India's water crisis: Tracing the country's history of water management and crucial, destructive shifts in policy

A report by the Niti Aayog states, ‘India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat.’

Mridula Ramesh August 08, 2018 13:37:47 IST
India's water crisis: Tracing the country's history of water management and crucial, destructive shifts in policy

This past week, I, like many parents across the country, was revising history with my son for his test, which happened to be about the kingdom of Mesopotamia. More than 5,000 years ago, the kingdom came into being on the lower reaches of the Euphrates river. The river carried and placed rich silt deposits there, which allowed farmers to grow more than what they could consume. They then sold their surplus produce for “stuff”, sowing the seeds for growth, innovation, and finally, civilisation. The link between water and society goes back all the way to the dawn of human civilisation. But alas, the Mesopotamian kingdom died, my son’s textbook says, because the river Euphrates changed course and they ran out of the water. Soon, the desert sands swallowed them up. Civilisation, it appears, cannot exist without plentiful and readily available water.

The opening line of the Executive Summary of the Niti Aayog Composite Water Management Index states, ‘India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat.’ While we will, in the course of this mini-series, delve into the report and what it does, the impact of climate and what we can do; we first need to understand what brought us here. To this place, where farmers lose income and yield because of the lack of water, and millions of urban Indians live in a ‘Day Zero’ of sorts – planning their lives and homes as they try to squeeze out the last drop of utility out of the water.

Ancient India

Indians rightly point out they have had a rich history of managing water. While India has three major sources of water – the rain, the ice and snow in the mountains, and the groundwater — rain in India has never been an everyday occurrence. As the World Bank puts it: India has a ‘highly seasonal pattern of rainfall’, with 50 percent of precipitation falling in just 15 days and 90 percent of river flows occurring in just four months’. This means water management has been, more than in other places, central to the functioning of Indian civilisations. Our ancestors have learned to eke out the water that was given by the monsoons over the remaining dry months in the year. The exposed brickwork of the surviving sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation acts as a mute witness to their expertise, as do the tanks, the step wells and the Kallanai or Grant Anicut that the Cholas built around 1800 years ago.

Indias water crisis Tracing the countrys history of water management and crucial destructive shifts in policy

Ruins of Lothal, Indus Valley Civilisation. Image courtesy of the author

Indias water crisis Tracing the countrys history of water management and crucial destructive shifts in policy

Adalaj Stepwell, Ahmedabad. Image courtesy of the author

Underlying the water management of ancient India was the belief that water was a communal, and might I add, a non-free resource to be managed by the community for the wellbeing of all. Chanakya clearly states that water belongs to the kingdom, and users had to pay a water rate or tax to use water from irrigation systems. Moreover, by charging a higher proportion of the crop as a tax when using mechanical or civil means (as opposed to manually), such a water tax or price was progressive.

Many of the water management structures, like the system of tanks or eris in Tamil Nadu, were social in nature, depending on strong community rights married with strong community responsibilities, with the king or the ruler enforcing rules. Groundwater remained out of reach, so communities had to design their infrastructure and water use around the naturally occurring patterns of rain. This lead to storage systems like the Johad that captured seasonal rainfall and stored it in underground aquifers. Forests too formed an essential part of ancient India’s water infrastructure.

Water, forest and community interdependence worked in hand in hand and allowed multiple civilisations to flourish in India.

What happened to break this equilibrium?

Disruption#1: Philosophy

Many of the seeds of the current crisis were sown during the British colonisation of India. Let us start with the philosophical disruption first. The British replaced dispersed, decentralised water management with a more centralised, authority-driven one with maintenance falling to the Public Works Department, or the PWD.

Importantly, such a change meant that people gave up the responsibility of managing canals and the rights to the water they provided, and instead saw water as a dole given by the powers that be – then the British, now the elected officials, or the bureaucracy. Keep this point in mind, it will become important later. Also, this usurping of responsibility by the PWD was not necessarily a positive thing: The fascinating report of Dr AJ Voelcker, a chemist who was tasked by the British government to tour India and suggest agricultural improvements, states that, even in the 1890s, farmers from Madurai complained of the delay in getting their tanks repaired by the PWD!

The second important philosophical legacy of the British was the Common law principle under which a landowner owned all water resources held under his land. This set the stage for the groundwater revolution that came decades later.

Disruption#2: Topography

The British altered, in no uncertain terms, the topography of India. While we can further divide this alteration into two parts — deforestation and grand water infrastructure building — both of which have a common underlying philosophy. Depending on your own inclinations (and where you fall in the right/left spectrum), you could call this large-scale modification of a nation as either (a) precipitate action that emanated from an incomplete understanding of the ecosystem services provided by forests and riverine systems or (b) overwhelming hubris of a conqueror subjugating Nature to serve the will of Man.

Let us tackle deforestation first. Indian forests provided the building blocks of the Indian railway to cart resources from the hinterland to the ports, and thence to export and add to the might of the British empire. Clearing forests gave coal and timber – so important in the British scheme of things — as well as created new lands (with new revenue). Entire forests were cleared to provide deodar, sal, and teak to build sleepers for the Indian railway, and for firewood. The real tragedy was that in older, richer, mixed forests, the commercially exploitable species accounted for less than 10 percent of the crop, and vast tracts of forest and forest produce were wasted.

In Punjab alone, the hill forests that peppered the Chenab and Ravi valleys were nearly exhausted, causing the creation of reserved forests – not just for the sake of the environment, but to more sustainably serve the needs of the railways.

But by reserving forest, the British again broke the link between the forest (or natural infrastructure) and the community. Many tribes considered the forest as their home. At that time, their lifestyle was consonant with the active functioning of the forests, and tribal groups saw the “reserves” as an intolerable intrusion into their way of life. This often led to uprisings, and the creation of a reserve was the final grievance that led to the Bhumkal rebellion of 1910.

Deforestation damaged water collecting infrastructure like the Johads, which silted up when the tree roots that held soil in place were removed. Also, forests were the origin of many peninsular rivers and supplemented the flow of larger rivers in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Thus, the clearing of forests set the stage for water shortages. The Government knew about the link between trees and water, even trees and climate, especially rainfall. As Dr Voelcker writes,

“Previous to 1870, Ootacamund and its neighbourhood were nearly bare of trees, so much so that a photograph taken about that time has no resemblance whatever to the now thickly-wooded Station, … The returns show that, taking first the rainfall for the months of March, April, and May (when the rains are purely local), there were, during the five years 1870-4, 121 rainy days in all, while in the same months of the five years 1886-90 (by which time the" Station had become fully wooded) there were no less than 147 rainy days.”

Not only did the number of rainy days go up when there were more trees, so did the quantum of rainfall.

“Also, the increase of rainfall for these months during the period 1886-90 has been about three inches a year, a not inconsiderable difference, though, from an agricultural point of view, the distribution of rain over a greater number of days is more important than a mere increase of rainfall.”

But the then-Government did not heed the words of its own expert. More forests were cleared for the two World Wars – with 2,28,076 tonnes of timber (apart from railway sleepers) being supplied in 1917-18.

The second way in which the British altered the topography was in large-scale canal building. Some, like the system of canals built in erstwhile Punjab (now in Pakistan), was wonderfully successful in improving crop productivity in previously dry districts. In other cases, interventions did not pay sufficient heed to local conditions and left the farmers (especially in terms of soil quality) worse off.

To blame the British alone would be unhelpful in crafting future solutions, because it gives an incomplete picture of what brought us to the sorry mess. Because both deforestation and canal building were carried forward with gusto post-Independence. Forests were felled to make way and feed industries, and to create space for grazing and crops as populations rose. In an increasingly land-scarce India, forest lands were the lowest hanging fruit for development or re-allotment. Early India was also fascinated with giant engineering programmes, especially with the “temples of modern India” – the dams. These, however, did not work as they were supposed to for many reasons, including delays in construction and corruption.

The topographical changes made India more vulnerable to what, in my mind, was the biggest disruptor of all: technology.

Disruption#3: Technology

The discovery of Penicillin, the importance of sterile technique in operations and in infancy, and the widespread adoption of vaccines caused India’s population to rise.

Indias water crisis Tracing the countrys history of water management and crucial destructive shifts in policy

Annual Population Growth and growth rate (as per Indian census)

India added nearly 10 million people a year to its population between 1951 and 1971 (See above). With the Bengal famine not erased from the memory of the decision makers, the powers-that-be decided India needed to stock grain to guard against famine. But why was wheat chosen as the grain of choice as opposed to say millets which many of the farmers in drier regions of the country were used to? Was it because of the PL (Public Law) 480 programme of the US, which made wheat so readily available? Or was it a colonial hangover, where Punjab had become the breadbasket of the Empire?

In any case, the grain came as wheat from the United States, as part of the PL 480 programme in the United States – a scheme by which America would sell its grain to friendly developing countries and allow them to pay for it in their own currencies. Called ‘Food for Peace’, it was a programme that married international diplomacy with a great sales programme for America’s surplus grain. But this cosy agreement went sour in 1965/66, after the India-Pakistan war and when India dared to criticise the US actions in Vietnam. India had just gone through two droughts and needed the grain desperately. The US, however, played hardball — demanding payment in US dollars, tightening supply windows, and asking for other concessions in lieu of wheat. India literally lived “ship to mouth”. Finally, Indira Gandhi, the then-Prime Minister of India, had to plead for the grain to be released.

Indian agriculture had been dozing, lulled to slumber by soothing imports of American wheat. But the 1966 experience set the stage for the Green Revolution, which improved crop yields by using improved seeds, manufactured fertilisers, and a regular application of water to irrigate the fields. Higher yields were impossible without regular and predictable watering. India’s poorly designed, poorly maintained canal systems that often failed to follow good practices (like ensuring tail-end farmers got water first), looked far better on paper than from the point of view of the smallest farmer. The loss of forests and the poor maintenance of tanks made tank-based irrigation systems less attractive. So, farmers turned to the tube well.

The tube well appeared as the saviour to the individual farmer – ready to give water at a flip of a switch (if you were lucky enough to get a connection). Groundwater appeared to be a vast, seemingly inexhaustible resource of water, just waiting to be tapped. The sheer convenience, and the cost-benefit logic made groundwater irrigation the leading source of irrigation in Indian agriculture.

Indias water crisis Tracing the countrys history of water management and crucial destructive shifts in policy

Net Irrigated Area by source (Directorate of Economics & Statistics, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India)

Disruption#4: Politics

The technology of the tube well was helped by the politicians, who discovered a new political lever. Many states, such as Uttar Pradesh, provided a direct subsidy for borewell pumps, while many others provided free electricity to run the pumps. Politicians have discovered that giving “free” water by providing free electricity to run pump sets (while also being lax in collecting irrigation charges) was a wonderful electoral gambit. Farmers, long conditioned to expect water as a dole, complied and voted those who gave the biggest benefits to power. Water, available so cheaply, was wasted, and the state electricity boards made thousands of crores in losses as a direct result of this. And groundwater, our insurance against drought, was being frittered away. This is important, as the experiences of Punjab and Tamil Nadu show, the genie of free electricity can’t be put back (easily at least) into the lamp, even when the groundwater is running out.

Finally, the government role in influencing the crop choice of an individual farmer has deep implications on the country’s water resources. In the 19th century, most farmers practised multi-cropping, but that changed when the Empire needed wheat for its daily bread, and cotton for the mills that were sprouting up. The monocropping practise continued even after India became independent. Crop choice became narrower after the 1966 Food crisis, which led to the formation of the Food Corporation of India which was tasked to buy two crops – rice and wheat – at remunerative prices. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a Punjab farmer – when you have patient handholding by the Punjab university in the best strains to grow and the best practises to follow for wheat and rice, ready procurement of the same at good prices, free electricity to run the pumps – why go for multi-cropping and try to save water and care about soil quality (when you get subsidised fertiliser as well)?

Moving to the present

Why should we care?

Because the history provides a useful lens through which to view the suggestions for solving our present water crisis. An area of concern is the worldview: Indians have been conditioned for over a century to see water as an entitlement – not something for them to manage and have rights and responsibilities for, but as something that will be ‘doled’ out by rulers.

Another thing history teaches us is that if we want to move to a more water safe future, we will need to shift our equilibrium – which means moving multiple pieces at once – forests, water management, crop procurement, electricity pricing and so on. To any politician, changing any one of these things looks like political suicide. Indian voters need to understand that unless we vote for unpopular measures, like pricing electricity and setting aside inviolate land (from any special interest – tribal or industrial) for forests, our water future is unlikely to be secure.

The Niti Aayog report also highlights the dire water situation in Indian cities. Accordingly, next time, we will focus on the history of water in our cities.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution - India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at

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