Scorching heat has again been accompanied this year by reports of acute drinking water shortages in many villages. The situation was supposed to be different this time because of an unprecedentedly high increase in the budget for drinking water supply in villages announced about 15 months back, but clearly the actual improvement has fallen far short of the high expectations raised at that time.
The budget estimate in the 2021-22 budget for Jal Jivan Mission, the main program for rural drinking water supply, was increased to an unprecedented extent to Rs. 50,011 crore, while in 2022-23 budget this was again increased to Rs. 60,000 crore. However, only 26% of the previous year’s allocated amount was utilized till January 2022, as pointed out by the Standing Committee on Water Resources (2021-22), 14th Report, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Even if the implementation was hurried in the remaining part of the financial year, such spending squeezed in a short time at the end of the year seldom gives satisfactory results and the possibilities of corruption also increase. During the previous year also, when the overall allocation too was very low, 10 states had utilization levels lower than 50% till January 2021.
The progress of the Water Quality Sub-Mission has also been slow as some states have not given adequate attention to this aspect ad have not utilized the portion of the funds (about 10 per cent) meant for this purpose despite the worsening quality aspects highlighted in many reports in recent times. Similarly the portion of allocated funds meant for improving water quality testing facilities has not been utilized properly. The Standing Committee on Water Resources ( 2021-22) has also drawn attention to this, expressing concern at the decreasing number of water testing labs.
The Jal Jeevan mission has been more concerned with installing pipelines and taps, although it has provision also for water conservation and recharging. Due to overall ecological ruin and global warming as well as more specific harm caused to several water sources, while pipes and taps are certainly increasing, the water sources from which they are to get their water supply are getting depleted in many cases. Hence taps in several villages remain dry during the weeks of water scorching heat when water is most needed.
More scorching summers in days of global warming would by themselves have led to depletion of water sources, but this has been aggravated further by indiscriminate mining, deforestation, other loss of green cover and cropping patterns or technologies which demand water beyond the limits of sustainable use. Many water guzzling industries have been set up in areas which cannot bear their excessive water use. 35% of the total assessment units of groundwater blocks are already classified as critical, semi-critical or over-exploited.
Those who are most powerful get away with practices of excessive water extraction or use, in the process denying even drinking water to the weaker sections. Excessive water use by liquor companies has been seen in several places despite water shortages causing distress in nearby villages.
Powerful and resourceful industrial polluters have been able to go on with pollution of water sources for years despite the high risks this poses to the health of a very large of people. Three out of four river monitoring stations in India have posted alarming levels of heavy toxic metals such as lead, iron, nickel, cadmium, arsenic, chromium and copper. 588 water quality stations were monitored for pollution. Out of this, total coliform and biological oxygen demand was high in 239 and 88 stations spread across 21 states.
In the Himalayan region there are all-too-frequent reports of water sources being ravaged by sand mining and other mining, or getting polluted. A very large number of water springs, the basic source of drinking water in villages, have been depleted badly or vanished altogether. Recent reports on highway construction and dam construction have reported big deposition of rubble in rivers. In the case of the Char Dham project several water resources are reported to have been buried under the construction rubble, not only denying water to several villages but in addition creating very hazardous conditions at several points. Several hundred thousand trees have been felled here in recent times in the course of indiscriminate construction work; much of this damage could have been avoided by better planning.
Bundelkhand region spread across 13 districts of Central India has often attracted attention because of severe water shortages in several places but relentless deforestation, highly indiscriminate mining and quarrying have continued on large scale. Between 2 to 3 million trees are now threatened by the Ken-Betwa link project which has faced heavy criticism for its basic unviability.
This region has been known for its rich water wisdom as reflected in several historical tanks. While several of these have continued to serve well even after a long time, others have fallen victims to encroachments and neglect. However while neglecting the work of maintaining several of these, the government has spent most of its resources on expensive large dam projects whose benefits have turned out to be much lower than earlier estimates and which have been been the cause also of some flash floods apart from displacing a large number of people. The Ken-Betwa link with its massive budget of Rs. 45,000 crore is likely to be the most wasteful of these projects.
At the national level nearly 30 such river-link projects are being planned, costing around Rs. 15 lakh crore (one crore=10 million, 10 lakh=1 million), threatening to harm river ecology in several important ways, apart from unleashing large scale displacement and huge loss of forests and biodiversity.
India cannot afford to waste huge funds on such wasteful projects. India is estimated to have only 4% of the world’s freshwater and 18% of the world’s population, hence we have to be much more careful about how we use our limited water resources and how we manage the limited budget we have for meeting the essential needs of our human population as well as other forms of life.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.