“The mandate to ensure India becomes water resilient is massive.”

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The country needs a progressive water resiliency policy to ensure accessibility, equity and sustainability. Mr. Amit Chandra, Chairman, Bain Capital, explores the ways and means in his recent talk at MMA. 

An estimated 1 in 40 people in the large region of Syria have died since 2011. Even more stunning: 1 in 3 people have been displaced. The impact of this has rippled well beyond Syria and has drawn in players and superpowers from all over, reshaping geopolitics.

In Sudan, in recent times, the displacement is around 1 in 15 people, still a very scary number. I have given a few speeches recently and I am scheduled to give a couple more in coming days—and before anyone thinks I have mixed up my speeches—let me elaborate that the common thread between these incredibly sad stories is the issue of water scarcity made worse by climate change. This, combined with local undercurrents and inequality, have ignited tensions between communities and farmers, leading to violent clashes, and ultimately causing mass displacement and death.

These are two horror movie trailers that underscore the vital importance for us to address our lurking water crises. First, we must agree that we have a problem that looks similar. I need not elaborate on the tensions between states, which are sometimes deep-rooted in unresolved issues. Lay on top of that, growing inequality and agri-distress, which has the potential to cause significant disquiet in rural areas. In the world of social media, aspirations are now much higher and it is easier for dissatisfaction to spread. But what is the underlying water-related crisis? According to NITI Aayog’s own data, nearly half our population faces high-to-extreme water stress:

  • Unsustainable extraction of groundwater has led to declining water tables in 2/3rd of our states to precarious levels
  • Consequently, our Per capita water availability has rapidly fallen by 2/3rd to under 1,500 cubic meters
  • We are now witnessing far more frequent droughts and floods on account of climate change.

Even urban areas are increasingly experiencing volatility in municipal supply—something Mridula has written about—and in some cases, relying less on fresh surface water supplied by Municipalities for all of the year. By way of example, I was in Jalna, the steel and seeds capital of Maharashtra yesterday; it gets 1-2 days of municipal water every month for under 2 hours a day for the past decade—this, despite having just experienced one drought in that period!

If our problem with quantity wasn’t enough of an issue, around 70% of India’s surface water is estimated to be polluted or of poor quality, and this is and will increasingly affect the health of humans, animals and flora/fauna in times to come.

Now, with all this, if the current pattern of demand continues, given we are aiming to build pipes to ALL houses, and our GDP per capita is now projected to grow robustly, about half of the national demand for water could remain unmet in a decade.

I believe a radical and urgent change is needed in the approach to water management for us to address this looming crisis and make India water resilient.

In my view, this approach needs to have four major pillars. Mridula often writes about ancient wisdom and what we can learn from what. Therefore, not much of what I am also going to say is new, but based on my experience, I believe that our execution needs to shift in high gears on these pragmatic pivots for us to achieve our goal.


The first and most critical way to make India water resilient is by being smarter about how we recycle our water—be it harvest our rainwater or process our wastewater. I dream of a not very distant day when rainwater harvesting is not bypassed by greasing palms while executing every construction permit, residential, commercial, or industrial, and we have 100% compliance. Chennai is currently one of the best cities in this regard but while it needs to do a lot more, other cities are scratching the surface.

This will not be adequate, and recycling of wastewater will become an imperative and is already showing promising results in multiple countries. Singapore and Namibia are two examples where around 1/3rd of water demand is met from recycling wastewater. Singapore is perhaps most famous for implementing a successful water recycling program. Singapore’s NEWater is targeting this number to go up to 55% by 2060.

Our work in peri-urban India is showing us that treated household wastewater has the potential to keep lakes—which were once part of a rural landscape—full throughout the year. This will help these waterbodies, which are becoming crowded by housing and filled with treated wastewater, act as critical lungs for these rapidly urbanising spaces.

Between rainwater harvesting structures added to new constructions and voluntarily implemented in old ones, recycling of wastewater and traditional supply of freshwater, we should be in a much better position to deal with uncertainties and achieve water resilience in most areas.

Demand-Side Management (Crops, Micro-Irrigation)

The next area we need to focus on is demand-side management. Here, the sector that requires maximum attention is agriculture given that it consumes more than 80% of our freshwater resources. Studies show us two things:

  1. Bulk of this consumption is due to inefficient practices
  2. Again, Mridula has pointed out in her books and research that human errors, some of it dating back to British times and then extended to bad policy making post-Independence, has resulted in poor choices for where we grow, what crops to grow, etc

Therefore, micro-irrigation practices need to be promoted much more aggressively by the government through subsidies. While I am generally not in favour of subsidies, I believe this one will help significantly lower water use in agriculture and importantly save the other one which has bankrupted most of our states—farmer electricity dues. It will also materially boost productivity of our farms which is well below other comparable countries for no evident reasons. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), drip irrigation can save up to 30-70% of water compared to traditional flood irrigation methods. Where used, in states like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, this has proven to result in material water savings, and farmers have reported substantial increases in crop productivity. This is even more true for water guzzling crops like sugarcane, with farmers in Maharashtra who use drip irrigation for sugarcane cultivation reporting water savings of up to 50% and yield increases of up to 30%. We need to consider making farming of all water guzzling crops covered by these methods in a mission mode.

The second part of this solution requires sensible policy and human behavioural shifts to ensure crop choices by region take into account water as a key input. The blind push during the Green Revolution for cultivation of wheat and rice irrespective of the agro- ecological conditions due to the assured price and buyback offer by the government needs to be re-thought given it is a major contributing factor of water crises, health crises, subsidy crises and pollution crises. Only by looking at things holistically will we be able to encourage more region specific choices both as government and consumers. The Millet mission is a great beginning and needs a huge thrust.

Supply Side Management (RWB, Ridge to Valleys etc)

The third pillar is supply-side management. We need to remember that India is running out of sites for further construction of large dams at a time when the water table is falling in many areas. Also, these solutions take time, are hugely expensive, and cause displacement which is very difficult; and we have to often deal with environmental challenges which are now a very big issue.

There is mounting evidence across the globe in favour of “nature-based solutions” for water storage and supply. Our own National Water Policy (NWP) places major emphasis on supply of water through rejuvenation of catchment areas, which needs to be incentivised through compensation for eco-system services, especially to vulnerable communities in the upstream, mountainous regions.

I can give you one example—our Foundation has been working with various Governments and NGOs to rejuvenate waterbodies for the past 7-8 years. This has resulted in helping form a policy which has led to rejuvenation of over 5000 water bodies across Maharashtra through a scheme called the Galmukt Dharan Galmukt Shivar (GDGS Scheme) over the last 6 years. Encouraged by this, last year, we successfully ran a similar program for NITI Aayog in 3 states across 6 aspirational districts and are now expanding that to 5 states this year.

In this model, partnership is critical, starting with community participation—farmers cart the silt paying for around 65% of the entire cost in exchange for addressing their water security and getting good quality silt that is rich in soil organic carbon, all of which turbo charges their income. The state and donors like us come in as partners to fund the balance 35% cost and work with NGOs who help run the program on the ground.

The recently concluded Census of Waterbodies by the Ministry of Jal Shakti shows the huge scope of this solution. For example, Maharashtra alone has around 94K functional water bodies. Imagine the impact of rejuvenating even half of these could have on water security and boosting farm income. Importantly, given it costs just Rs. 3 Lakhs to add 1 crore liters of Surface Water and a multiple of that via recharge, the cost of such a project would be less than that of building one decent size dam. The Maharashtra Government recognizes this and is moving in that direction.


While we do all this, the mandate to ensure India becomes water resilient is massive, and this is why innovative solutions—be it policy, or technology becomes important. We should constantly be on the lookout for these and wherever we find something promising we should explore scaling them quickly.

Promising technology innovations to watch for could be in the area of desalination and waste water treatment. A good example of policy innovations could be what South Africa has recently done with putting in place a system of water pricing that aims to balance economic, social, and environmental considerations. They have introduced a progressive water tariff system that takes into account the affordability of water for low-income households while ensuring that higher consumers pay a higher price for their water use. This approach encourages efficient water use and cross-subsidizes water access for low- income communities, promoting equitable and sustainable water management. We should study how such approaches are working and run our own pilots to explore scaling a solution that we think could work here.


As I conclude, I would like to say that we need to recognize that we live with the threat of a water crisis that is, in many ways, already playing out.

However, as the Chinese proverb goes: “Within each challenge lies an exciting opportunity—one for growth and transformation.”

As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

The solutions, as I outlined, are before us, as is ancient wisdom of how our ancestors managed water so well and those who didn’t saw their dynasties perish. So friends, let adversity be the catalyst that ignites our own resilience, our determination, and our desire to collaborate. If we do so, we shall certainly overcome this crisis and make our beloved country water resilient.