How we destroyed India’s water and How we can save it

Read Time:11 Minute

In her fascinating, deeply researched book, Ms Mridula Ramesh takes us through 4,000 years of history to track how India’s water has reached a critical point. Mr N K Ranganath, Grundfos Water Ambassador and Mr G V Ravishankar, Managing Director, Sequoia Capital India, interact with Ms Mridula Ramesh, on what it takes to secure our future.

Ranganath: People were thinking that getting water was their birth right. Though there is enough water available, it is not available in the right place, at the right time and in the right quality. Usage of water responsibly is the duty of everyone.

Mridula Ramesh: The heart of any change, understanding or approach is philosophy. If we get the philosophy right, everything will follow from there. Sustainability comes from the root word, ‘maintain from below.’ Water is the foundation of sustainability but we all take it for granted. My journey is everybody’s journey. I didn’t care about water as long as it did not affect me. Nine years ago, we ran out of water at home. That’s when water became visible to me—visible when it became absent.

I learnt about climate change. I realised the seriousness of the water problem and wondered why no one was talking about it. In the last few years, as I participated in the climate related dialogues, not only in India but in the world, in every discussion, more so in the investor community, I heard about carbon mitigation. To attract funding, you have to manage your carbon emissions. Conserving water has been treated like a step-child and not been given any importance.

Carbon, no doubt, is very important. If you put out CO2, it stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years and increases the warming. The temperature supercharges the water. That translates to the wet getting wetter and the dry getting drier.

I saw a lot of books on India’s rivers, drought, farming, sewage treatment and rain water harvesting. But I didn’t find one book on India’s water. ~ Mridula Ramesh

I saw a lot of books on India’s rivers, drought, farming, sewage treatment and rain water harvesting. But I didn’t find one book on India’s water. Poet Kalidas in his work, ‘Meghdoot,’ beautifully describes India’s water as a product of sun, sea, mountain and land including forests. Because it is the combination of the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, it has four characteristics.

One, it varies geographically. In Jaisalmer, we get an average of 165 mm of rainfall. Across the country, we get 5 metres of rain, in a matter of months. So, it is meaningless to talk about average rainfall in India.

Second, we have one of the seasonally, variable water in the world. It is much skewed. We have to manage this skew.

Third is the temporality. If you take the average number of rain days, Indian cities are outliers. Rain water harvesting is very important to store water and recharge the ground.

We have been taught in Geography that Indian monsoon is a land-sea breeze driven by the temperature contrast between land and sea. But now, this no longer holds good. We have global effects like El-Nino, Indian Ocean Dipole, The Madden Julian Oscillations, etc. Climate change disrupts the traditional rainfall pattern.

In the 1870s famine that India had, according to official estimate, 5.5 million people died. People died in Madras, Madurai and Arcot. In some of the famines, 40% of the Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh died. We forgot how variable India’s water could be. Climate change takes on each of these and makes them worse. It increases the rainfall in Jaisalmer. It brings down the summer rainfall and increases the winter rainfall in Chennai. Instead of the rain falling constantly over 40 hours, it now pours in 30 hours but with increased quantity and intensity. Therefore, not including water in sustainability is a scary thing.

I grew up in Chennai. We were a family of seven in a small 2BHK household. We had the same water problem that many Chennaiites faced—water would not come when we opened the taps. It came only at times. We had to take our pots, go to the street, stand in a queue and collect water. I always had a fear that someday as we grew up, there would be no water. I am now in Bengaluru. It gets lot more rainfall than Chennai. Despite that, I woke up in 2018 or 2019 to an article that one day, Bengaluru could run out of water by 2020. Why does a city like Bengaluru that gets so much rainfall and has so many lakes still run of water?

For many Indians, getting water is a luxury. The water problem gets worse due to the seasonality, temporality and climate change factors. Madras gets about 45 rain days in a year. Bengaluru also gets approximately around that. We use water every day. So we have to even it out.

Those days, we had distributed tanks. T Nagar was a huge tank many years ago. Chennai Boat Club was a 2 miles by 3 miles lake. They used to hold the winter regatta for a mile long course. Now we have floods in Chennai. In Bengaluru also, systems of tanks have been encroached.

At Sundaram Climate Institute, we did a study and found that if we rejuvenate the tanks, the ground water level goes up by 100 to 200 feet. Earlier, the lakes were a source of spiritual status and cash flow. Each tank was like a cash flow machine. If you clean the tank, you get karmic points. If you maintain the tank, you get status and village festivals. Fishing, livestock, lotus flowers were sources of huge revenue. Today, most lakes are pathetic with junk and solid waste. What status can they give you?

Earlier, the lakes were a source of spiritual status and cash flow. Each tank was like a cash flow machine. If you clean the tank, you get karmic points. ~ Mridula Ramesh

We should develop sustainable tourism around water bodies like selfie-spots, cycling track, Wi-Fi hotspots, performance areas, etc., so that they thrive. In Madurai, when the Mariamman Temple Teppakulam (tank) was renovated, within a year of renovation, we found that 123 livelihoods came up around the tank. Tanks prevent rain water flooding. They become a place to hang out. It lowers our monthly water spend, easily by 100 rupees.

Have you come across any example where water went back to the community and got protected?

One of my mentors, Shri Rajendra Singh of Alwar has done that. His work is the most profound example. Water was always a community-managed resource in India but became centralized during British rule. The British reports decry the lakes in Chennai and describe them as a cesspool and a source of malaria infestation. For the British administration, centralizing water supply ensured better control and revenue. Building infrastructure gave them great returns on their invested capital. With centralisation, many good things like fishing from the lakes also disappeared. It is very important that community must be involved in developing and safeguarding the water bodies.

In Gujarat, by pumping water in, people pushed back salinity of the ground water by ten kilometers. There are private companies who are doing similar works as part of CSR initiatives. We are the first borewell manufacturers in India, starting them in 1954. Now, many farmers, during rainy season pump water back into the borewell which recharges the aquifer. There are three levels in an aquifer. The first level gets recharged easily. If you go down, there are issues and it may take several years for water to percolate down. We must have short, medium and long term plans to manage water. I am not against RO in houses. But we should use the discharged water from RO for watering plants or other purposes. I read that Chennai once had 300 man-made tanks which were connected to one another. Today, we have hardly 40 of them and they also need to be restored. Is technology a panacea? What is your stand on technology versus mindset?

Access to technology and money are not bottlenecks in solving our water problem. There are many technologies which are available today. Technology can be dangerous too. Borewell, as a technology, has been hugely transformational in India.

The bottleneck is the philosophy. The genie in the room is the value of water. How do we value it and price it? We live in an economic world and there is no going away from that. In an economic world, what is priced is prized and what is unpriced is invisible. In Arthasastra, Chanakya talks about progressive water tax, where the rich pay more. If a farmer took water manually, he should pay 20% of the tax. If he used a bullock cart, he should pay 25%. If he used a mechanical wheel to draw more water, he should pay 30% tax.

Compare it to today’s scenario. In Bengaluru, if you use a borewell, you pay Rs 10 for 1000 litres. If you use piped water, you pay Rs 22 for 1000 litres. If you are richer, you get cheaper water. If you are poor and you depend on the tanker water, you pay around 30 paise per litre.

The popular narrative, unfortunately, is that water is a birth right. This is a post-1960 narrative. In all of Indian history, water had a price. It was a season based, variable and progressive pricing. We need to crack this narrative of water as a birth right, to solve our water problems.

Why does not the market level this field?

Market needs a signal. Today, it is profitable to market a pair of jeans than a litre of water. Where are our startup investments? The forest-water link is one of the most underappreciated and critical links in India. For the British, forests were important because of the timber. Today, 60% of the forest value comes from the trees. They literally miss the value of the forests for the trees.

True. There is no business case for starting a business for water. If PPP comes in, all the risks are one-sided. When Tsunami came, many areas, especially Nagapattinam, became extremely saline. We put five or six of our own portable RO systems in that area, along with others, to provide clean drinking water. We took care of the capex and trained all the women. We requested for charging only for the opex on a per litre basis.

Thanks to self-help groups, this went on well for 5 or 6 years, after which the government asked us to take back the systems. When we asked for the reasons, the government said that they had dug borewells and were providing free water to the people. The water quality was horrible though, with 2000 ppm of salt. Saline water is 20,000 ppm. People prefer to buy free water rather than pay10 paise per litre of RO water which was not only clean but also saved them from many diseases. The mindset is an issue. They don’t calculate the health cost of water.

Decentralised water distribution, where the benefits and costs will somewhat match, is the best workable solution to manage India’s water problems. ~ Mridula Ramesh

Though people face water shortage, when asked if they would be ready to pay more if they get 24 x 7 piped water supply, they replied in the negative. In short, they want free water supply to be provided by the government. Water pricing becomes an emotive issue. We need a sustained narrative. How can our women be productive if they spend two hours of their time, getting up in the middle of the night and fight with others on the street to fetch their water? We pay a heavy cost. Water is also a social multiplier. Once we fix water, lot of other things get fixed. Girls start going to schools, marriages get fixed and we get better outcomes. Unfortunately, water has moved from being a responsibility to a right. The failure to stay with farm laws tells us how difficult it is to bring reforms in India. Reforms in the water sector also have to be carefully worked out. Decentralised water distribution, where the benefits and costs will somewhat match, is the best workable solution to manage India’s water problems. Farmer suicides have plummeted in India, except in two states—Maharashtra and Karnataka. These are the states where onions are grown. Most onion farmers are small, they depend on rains and are completely exposed to the volatility of water. We need to get more buyers for the onions. There is not enough market infrastructure and the farmers depend on the local traders. If a farmer sells to ten buyers, the dynamics will change. The other thing which we all can do is to question what we eat. If we eat rice and wheat and the government provides them in ration shops, the farmers will grow only rice and wheat. If they grow millet and we eat rice, what will the farmers do? The change has to start from the demand side.

What can individuals do to solve the water problem?

I have been insisting on decentralisation. Let’s not try to solve India’s water problem. The biggest advantage of India is its population. One Chennai is equal to four Singapores. If we can get just one quarter of Chennai to adopt meaningful regulations and practices, it can trigger a wave of innovations that brings jobs, contributes to GDP and creates water resilience. Each of us must feel that water is our responsibility. If we do so, then there is hope. n