The weight of water


Kuldip Nayar considers a vital issue that is troubling India, and how the powers that be can address this and other matters with the gravitas they deserve.


‘Our real problem is population,’ I once told an American Nobel Prize winner as we were discussing the ordeals that India would face in the years to come. He contradicted me, saying, ‘Your problem is going to be water.’ Our views did not tally, even after a long discussion.

What has happened at Latur, in a better off state like Maharashtra, has given weight to the American’s warning, and I was reminded of it as Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code had to be enforced to ensure that people carrying pots and pans formed an orderly queue to receive water from a tanker.


But the American also had an optimistic side, noting that there is an ocean of water under Yamuna-Gangetic plan waiting to be tapped. I wonder if this is true. If it is, the government would surely have done a scientific study by this time to estimate the amount of collectable water. Yet I have not heard of any such plan so far.

Maharashtra may be the worst hit state this year, in terms of water, though others suffered more last year.


The economy of most states, and of the country as a whole, is very much dependent on the monsoon.


People scan the sky for dark clouds. Water means so much to us for growing crops and drinking.

The Bhakra Dam in Punjab-Himachal Pradesh has converted the entire area, including Haryana, into India’s granary. Our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, hailed the Bhakra Dam as a temple. He said at that time that India’s traditional temples, meaning its dams and industrial projects, would be there but new temples would have to be built for our economic development.

This Bhakra Dam alone can feed the entire population of the country. However, it is not necessary to build big dams, as this creates the problem of rehabilitating people uprooted from hearth and home. Small satellite dams probably serve the same purpose just as well, if not better.

Such was the genesis of the agitation led by social activist Medha Patkar over the height of the dam on the River Narmada. Yet she could not succeed, even though the government-sponsored report by Saifuddin Soz, then Water Resources Minister, said that the gains from the dam would be far less than the losses caused by displacing people who had been living in the area for many years.

The dam came to be built several years later, when Gujarat gave an undertaking that it would give land to compensate farmers and others who were uprooted. It is another matter that the state government could not fulfil its promise because there was not enough land to go around.

India has seven major rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Narmadha, Krishna, Godavari and Cauveri—and numerous tributaries. New Delhi has set up the Central Water and Power Commission to harness not only water but also generate power. This has worked to a large extent but in certain parts of India the fall-out has been a series of disputes which, even after decades, remain unsolved.

This situation has also led to estrangement between people of different states. The sharing of Cauvery water between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been delayed for several years now, despite the Supreme Court’s verdict that a certain number of cusecs of water should be released to Tamil Nadu.

Closer to home, Punjab has refused to release water to Rajasthan. This is contrary to the stand New Delhi took during the drawing up of the Indus Water Treaty. At that time, to claim more water from the Indus, India argued before the World Bank, which was funding the project, that it required a large quantity of water to irrigate the sandy area of Rajasthan.

It is almost comical that Punjab has now refused to release water to Rajasthan, which got a favourable verdict from New Delhi. The World Bank then accepted the argument that India could not give Pakistan water because it needed to retrieve the land from sand dunes in Rajasthan. What explanation do we have for Punjab going back on its word to give water to Rajasthan?

INDIA'S GRANARY: The Bhakra Dam in Punjab-Himachal Pradesh
INDIA’S GRANARY: The Bhakra Dam in Punjab-Himachal Pradesh

It is conceded that water reaching Rajasthan would help grow numerous crops but some land in Punjab and Haryana, already under irrigation, would have to be denied water. Such incongruities are responsible for inter-state water disputes. Even after 70 years of independence, the disputes are far from settled.

When the Congress ruled both at the Centre and in the states, these problems never assumed an ugly shape. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which then only commanded a few Lok Sabha members, did not count for much.

It is a different scenario today. Now that the BJP has a majority in parliament, it ensures that the states it runs get the maximum benefit, rules or no rules.

Soon after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared from the rampart of the Red Fort that India was one and there would be no discrimination against states on the basis of their affiliation to different parties. But this is not true on the ground. The Congress party, which is now in opposition, does not allow even parliament to function.

The Rajya Sabha was adjourned for several sessions till the Congress party itself realised that differences would be better highlighted if there was a discussion in the house. At present it seems that all political parties have come to an understanding that parliament should be allowed to function. One hopes that all parties will stick to the consensus they have reached and discuss matters in earnest, as used to happen.

If that spirit is translated into action, there would be no disturbance in parliament and the elected representatives, who have exasperated the public by their boisterous behaviour, will be able to devote their attention to what ails the country. Then no dispute will stall a session, be it over water or other issues.


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