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Lok Sabha Election 2019: What polls in India have to do with winning the country's water crisis

Many urbans Indians have far too little water — just over two buckets a day to drink, bathe, cook and wash. Many more poor rural Indians would find agriculture more remunerative if they had better access to water. That’s why it’s so perplexing that water, and specifically water management, is not a raging political issue.

Why is this? We can bemoan the political impotency of water; but finding a solution requires us to both acknowledge and attempt to understand the present situation.

Balancing Competing Demands

At the heart of the politician-water nexus is the need to balance different interests — between groups and within the same group. Take the case of Maharashtra, where it’s reported that voters say: “Whoever fixes the drought will get my vote”. Seems straightforward enough. And doable too — as Israel has shown. Where is the problem?

Agriculture is the single largest user of water in India. Now, as per the All India Survey of Governance Issues and Voting Behaviour 2018 study by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), many of Maharashtra’s rural constituencies place “Availability of Water for Agriculture” as a Top-3 voter issue. But it is not the only burning issue. The same ADR survey says that the rural Maharashtrian voter cares about electricity for agriculture almost as much water availability. Rural voters also prize getting “Higher Price Realisation for Farm Products”.

But what really muddies the waters is the caste equation. A 2018 study by Azim Premji University and CSDS-Lok Niti confirms many of our private suspicions — the majority of Indians will favour a candidate from their own caste. In the case of Maharashtra, 54 percent of respondents from Maharashtra would favour a political leader from their own caste. This preference becomes more pronounced when the educational attainment of the respondent is lower.

 Lok Sabha Election 2019: What polls in India have to do with winning the countrys water crisis

At the heart of the politician-water nexus is the need to balance different interests — between groups and within the same group. REUTERS/FILE PHOTO

Now, consider the choices in front of the politician. Make water more available for all? He will need to price water, build out last mile connectivity of canals, compel politically powerful farmers to practise rotation and also change MSP to reflect water usage and pricing (make sugarcane less remunerative, as compared to say, Jowar). Tell this to any politician — and if she is honest — she will likely laugh long and hard and then say this is political suicide. How much easier (and effective) to subsidise electricity and provide a higher MSP and put a candidate from a politically compelling caste up for election?

In 2018-19, agricultural consumers were subsidised by over Rs 11,000 crores by other classes of electricity consumers in Maharashtra. But even that subsidised tariff is not paid fully. As of June 2018, cumulative arrears of agricultural consumers exceeded Rs 26,000 crores. Clearly, providing subsidised (and forgiven) charges for electricity is an tangible and expensive action. But is it ‘fixing the drought’. Not quite: only 17.8 percent of the cropped area is irrigated — i.e., the subsidised electricity is benefitting a small fraction of farmers, given that typically, only the wealthier farmers own the borewells. We will come to that later, but it is important to note that this subsidy means that the politician is seen to be acting on voter interests by doing something both tangible and expensive.

Meanwhile, urban voters, notably in Mumbai-North, Pune and Nagpur, as per the ADR survey want their drinking water now, if you please. City fights with farm for its share of water. The narrative behind competing interests is founded almost entirely on rights, which places severe constraints in terms of timescale and levers of actions that the poor (yes, you read that right) politician can take. Recent farmer protests have demanded forest rights, drought compensation, loan waivers and better prices for their products. Politically, the sub-text from the protests is crystal clear: it is an exhortation for politicians to provide (and divide), not for the government to manage.

Narrative: Provide, don’t manage.

Long ago, every drop of water came because of a role performed — maintaining a bund, clearing a channel, desilting a tank, paying a share of a crop. It did not come for free. Balancing different demands was somewhat easier then. But our history has transformed water from a responsibility to a right — a dole — first from our colonial rulers to now, from our political leaders. This makes provision, powerful political capital.

Consider the water situation in my own city, Madurai. Last year, Sundaram Climate Institute discovered that residents in several localities get water only once every few days in a communal tap. Anecdotal reports suggest that the situation still prevails.

This is clearly unacceptable, and we would expect that residents would care that so much water continues to be lost to leaks. Should they not protest “Meter the water and arrests those leaks, I say”. Au contraire. Despite sporadic protests on water scarcity, ‘drinking water’ is not even a big enough in Madurai to figure in the Top-3 issues as per the ADR survey. In the 39 constituencies surveyed by ADR in Tamil Nadu, only 7 constituencies placed water in the Top-3 voter issues, while none of the urban centres placed ‘Drinking water’ in the Top-3 voter issues. If you were a politician standing in national elections, would you address or look through such protests?

Digging a little deeper into the study, we find that one of the lowest governance priorities of voters is encroachment of public lands. Urban water availability in dry regions with seasonal rainfall (as seen in Tamil Nadu) rests firmly on well-functioning public tanks and lakes. However, tanks are choice encroachment targets. When linking channels between tanks are encroached, downstream tanks in a system of cascading tanks become dry — providing enticingly empty land in crowded city centres. Thus, when voters openly tell politicians that they don’t prioritise preventing encroachment, they are clearly signalling that water management is unlikely to be rewarded. Supporting this narrative are the results of the recent state elections: governments such as Telangana , who prioritised populist measures (free electricity) over water management, before elections, won.

Tamilian political parties understand this all too well and have framed their manifestos accordingly. Some feature a cash transfer to segments of the population, while others promise crop loan waivers and free electricity to farmers. None of these measures will serve to alleviate water scarcity in the state. Indeed, features like free electricity for farmers, coupled with a higher MSP for water-hungry crops such as paddy and sugarcane will only make it worse.

Why do voters prioritise provision, and not care about management? We will take that up in the next column.

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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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 09:34:00 IST