Water Woes

As India gets ready for Holi, a reminder of our dire water problems

Almost 76 million people in India have no access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population.

It’s two days to Holi and the Delhi water minister, in festive and benevolent mood, has reassured the city’s revelers that they need not hold back in their celebrations for fear of running out of water. “People should play Holi with full heart, they should not think twice before using water," said the minister Kapil Misra to wire service IANS, adding that there was no water crisis in the city.

Delhi relies on water supply from outside the city-state. The disruption of water canals in Haryana during the Jat agitation last month underscored the city's vulnerability. Even if Delhi’s water supply is guaranteed for the moment, there’s little reason not to appeal for a Holi with as little wastage of water as possible when much of the rest of India is parched. Haryana, itself, just had its sixth drought in 11 years. Large parts of the country, from Bundelkhand to Marathwada to Mahbubnagar, have been reeling from back-to-back droughts and farmers reeling from consecutive crop failures.

India is currently the country with the greatest number of people living without access to safe water, according to a report released by international charity WaterAid on the occasion of World Water Day on Tuesday. There are close to 76 million people without access to clean and safe water – that’s 5% of our population. The impact of this lack of access is seen in ill health effects, like the 140,000 annual child deaths from diarrhoea. Poor families that rely on buying water from tankers at the rate of Rs 1 per litre. To get the 50 litres of water recommended for a basic standard of health and hygiene, a person from low-income family in India will have to typically spend 17% of their income on buying water.

Infographic: WaterAid.
Infographic: WaterAid.

The WaterAid report contends that poor management of water resources has created India’s water problem. Most of our water, almost 85%, comes from our aquifers but over pumping water for agriculture and industry has sucked too much of this resource from the ground. With water being pumped out faster than it can be recharged by rain or surface water run off, water levels are falling in 56% of the country.

The parliamentary standing committee of water resources took note of this water crisis and mismanagement in a report to the Lok Sabha in December 2015. The committee noted that, while most rural households and industries tapped groundwater, 84% of irrigated farmland also relied on groundwater. The report estimates that there are 30 million structures to extract water from the ground across the country. Two hundred and forty five million cubic metres of groundwater is drawn up every year, which is 62% of the available groundwater.

Data from a 2011 assessment of groundwater resources by the Ministry of Water Resources shows in how many blocks in India the groundwater table has has been pushed too low. Blocks in which more than 100% of the groundwater table has been developed are called over exploited or "dark" blocks. Those in which more than 90% has been developed are deemed critical and those with more than 70% development are semi-critical.

The committee also noted that since the 2011 assessment “no serious and systematic efforts have been made by the government towards development, management, conservation and related issues such shortages, scarcity, depletion and pollution of ground water, in spite of the alarming trend towards ground water problems in both quantitative and qualitative terms”.

Our fast-depleting groundwater is also being polluted in cities and industrial clusters by municipal waste and industrial effluents. Geological process spurred in by over extraction of water has also caused arsenic contamination in places like Murshidabad and fluoride contamination in Birbhum, both in West Bengal.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the water scarcity is the general apathy to drought and the plight of a large number of invisible poor. In a column in The Indian Express in February, social worker and former IAS officer Harsh Mander wrote that governments are failing to respond to drought today and of the disinterest of people and the press in the crisis. Kapil Mishra’s encouragement not to hold back on Holi is another sign of that apathy.

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Some of the worst decisions made in history

From the boardroom to the battlefield, bad decisions have been a recipe for disaster

On New Year’s Day, 1962, Dick Rowe, the official talent scout for Decca Records, went to office, little realising that this was to become one of the most notorious days in music history. He and producer Mike Smith had to audition bands and decide if any were good enough to be signed on to the record label. At 11:00 am, either Rowe or Smith, history is not sure who, listened a group of 4 boys who had driven for over 10 hours through a snowstorm from Liverpool, play 15 songs. After a long day spent listening to other bands, the Rowe-Smith duo signed on a local group that would be more cost effective. The band they rejected went on to become one of the greatest acts in musical history – The Beatles. However, in 1962, they were allegedly dismissed with the statement “Guitar groups are on the way out”.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Decca’s decision is a classic example of deciding based on biases and poor information. History is full of examples of poor decisions that have had far reaching and often disastrous consequences.

In the world of business, where decisions are usually made after much analysis, bad decisions have wiped out successful giants. Take the example of Kodak – a company that made a devastating wrong decision despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Everyone knows that Kodak couldn’t survive as digital photography replaced film. What is so ironic that Alanis Morissette could have sung about it, is that the digital camera was first invented by an engineer at Kodak as early as 1975. In 1981, an extensive study commissioned by Kodak showed that digital was likely to replace Kodak’s film camera business in about 10 years. Astonishingly, Kodak did not use this time to capitalise on their invention of digital cameras – rather they focused on making their film cameras even better. In 1996, they released a combined camera – the Advantix, which let users preview their shots digitally to decide which ones to print. Quite understandably, no one wanted to spend on printing when they could view, store and share photos digitally. The Advantix failed, but the company’s unwillingness to shift focus to digital technology continued. Kodak went from a 90% market share in US camera sales in 1976 to less than 10% in 2012, when it filed for bankruptcy. It sold off many of its biggest businesses and patents and is now a shell of its former self.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Few military blunders are as monumental as Napoleon’s decision to invade Russia. The military genius had conquered most of modern day Europe. However, Britain remained out of his grasp and so, he imposed a trade blockade against the island nation. But the Russia’s Czar Alexander I refused to comply due to its effect on Russian trade. To teach the Russians a lesson, Napolean assembled his Grand Armée – one of the largest forces to ever march on war. Estimates put it between 450,000 to 680,000 soldiers. Napoleon had been so successful because his army could live off the land i.e. forage and scavenge extensively to survive. This was successful in agriculture-rich and densely populated central Europe. The vast, barren lands of Russia were a different story altogether. The Russian army kept retreating further and further inland burning crops, cities and other resources in their wake to keep these from falling into French hands. A game of cat and mouse ensued with the French losing soldiers to disease, starvation and exhaustion. The first standoff between armies was the bloody Battle of Borodino which resulted in almost 70,000 casualties. Seven days later Napoleon marched into a Moscow that was a mere shell, burned and stripped of any supplies. No Russian delegation came to formally surrender. Faced with no provisions, diminished troops and a Russian force that refused to play by the rules, Napolean began the long retreat, back to France. His miseries hadn’t ended - his troops were attacked by fresh Russian forces and had to deal with the onset of an early winter. According to some, only 22,000 French troops made it back to France after the disastrous campaign.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to sports, few long time Indian cricket fans can remember the AustralAsia Cup final of 1986 without wincing. The stakes were extremely high – Pakistan had never won a major cricket tournament, the atmosphere at the Sharjah stadium was electric, the India-Pakistan rivalry at its height. Pakistan had one wicket in hand, with four runs required off one ball. And then the unthinkable happened – Chetan Sharma decided to bowl a Yorker. This is an extremely difficult ball to bowl, many of the best bowlers shy away from it especially in high pressure situations. A badly timed Yorker can morph into a full toss ball that can be easily played by the batsman. For Sharma who was then just 18 years old, this was an ambitious plan that went wrong. The ball emerged as a low full toss which Miandad smashed for a six, taking Pakistan to victory. Almost 30 years later, this ball is still the first thing Chetan Sharma is asked about when anyone meets him.

So, what leads to bad decisions? While these examples show the role of personal biases, inertia, imperfect information and overconfidence, bad advice can also lead to bad decisions. One of the worst things you can do when making an important decision is to make it on instinct or merely on someone’s suggestion, without arming yourself with the right information. That’s why Aegon Life puts the power in your hands, so you have all you need when choosing something as important as life insurance. The Aegon Life portal has enough information to help someone unfamiliar with insurance become an expert. So empower yourself with information today and avoid decisions based on bad advice. For more information on the iDecide campaign, see here.

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