both peak flows and troughs serve different ecological functions. The Farakka barrage, for example, which diverts flows from the main stem of the Ganga, has caused a great number of ecological problems for Bangladesh. The reduction in stream flow has resulted in seawater ingress into the delta and a decline in fisheries, and the resultant absence of a good flushing action has led to ‘drainage congestion’ and the silting of the channels of several distributaries.
The Aral Sea catastrophe is the most striking instance of a river-diversion disaster. Several decades ago, Soviet planners diverted the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya away from the Aral Sea to irrigate an area of roughly 8 million hectares under cotton production. The Aral Sea has subsequently lost two-thirds of its 1960 volume, resulting in the total collapse of the local fishing industry and a rise in salt concentrations in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya. There are many other such examples where diversions have undermined a river’s capability to carry out vital ecosystem services such as purifying water supplies, maintaining fish and wildlife habitat and regulating climate.
Since independence in 1947, successive governments in New Delhi have spent over INR 500 billion on water projects, especially on a large number of expensive multi-purpose river valley schemes. Yet, to this day, there has not been a single independent review that has meaningfully assessed either the economic consequences or the ecological impacts of such huge investments. The political rhetoric since independence has, unfortunately, sought to waylay the public imagination into believing that supply-side solutions such as large dams, surface irrigation schemes and the proliferation of pumping devices are a way out of hydro-scarcity. Meanwhile, there is the increasing salinisation (almost 7 million hectares) and water-logging (currently threatening 2 million hectares) of vast areas of prime agricultural land due to excessive irrigation, the rapid depletion of ground water levels and the unchecked pollution of streams and tributaries. Added to this is the growing number of inter-state water disputes, which are not only becoming flashpoints for violence but, more significantly, are throwing up new, difficult challenges to both the courts and the constitution.
In effect, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the Indian government to build itself out of its current water crisis. We have moved into a period of absolute scarcity rather than relative scarcity.
There are no short cuts to tackling drought. If things are to change for the better there will have to be a comprehensive initiative towards revitalising the Indian village. In essence, the strategy would need to be political in that the intense social and economic inequality that prevails in villages has to be tackled head-on. Simultaneously, there must be a drastic reconsideration of soil management, and techniques such as water harvesting must be encouraged. In the last decade, a large number of popular initiatives have forced a re-evaluation of New Delhi’s highly inadequate water policies. The Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan and the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi have done considerable work in advocating the adoption of small-scale water harvesting systems as part of an embrace of both genuine democracy and ecological integrity.
The idea of interlinking rivers is not only absurd from a hydrologist’s or ecologist’s perspective but reveals, most alarmingly, that the current dispensation in Delhi does not have the political will to reverse or reign in supply-side interests. In other words, with this project, a gargantuan water bureaucracy in cahoots with contractors will hope to get a fresh lease of life. Billions of rupees will flow downwards and then move sideways into private pockets and enterprising construction firms and, ultimately, help win elections for those who care not for the people.