Lessons from Madhya Pradesh, Telangana elections on what works, what doesn't in solving India's water crisis
Can India’s water crisis be conquered? Yes, it can. Israel, that receives far less rain than we do, grows mangoes in its desert, showing water supply is clearly not the problem. Lack of water management is.
Of late, I’ve been asked one question above any other: “Is it possible to fix India’s water crisis?”.
My answer has been, “Yes, it’s possible.”
But is it probable?
That is a different story.
The story so far…
In the course of this mini-series, we’ve travelled a long way: From Mesopotamia, to the fast fading forests of India, to the dams, tanks and the disappearing channels, to Day Zero. Thousands of years in one sentence.
We’ve learnt that water and forests and geography and community are intimately linked in a delicate equilibrium. Touch one, and the others react. Cut the forests, water flow decreases, and tanks silt up. Draw water up through borewells, and the motivation to desilt tanks, or adhere to community-agreed rules and responsibilities falls. Neglect community-driven tank maintenance, and water storage falls. But in India, we haven’t just disturbed one element, we’ve shaken up every part of this equilibrium.
Remember, India has a highly seasonal water supply. Water demand has both exploded, as the economy and population have grown, and become more constant through the year.
To stretch out the seasonal water over this ever-increasing ask requires plentiful water storage — which India does not have. We saw that creating storage, or even maintaining what existed earlier, is politically problematic. Creating large-scale storage — dams and reservoirs — runs into environmental and civil society hurdles. Somebody’s home gets submerged, and that somebody (with friends) protests. Small scale storage — our tanks — are falling by the wayside, eaten up as cities expand, and the need for centrally located land skyrockets. Underground storage – our aquifers – is falling prey to the borewell, as mountains of water are sucked out, powered by free electricity doled out by governments running on shorter-than-geological-timescales.
Climate Change has India’s water in its sights. Warmer temperatures cause a greater fraction of water in reservoirs to evaporate, reducing storage. Climate change increases the volatility of India’s water supply, by increasing both spatial and temporal availability of rainfall: drier regions will likely get drier, and wet regions will get wetter. The incidence of intense rainfall events — the kind that leads to flooding (especially when coupled with unwise urban planning) — is set to increase. Given that most Indian farms are rain-fed and many city neighbourhoods look to run out of water entirely, only underscores the need to manage our water better now.
Yet, most of us are strangers to the vocabulary of water management — measure, price, pressure, leaks or STP. We discovered this in our survey in Madurai, in talking to 1,000+ households, that over 80 percent of respondents did not know what “sewage treatment” meant or was. Nearly half of the households did not have a working rainwater harvesting system. And many families openly laughed when we asked about metering.
We know what we must do to solve India’s water crisis. But, for the most part, this has been a non-starter.
This answer has political roots. Effective water management requires altering several pieces of the existing equilibrium. Doing this takes time, and tremendous amounts of political capital as the changes will pointedly and immediately hurt powerful interests who benefit from the current equilibrium. The benefits, on the other hand, come late, are dispersed (diffusely and unequally), making water management a difficult political sell.
Interestingly, our current set of elections provide good case studies in what can be done, what has been done and what can go wrong.
Case Study 1: Madhya Pradesh
Given the effort to shift all the necessary pieces of the water management equilibrium, governments shift what they can – often only one or two pieces. But, moving some, but not other pieces, can have unforeseen consequences. Such was the case in Madhya Pradesh, the poster-child of sound water management.
One of the biggest problems in Indian agriculture is the uneven access to all inputs, especially water. The larger, powerful farmers receive first access from canals and have little reason to optimise their usage. Farmers whose lands lie lower down receive whatever is left over, which is often very little or nothing. But the Madhya Pradesh government changed this thinking on its head, by ensuring the tail-end farmers (or those farmers who are farthest away from the canals) got water access first. They ensured this by maintaining a list of over 4,000 mobile numbers of tail-end farmers and having the chief engineer call one up at random to check if the water had reached the field! To overcome powerful interests, the government expended political capital — by making administrative changes and by adding the Chief Minister’s personal clout — to help the irrigation department withstand pressure. They further minimised opposition by increasing overall water availability. They did this by completing irrigation projects, by fixing, lining and desilting canals and by practicing strict rotation (osarabandi), which allowed farmers to plan on how to maximise water use and which allowed the maximum reach for the same physical canal network.
Madhya Pradesh’s water management efforts did not stop there. Canals fixed water access when it rained, and the rivers were swollen. But what about other times? Here, the state improved both access to, and promoted sustainable use of groundwater by charging farmers for electricity to run their pumps. Again, potential opposition was reduced by providing high quality power that was actually available when the farmers wanted it. Farmers, desperate to grow a winter crop, and having no other water source other than what could be drawn by a tubewell, were only too happy to pay for electricity. Of course, having paid for it meant that the motor use, and by extension, the water use was more judicious than it otherwise might have been.
Predictably, crop yields soared, and farmers rewarded the government by returning the Shivraj Singh Chauhan to power three times (and at the last election, with higher vote share and seats). This speaks well for the political windfall of sound water management. Only now, the “unshifted” pieces of the equilibrium, including crop storage, logistics and access to credit, appear to be biting, with a bumper crop not translating to farmer profits.
Why are markets broken?
As I have written earlier, small farmers, with their lack of collateral, often rely on traders for their working capital needs. These traders then exert pressure to lower prices when the crop comes in. While the government has tried to improve agricultural credit conditions, and fix pricing issues, it has not been enough. Take the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana (BBY) — a scheme which pays the difference between the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the prevailing mandi (market) price for a registered crop sold at the mandi. This scheme ignores the fact that many small farmers cannot afford bring their crop to the mandis to sell, because they do not have the financial wherewithal to do so. A study by Gulati et al, shows for soybean, one of Madhya Pradesh’s main crops, only half the cropped area was registered under the BBY scheme, and less than a fifth of the crop received gap payments under the BBY scheme even though the market prices of soybean, at Rs 2,594 per quintal, were significantly lower than the MSP (Rs 3,050/quintal).
Second, the insufficiency of cold storage. In 2013-2014, MP had just 0.8 million tonnes of cold storage versus a production of vegetables of 14.2 million tonnes. While the cold storage facilities have increased since then, it has not been enough. This means much of the crop must be disposed of immediately after harvest — exacerbating price crashes.
Third, is the lack of connectivity with national markets. This is exemplified by garlic prices, where wholesale prices in Tamil Nadu are currently ruling between Rs 80-100 per kg, while farmers in Madhya Pradesh are selling garlic at a mere Rs 7 per kg (losing about Rs 12-15 per kg in the process).
Broken markets prevent sound water management translating into record farm profits thereby guaranteeing farmer votes. Ironically, this is especially true after good monsoons, when even states not practicing good water management have large crops, leading to an overall surplus, and thus lower prices and profits.
What will other states watching the outcome of the Madhya Pradesh elections take away? Will they see that better water management does not translate to farmer votes? Will they then ask themselves: Why take all this risk, and squander so much political capital, when it does not yield political results? How much easier, and oddly, more elegant, to carve out a quota, which will reach the same political end — victory — at a lower political cost? Or will they see that while water management is long, and risky, it does reap rich political dividend?
Case Study 2: Telangana
The second set of the political impediments relate to timescales. Many peninsular states, with highly seasonal, low rainfall have typically adapted with a system of cascading tanks to eke out water. Tanks work in two ways – one, they collect rainwater from whichever area they directly drain, and allow the rainwater a chance to percolate into the ground, rather than ‘runoff’. Second, a subset of tanks, called system tanks, are connected to a network of other tanks and to the river through canals. These system tanks are the beneficiaries of surplus non-local rainfall. During the southwest monsoon, many peninsular rivers swell as they capture the rain from the Western Ghat mountains. The surplus water flows from the rivers through a set of channels to tanks, and as each tank overflows, downstream tanks, also connected via channels get filled. To use a financial analogy, system tanks are like (sticky) Foreign Direct Investment that transfer non-local savings into the local economy. Tanks capturing local rainwater are analogous to local savings being channelled into the local economy.
But rejuvenating tanks is a drawn-out process – one needs to map the tanks, clear out encroachments on tanks and their connecting canals, reforest catchment areas, desilt the tanks, ensure groundwater flows are preserved by either abstaining from or reducing groundwater use substantially, ensure water drawn from tanks follow strictly enforced rules, even (and especially) when rainfall is poor.
Phew. Not easy.
Another election-bound state, Telangana tried its hand at this solution by desilting tanks under the Mission Kakatiya scheme. By all accounts, the programme started well, but lost steam when political timescales clashed with institutional realities. Given the rent-seeking realities of governance and the difficulty in removing encroachments, the mission slowed down substantially. Impatient to be seen helping farmers, and with an eye to upcoming elections, the TRS government announced a scheme of free electricity to power tube wells to suck out groundwater and give instant irrigation access. The back-to-back drought that plagued the state 4 years ago was receding from memory, and the water levels had risen after a couple of years of good rainfall and tank rejuvenation, you see.
Shorter-term political compulsions won over longer-term water resilience building. Will voters reward this particular trade-off?
The need for a different approach
These experiences tell us to factor in political realities while framing solutions for our water crisis. For instance, adopting a hyperlocal approach in managing water often means the benefits accrue to those who bear the cost. This is politically “sellable” as it allows the best bang for the political-capital buck. Chemistry (the science) provides a useful way to think about water management. Many chemical reactions need energy to proceed. This energy, called the activation energy, enables a shift in equilibrium, along with another item, a catalyst, that often lowers the energy required. In proposing any water management solution, one can think of what is the catalyst, which will show us the right time to propose a solution, and what are the actions we can take to minimise the energy, or political capital/will required.
With this background, let us consider two solutions.
Solution#1: Rejuvenating cascading systems of tanks in one set of interconnected tanks.
What to do and when to do it:
Let’s start with the “when”. The best time to embark on this exercise is right after a major drought. At that time, borewells are likely to be dry, and there will be strong popular support needed to clear encroachments. This is the catalyst.
Rather than embark on a state-wide (or country-wide) desilting of tanks, leaders can start with rejuvenating one set of interconnected tanks. The dearth of institutional capacity and the difficulty of clearing encroachments necessitates starting small. Start where the need is greatest, and then, as the need increases and the approach is fine-tuned, expand geographically. This is the approach Rajendra Singh followed in Alwar, where he and his organisation, the Tarun Bharat Sangh, have rejuvenated thousands of tanks and rebirthed over six rivers in the area. Let the impetus of action come from below, when water becomes scarce — that’s the key.
There are several ways to improve the political payoff of this scheme. One is to link the desilting to other schemes like MNREGA and afforestation, ensuring landless labourers and farmers both benefit from the scheme. Another is to link up with corporate CSR programmes as factories in a dry area will also earn goodwill from their local employees when water supply improves. Enlisting an outsider, such as an NGO or a corporate, to coordinate helps bridge difference between different departments, ensuring a holistic solution emerges. Education is particularly important. Many today do not remember all the pieces that once worked together to make tanks effective — choice of crops, sustainable water use, including adoption of drip irrigation (there are already subsidies in many of the states for the same), the role of forests, and community rights and responsibilities are all to be covered to ensure the shift in equilibrium sustains. Education, by helping the voter understand the benefit of somewhat costly actions taken today, makes distant rewards more tangible, and thus more appealing.
Where will this work: Relatively dry, non-flat areas, like Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, parts of Maharashtra and Telangana with seasonal rainfall, but importantly, where groundwater is becoming inaccessible, or unpotable.
Why will it work: Groundwater supplies are running out. Rainfall is not going to become less seasonal. Moreover, thousands of farmers have seen the power of cascading tanks being revived. In Madurai, record rainfall in the Western Ghats has translated to lush green paddy fields where the channels have been cleared, and the tanks desilted. The key is not to take up all the tanks, but to identify a set of linkages and use political capital only to clear encroachments and canals on areas where the water shortage is acute, and on upstream tanks and canals first. The bottleneck resource is political capital, use it only where you must, where it will unlock the most value.
Solution#2 for cities: Decentralised sewage treatment.
What to do and when to do it:
Managing water in Indian cities is hard. Our water philosophy has thus far largely rested on grabbing a higher share from reservoirs or desalination — i.e., we’ve pinned our hopes on centralised provision rather than decentralised management. However, in the land of ‘jugaad’, in cities with labyrinthine piping and informal settlements, centralised measures lose effectiveness because what is provided at source often does not reach the end — lost to leaks and wrong turns in pipes. Moreover, climate change, which will decrease the amount of water available in some water basins and exploding demand will soon reveal the limited depths of provisioning. ‘Day Zero’, thus, catalyses the shift to water management.
Given the ignorance surrounding sewage treatment and possible psychological as well as financial hurdles, the “when” to implement is important. As summer rolls around, voters will begin to cherish water — especially in dry regions. This is the time to propose/require decentralised sewage treatment and reuse, at the household or apartment level, or, at most, at a neighbourhood level. To extend the chemistry analogy, we can lower the activation energy for this change, by coupling this “medicine” with a sugar of better FSI, or preferential access to capital.
The key is decentralised sewage treatment. Some cities already claim to have enough centralised sewage treatment capacity. But this requires sewage to be pumped to a central plant using power, through potentially broken or misdirected pipes. The power requirement makes this centralised scheme expensive and broken pipes reduces the scheme’s effectiveness. Moreover, by going decentralised, the treated water helps satisfy some part of the water demand of generators of the sewage, increasing the economic attractiveness of treating one’s sewage.
Where will this work: Rather than dictate from above that everyone adopt sewage treatment, governments can initiate the scheme in areas that are cut off from municipal water supply, and where groundwater is expensive or unavailable. While this may seem like a “small” solution, note that Indian urban populations are exploding and the millions that pour into cities will settle into accommodation that is yet to be built, and in the periphery where municipal water supply does not exist. Also, by placing the onus on implementation primarily on companies building affordable housing at the periphery of cities, the stress on government capacity is reduced.
Why will it work: Simple economics. For households using expensive tanker-water, sewage treatment acts as a low-cost substitute for some part of their water use, and a cheap way to recharge their groundwater. The issue may be one of awareness and of lack of capital, which can be overcome by education campaigns and by loosening FSI or by granting access to cheaper capital for the purpose.
The crisis as catalyst
Let us ask the first question again: Can India’s water crisis be conquered? Yes, it can. Israel, that receives far less rain than we do, grows mangoes in its desert, showing water supply is clearly not the problem. Lack of water management is.
To get India to manage its water, we need to frame our solutions in terms of paybacks, both political and commercial, rather than relying only on a rights-based discussion. Another shift in approach is from a centrally designed, top-down water management infrastructure to decentralized need-driven infrastructure. We’ve looked at just two of an entire gamut of solutions that can help solve India’s water crisis. The key is politicians become enablers while the impetus is provided by the voter.
This makes the current elections extremely pertinent. Will voters show politicians that vote-bloc appeasements (such as quotas), or short-term sweeteners (such as free electricity or farm loan waivers) are surer roads to victory than resilience-building measures such as agricultural electricity pricing, or universal installation of water meters in cities?
Cognoscenti often remark, “Never waste a crisis.” Will India’s “worst ever water crisis” catalyse the shift from water provision to water management? We will need to parse election results closely for the answer.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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