Even before the unrelenting summer sun began to scorch the earth, water was beginning to run out in many parts of India. With the rains still weeks away, the country is facing a serious water crisis.
You would not know this if you listened to election speeches as politicians hurtle around the country seeking votes. While Narendra Modi talks of Pulwama, Balakot, Masood Azhar, Pakistan and obsessively about Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi speaks of jobs, farmers, the economy, the Rafale controversy, and obsessively about Narendra Modi. The water problem does not feature in their list of concerns.
Yet, without water there can be no life. The shortage of water is a perennial problem. It cannot be solved overnight. But do politicians even realise that with climate change and altering weather cycles, the crisis is worsening? Heightened, of course, by the sheer mismanagement of a life-supporting resource by successive governments.
Not surprisingly, water, or rather its absence, is beginning to feature in more than one election-related story in the last weeks. Even as we finally edge towards the end of this massively prolonged election process, it is worthwhile to spend some time away from the name-calling and clamour of election campaigns to heed the water stories being reported.
The case of Delhi
Ravish Kumar of NDTV India is possibly one of the best television journalists in the country. He has the ability to ignore what is trending in the media world and instead choose subjects that actually matter to his viewers.
Last week, while covering the election campaign in the South Delhi Lok Sabha constituency, where there is a three-way contest between Raghav Chadha of the Aam Aadmi Party, the sitting MP Ramesh Bhiduri of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and boxer Vijender Singh from the Congress, Ravish Kumar took a different turn.
He ignored the tree-lined avenues, big houses and colonies where the prosperous live in South Delhi. Pointing out that only 1% of the constituency lives in these areas, and that the rest inhabit disorganised urban settlements, legal and illegal, Kumar chose to focus on those settlements.
As he walked through the typically narrow lanes of colonies where sunshine never penetrates, Ravish Kumar asked people about their water problem rather than whom they will vote for. The camera captured familiar scenes of a typical informal urban settlement. An old man sat on the ground next to an ancient hand pump that helped raised the trickle from a pipe to something resembling a flow that would fill the line of vessels.
In another part of the settlement, the water pipeline ran through an open gutter. People had created their own tiny sumps outside their homes to collect the water, which was contaminated by the flow in the open drain. They used it for washing utensils and had to buy water for drinking and cooking. Women spoke of the amount of time it took them to collect a few handis of water each day.
Water, a national issue
While this is a national election, water is a national issue, not just a municipal one. Yet, no political party has articulated a clear vision of how to ensure that depleting water resources are conserved, and that there is equity in the way they are distributed to a growing and parched population.
The most terrifying water story was by Zeeshan Shaikh in The Indian Express. He reported that at Barde ki Wadi, just two kilometres from the Vaitarna Dam in Maharashtra’s Nashik district, young women rappel down a well to reach the bottom 15 times a day to access the small amount of water that still remains.
His video of this, posted on Twitter, is hair-raising. Luckily there haven’t been any accidents. But what have we come to if a dam that sends water to Mumbai 200 km away forces women living in its shadow to risk their lives for a few buckets of water every day? Should this not be an election issue?
In Rajasthan, not surprisingly, water is also a primary concern. When Aarefa Johari from Scroll.in went to Bhateri village in Jaipur district, and asked young women what they wanted, they spoke almost in unison about water and hospitals.
Bhateri is known for another reason. This is where the brave saathin Bhanwari Devi was gang raped for having opposed child marriage in an upper caste home. Bhanwari continues to fight for justice as her case drags on through the courts.
Tabassum Barnagarwala, in The Indian Express, reported how water is the election issue in the parched constituency of Tikamgarh, in Madhya Pradesh, in both rural and urban areas. Her story is heart-breaking as it tells us the price women must pay for this water crisis.
Eighteen-year-old Gudiya Ahirwar told her that she had to drop out of school before completing Class 10 because she was needed to do household chores, including fetching water. Her two brothers were not so constrained. They have gone on to study in college.
She said, “I want the government to bring better colleges and solve the water crisis. I wanted to study further but the boys here don’t fetch water, so I had to drop out.”
So there you have it. The government’s slogan “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” or “Save daughters, educate daughters” has no meaning if only girls have to fetch water, and there is no water.
Ray of hope
Women fetch water, but they also know how to conserve it. In the midst of the gloom, the story by Kanchan Srivastava in Scroll.in and Mongabay about the work of women of Bundelkhand, even if it is literally a drop in the ocean, gives some hope.
She writes about a network of Jal Sahelis (women friends of water) in parts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh who have successfully implemented water conservation strategies such as building check dams. As a result of such initiatives, in districts facing acute water shortage, despite the summer heat there are villages with abundant supplies of water.
This quote from Shirkunwar Rajput, the leader of the water panchayat in Udguwan (Lalitpur), sums it up: “In Bundelkhand, fetching water is entirely a woman or girl’s job. Hence, women have the first right on water resources. And it’s women who can ensure water security for the community.”
Meanwhile in Tamil Nadu, where 24 out of 32 districts are facing an acute shortage of water, Kavitha Muralidharan reported in The Wire that the state government has ordered thousands of temples to pray for rain. Such are the “inspired” solutions that politicians devise because they do not understand the roots of this crisis.
We have come to this pass not because some god is angry. It is because of decades of environmental neglect. It is because of the tragic absence of strategies to enhance and conserve the country’s precious water resources. And most of all because we do not have policies that ensure that there is some semblance of equity in the way this resource is used.
Instead today, we have profligate and wasteful use of water by the well-to-do in cities, who flush treated water down drains, while the rest are left trying to catch the few drops that are left.