Like a few million privileged Indians, I live in a fool’s paradise. It is a paradise because unlike more than 600 million of my fellow citizens, I have no problems getting enough water, either to drink, bathe or flush. But only a fool would ignore the fact that Bangalore is among 21 Indian cities that may run out of groundwater in less than two years, according to a new government warning.

I am dimly aware that piped, municipal water is intermittently available, sometimes only once a week, usually twice. It is brought in from the river Cauvery through 200 km of pipes and pumps. This infrequent supply does not affect my life because, like most of Bangalore’s elite, my building has a storage tank and borewell, the pump to which automatically kicks in whenever Cauvery water disappears, smoothly making up the shortfall from the veins of water running under the city.

The run on groundwater cannot last – levels have fallen nationwide. Where once sweet water was available at 50 feet, as it was behind our single-storey home in Bangalore’s Indiranagar neighbourhood, a 2012 local groundwater board report categorised all the city’s groundwater as “overexploited”, with extraction at 128% to 176%. “In principle,” the report said, “There is no balance groundwater resources left for future development.” The same year, a Unesco report observed that India was the world’s largest extractor of groundwater – it is also the largest user of freshwater overall – removing 251 cubic km of groundwater, more than double the rate of the United States and China, who are tied for second spot at 112 cu km. India’s per capita water availability fell 74% over 69 years to 2011.

If you compare Bangalore’s groundwater supply to a bank fixed deposit, Cauvery water is like interest on the deposit, keeping us going without having to dip in to the deposit. It is the same nationwide – groundwater levels in India, as IndiaSpend has reported, are now more critical than anywhere else on earth – as India makes a run on its fixed deposit. The government now says groundwater in many cities will run out by 2020.

“India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat,” warned the innocuously titled “Composite Water Management Index”, released last week by the Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank. These warnings are not particularly new.

Earlier this year, a report from Wateraid, an advocacy group, pointed out that 63 million Indians – or as many people as live in Australia, Sweden, Sri Lanka and Bulgaria combined, my colleague Charu Bahri wrote – in rural areas alone were living without access to clean water. What was new this time was that the Indian government itself drew attention to the country’s water emergency.

Although water management is “improving”, said the Niti Aayog report, “the crisis is only going to get worse”. That is because, at current consumption rates, India’s demand will exceed supply by 2050. But India could run out of water quicker because not only will consumption increase as more Indians prosper, the country is also poisoning the water it has.

Poisoned water

In Bangalore, that poisoning is all too evident. A century ago, almost all the city’s water came from its plentiful lakes and man-made tanks. Today, many of those water bodies have been drained, built on or otherwise encroached. Most lakes and tanks were a marvel of hydrological connectivity, a series of them connected through natural or man-made channels, one overflowing into the next and the next. Those connections were interrupted by development and encroachment, and the lakes that are left are isolated cesspools, a handful resuscitated by committed citizen groups.

Across India, 650 cities and towns lie along polluted rivers, says the Central Pollution Control Board, attributing toxic and organic waste discharges to “poor environmental management systems” in industries and cities, leading to “pollution of surface and groundwater sources from which water is drawn for irrigation and domestic use”. The Central Groundwater Board estimates that more than half of India’s groundwater is contaminated, laced with fluoride, nitrates and arsenic; now comes news of the latest contaminant, uranium.

'In Shimla, more than half of water supplied by the municipality goes waste. If it did not, there would be no immediate crisis.' Photo credit: PTI
'In Shimla, more than half of water supplied by the municipality goes waste. If it did not, there would be no immediate crisis.' Photo credit: PTI

You might argue that Indian has more than a billion people so water stress appears inevitable. That is not as self-evident as it may sound. For instance, with more people than India, China uses 28% less fresh water, according to World Bank data. India is profligate in wasting water.

As the Niti Aayog report points out, a majority of states manage their water poorly, especially in the poor, populous north, where in 2009 a scientist from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration predicted a future collapse of farm output and “severe shortages” if groundwater management practices – or their lack thereof – did not change. He was not the only one. “Most of the groundwater-depleted regions coincide with the highly-fertile alluvial aquifers of Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, which is subjected to intense groundwater withdrawals associated with crop irrigation,” warned a 2014 study by Indian and US scientists.

In other words, successive governments have known of the problem for some time but chosen to do nothing, either because of inefficiency and lack of foresight – a common Indian problem – or to benefit the politically and financially influential.

Mihir Shah, who has headed many committees on water reform for the current government, is candid about the lack of, well, reform. None of his proposals are near implementation because of, as he put it in an interview to Mint last week, “extraordinary resistance from vested interests within the Central Water Commission, who exercise an almost mystifying power over water policy in India”.

He says despite spending Rs 4 lakh crore – that is nearly seven times the size of the agriculture budget for 2018-19 – on hundreds of dams, India has a “recurring and intensifying crisis” of water. One reason is that dams are built but canals to carry that water to farms are not because dam-building contracts are lucrative; India is littered with unfinished irrigation projects. “It gives me no joy to say this,” says Shah, “but I am afraid this has to do with the political economy of corruption in India.”

State failure

In rural India – where a fifth of people get water from a source that is more than half a km away – scarce water is often diverted to water-intensive crops whose farmers command political influence. Nowhere is this clearer than in Maharashtra, where 1.1 million sugarcane farmers occupy 4% of farmland but get 70% of irrigation water, leaving 10% of the water to 10 million poorer farmers.

In urban India, the government has not planned or followed short-sighted policies – urged on by influential minority groups – that reduce availability of water for the vast majority. Urban water systems are old, many of colonial vintage, and ill-maintained. The water they leak is usually enough to meet shortages. In Shimla, struck by a much-publicised, crippling water crisis this summer, more than half of water supplied by the municipality goes waste. If it did not, there would be no – immediate – crisis.

But the larger problem is that the government undercuts or ignores its own warnings, as it is doing in Delhi, where not far from the Niti Aayog’s office another branch of government is planning to chop “only 14,031 trees” to redevelop government housing colonies – oh, and another 2,000 to widen a road to the airport.

India’s capital has already lost tens of thousands of trees to overpass, road and metro construction. Indian cities have lost millions of trees over the last decade or so, with compensatory afforestation and transplantation claims usually untrue or never followed up.

This is not to argue against such urban or other development. But the government must realise that employment and economic growth cannot outweigh other needs that are arguably more important and basic, such as clean air and water. When trees are cut, a cascade of negative effects is set off, culminating in a loss of rainfall and more intense heat, disrupting weather patterns and water security. Removing trees indirectly impacts water resources, but much Indian development – as is currently being practised by governments that wink at or violate environmental laws – directly impacts the country’s water.

A recent example of cross-eyed development is the push – at the instance of the prime minister – to connect the char dhams, four Hindu pilgrimage spots, by a 889-km highway slicing through the lower Himalayas. Thousands of trees have been chopped, and tonnes of debris dumped into forests and rivers that water the teeming northern plains, despite court orders and fines. This destruction is possible because no environmental impact assessment was conducted, as the law requires. The government sabotaged its own law, arguing that only a new project needed such a study; the char-dham highway, it insists, is merely a collective expansion of existing roads. Such creative accounting merely hastens the arrival of India’s Zero Day.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.