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We need a drinking water security act

August 26, 2009 16:20 IST

Though by now, three-fourths of the monsoon past us, the country is seriously in deficit of rains. One knows what the passing clouds hold for the next one month.

Two issues arise: one, foodgrains, their adequate supply at reasonable and affordable prices to the people; two, drinking water.

Of these, the latter is more of a worry.

However, despite the shortfall of paddy sowings on 57 lakh hectares across the country, sugarcane by one lakh hectares hurting sugar production badly, there need be no alarmist worry on the foodgrains front. These can be imported, what with the country being flush with dollars.

Logic

That is what logic tells me. It does not account for the avarice of the trading class which always tries to exploit others' difficulties and manipulate inventories, supplies and prices. This avarice has surfaced to every consumer's woe.

For instance, despite this year -- as Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar pointed out the other day -- the sowing of pulses has been nine lakh hectares higher, the stuff has become dear. This price rice, of the tur dal being sold at up to Rs 100 a kg is preposterous.

One can do without the pulse temporarily though it has its adverse health implications. One can be pleased that due to the higher wheat support prices, the godowns are flush with stocks equivalent to 13 month requirements. That means there is ample to go around.

But water?

On the other hand, one cannot do without the other commodity that is life sustaining drinking water. That is a major worry for all, major metros like Mumbai which has no stocks that can go beyond, at this point of time, January and 30 per cent cuts are in the offing.

The countryside is already staring at low water levels in their wells with no recharge this year due to poor rains. If the wells dry up, where would the water come from to sustain the country until the next monsoon? This is a truly alarming situation. Worse, this situation has repeated repeatedly surfaced since Independence without remedies found.

Poor coverage

This country had aimed to reach 100 per cent coverage of water supply to rural areas by 2004, a date long past and state governments are even now scratching their heads at the logistics of having to supply water to the vast populations. Nearly half the population is without proper water supply, which determines the poor health of the individuals.

Soon, the tankers

Soon enough, private contractors would be hired for their tankers, water sources sought to be located, drinking water ferried to people who would scramble for it with their pots and buckets and one more year would pass into history.

They would merit some usual, stock media coverage with telling visuals of the plight of the people -- aren't they already surfacing? -- and the year would pass by and everyone would forget the trauma of a bad year once it rains again next monsoon.

Where we are and where we would be if we could surmount all hurdles, which according to me include deliberate sloth of the authorities, is best summed by a Planning Commission document prepared in 2002 with sponsorship from the World Health Organisation and the UNICEF.

Here is that entire paragraph headlined 'Reminder of Perspective'

"India aims to reach 100 per cent coverage in terms of rural water supply by 2004, consolidation by 2007, and augmentation by 2015. If it is assumed that India will maintain 100 per cent coverage from 2004 onwards, projections based on current level of coverage and estimated population growth trends, this will mean that by 2004, India will need to reach an additional (from the current level) 232 million people, a further 19 million people by 2007 (from the 2004 level) to maintain 100 per cent coverage, another 33 million (from the 2007 level) people by 2015. By 2025, rural populations would have stabilised (partially due to falling birth rates, and partially due to the increasing urbanisation), and it will be enough to maintain rural water supply coverage at the 2015 levels. If the Millennium and Johannesburg summit goals of halving uncovered populations by 2015 have to be met, the figure will be approximately 142 million additional people (from the current levels). If the global goal of water supply for all by 2025 has to be achieved, this will mean covering an additional 75 million people from the 2015 levels."

That is a tall order given the record of accomplishments, such as they are.

I need add not a word to stress the issues further.

Sanguine

Then, why is it that though majority of Indians think that water is a major issue, where only eight per cent of all consumed water is used for drinking and sanitation, rest for irrigation and by industry, nothing is done to demand and secure assured drinking water?

That is hard to figure out.

However, when pesticides were found in bottled water and the beverage Coke, all hell broke loose. No, I am not for a moment suggesting we needed to gloss over it. In comparison, the poor supply of water and the unprotected nature of the life-giver that is consumed by the poor did never warrant that kind of outcry. Not once have I seen it in the media except for the stock stories in the media during the droughts.

A concerted bid to seek the government's total and unremitting attention to solving for ever the drinking water problem has never been seen though even now, in some parts of the country, people have begun to protect their wells using armed guards.

Like the Food Security Act that is proposed and for which more consultations are required over perhaps another year, a Drinking Water Security Act is called for.

Is anyone listening?

Mahesh Vijapurkar