The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 11, 2000
Time Off

Rivers for sale
By Manohar Malgonkar

TWO statistics. Each is alarming in itself. Seen together, they’re a danger signal.

One: India’s population, grown threefold in 50 years, has reached the billion mark; it grows at the rate of 13 million every year.

Two: India has a fifth of the planet’s population but only 4 per cent of its water resources.

It was thus self-evident that we were heading inescapably towards the point of not having enough water for the basic needs of the people for growing crops and fodder, for cattle and people to drink. But then no one had expected it to happen so soon; and certainly not this year, because the previous monsoon, that of 1999, was better than normal, and also well-distributed.

Well, it has happened. Shortages began as early as February. In March many of our towns and cities were subsisting on once-in-two-days rationing. But very soon it was once-in-three-days and then once-in-four-days. At the end of March, President K.R. Narayanan warned the people of Rajasthan that they must treat water as their most precious resource, and that it was their duty to conserve it by all means. A week later there were water-riots in parts of Gujarat. And finally, on April 23, with the monsoon still six weeks away, the Prime Minister made an appeal for donations to help the drought-hit areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Knowing when to stop
May 14, 2000
The lingering memory
May 7, 2000
From once-in-four-days in places like Belgaum and Bijapur and water-riots in Gujarat, it is but a short step to the horrors of Abyssinia which we see on our TV sets: whole villages on the move, looking for water, the sands littered with dead cattle, and mothers, themselves crazed with thirst scooping black liquids from sandpits to wet the lips of dying babies which resembles bottled embryos.

OK. President Narayanan’s appeal was addressed to the drought-affected people of Rajasthan. But surely, the politicians in power in the various states who actually reside over the fates of our lakes and rivers were equally its targets? It was as though the President was shaking a headmasterly finger and saying: Remember, water is life itself. The Bible mentions it precisely in those terms: "A pure river of water of life." Why, even our own scriptures tell us of what heroic troubles Bhagirath had to go through to bring down the Ganga from the heavens to the earth.

What we have done to Bhagirath’s Ganga is a sad and shameful story, but we have done the same to our other rivers too—transformed them into drainage systems for municipal wastes, industrial acids, and other chemical sludge.

This year’s drought is but a foretaste of things to come. The ever rising demand for more water will make the shortages increasingly serious unless our decision-makers at the highest levels put a halt to the vandalisation of such of our water resources that have still remained unpolluted—instead of lamenting their loss after they’re gone.

As to how our rivers are put out of business by those who control their fates, I offer a case study. It is a river I know well because I live near it. A small river, barely a hundred kilometers long, yet swift and strong and alive with Mahseer which only thrives in clean fast-flowing waters. It rises in the hills south of Belgaum and flows southward to join the sea at Karwar.

It is called the Kali, and it is—it was—the life-support system of a region known for its evergreen forests and abundant wildlife.

Barely thirty kilometres from its source, the Kali has been virtually strangled to death by the infusion of a stream of the foulest industrial effluvium, so that, for most of its remaining length, the Kali’s water is unfit—indeed dangerous—for domestic use. And fish don’t live in it.

But that still left a third of the Kali’s length capable of serving as the lifeline of the villages and jungles through which it flowed and it is in this section that they have put up a dam across the river at a place called Supa to create a vast lake for generating electricity. This lake itself is now a scenic wonder: crystal clean water mirroring the evergreen hills that tower on all sides.

But what are beauty spots to administrators? Because this lake, too, is now to be a receptacle for industrial chemicals, and as though this were not sufficient punishment for it, its intake of water is to be drastically reduced to serve the needs of a gigantic plant of horrondous pollution capacity.

The logic put forward for these measures has a truly Alice-in-Wonderland air—of having no relationship with groundlevel realities. What drought?

The Supa reservoir was constructed for the specific purpose of ensuring a plentiful store of water for generating electric power. But since the dam was completed, some 20 years ago, the reservoir has seldom, if ever been filled to its capacity. Low water-levels at Supa are often put forward as the reasons for load shedding.

So one would think that those responsible for generating power would not willingly permit the shutting off of the flow of one of the rivers that feed the reservoir. Right?

Sorry—wrong. Oh, yes, they keep complaining about their lake never really filling up. But not so much as a token yelp of protest at the government itself having given away one of the lake’s main feeder rivers, the Pandri, to the exclusive use of a coke oven plant.

Given away—that’s right. The wording of the government’s operative announcement is "all the water from the Pandri." Every drop.

So what about the villages and jungles that the Pandri supports? How will they find drinking water and cultivate their fields?

Easy. We’ll dig a couple of wells, see?—stop screaming. And as to the land holdings which will have become uncultivable, we’ll acquire them and hand them over to the coke plant. After all they were not cultivable, were they?

That, in essence, is the argument put forward. We take away all their fresh water, and make the fact of their inability to form their land an excuse for transferring those holding to the coke plant. Neat—see?

But wait. There are more indignities planned for the Kali river in its course below the Supa dam, where it forms a large pool. From this pool, eight million gallons will be siphoned off every day and piped right back to the coke plant. That’s right. Eight million gallons per day:

Does the Kali have enough water to sustain a daily loss of eight million gallons? Records suggest that it doesn’t. But even if it does, will not such excessive withdrawals run the river dry altogether? What happens to the farming communities, their cattle, the wildlife, the jungle downriver, if you not only choke off their life-support system, but fill the riverbed with an unending stream of acids and chemical wastes?

And all this, in the face of the President’s fervent appeal and Vajpayee’s anxities. Surely, now, with the drought already a presence, what was thought feasible five years ago by some ad-hoc committee, needs to be re-examined by personages of responsibility at the highest levels in both the state and the centre?

Eight million gallons a day will more than assuage the needs of the Hubli-Dharwad-Belgaum region which faces chronic water scarcity. Are the needs of an industry famed for the highest levels of pollution more important than the needs of the people?

And here is irony! A newspaper report of "a high-power committee to prepare an action plan for solving the drinking water problem" in several districts of Karnataka.

So, what to make of it? The President telling the people to use less water, the PM, asking for money, for providing water, while a state which itself is short of ‘drinking water’, gifting rivers for industrial use?

This column was published on June 4, 2000