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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 22 New Delhi May 21, 2016

War for Water in India

Monday 23 May 2016

by P. Sakthivel

“The World Cannot Survive without Water and Morality Cannot Exist without Rains.”—Thirukkural (20)

“Anyone who can solve the problems of Water will be worthy of two Nobel Prizes—one for Peace and one for Science.” —John F. Kennedy

In India we have in the recent past witnessed water-related political, economic and social tension in various States leading to imposition of Section 144 in order to prevent any human conflicts. The water wars range from the sharing of precious water between States, blocking of water resources to other States, especially at the time of the Jat agitation over the demand for Backward Class status for them, tussle over sharing of water between the newly formed State of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

The Supreme Court of India has come down heavily on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Government, headed by Arvind Kejriwal, for moving the Apex Court to restore water supply to Delhi. “You rest in Air Conditioned chambers and want orders from the Court!” This is how the Supreme Court rapped the government.

Water supply to New Delhi was disrupted after the Jat community’s protest for BC status and they attacked the Munak canal, one of the main sources of water to New Delhi. Soon after this incident, the Army took over the control of the canal.

Previously when there was a protest, the agitators had blocked the roads, damaged the government buildings and the public properties etc. But in the recent past in order to draw national attention and with a view to achieve their hidden agenda, the agitators mercilessly started to target the water resources and boldly obstructed the drinking water supplies to the common man.

Tussles between the States for Water

The newly established State, Telangana, had a tussle with the Andhra Pradesh Government for sharing of water resources. The Andhra Pradesh Government alleged that the Telangana Government had been secretly generating power from Srisailam and clamoured that the Centre should deploy para-military troops for guarding all the reservoirs in the State.

Alleging violation of Schedule 11 of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act 2014, the Government of Andhra Pradesh wrote to the Central Water Resources Ministry for issuance of instructions not to use its reservoirs for any kind of power generation and ordered it to comply with the water release protocols.1

Meanwhile the local people from the Telangana region have blocked the water flow to Andhra Pradesh by placing sand bags in the middle of the river. This caused not only enormous tension between the two governments but also enmity between the peoples of the States.

Mention must be made here that Tamil Nadu had the same kind of problem over the sharing of Cauvery water with Karnataka and it had already approached the Supreme Court for its directions. Even after proper directions from the Supreme Court, the Karnataka Government refused to release the due share of water to Tamil Nadu which led to massive protests and rallies by the people and organisations in both the States. Stones were pelted over buses and vehicles of Tamil Nadu and in a few places the properties were damaged.

UN Facts and Figures 

The United Nations Organisation, under its Millennium Development Goals, predicted that sooner or later the world is going to face an acute water crisis and water-related human problems will surface and jeopardise the existing political systems. The following are some of the facts and figures of the UNO about the water scenario now existing in the world:

i. 2.6 billion people have gained access to improved drinking water sources since 1990, but 663 million people are still without water.

ii. At least 1.8 billion people globally use as sources of drinking water that are contaminated.

iii. Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the global population using an improved drinking water source has increased from 76 per cent to 91 per cent.

iv. But water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the global population and is projected to rise. Over 1.7 billion people are currently living in river basins where the water use exceeds the recharge.

v. 2.4 billion people lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines.

vi. More than 80 per cent of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or sea without any pollution removal.

vii. Each day, nearly 1000 children die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases.

viii. Hydropower is the most important and widely-used renewable source of energy and as of 2011, represented 16 per cent of the total electricity production worldwide.

ix. Approximately 70 per cent of all water abstracted from rivers, lakes and aquifers is used for irrigation.

x. Floods and other water-related disasters account for 70 per cent of all deaths from natural disasters.2

Alarming Trend

Latur in Maharashtra has been hitting the headlines in almost all the dailies for its acute water crisis and human conflicts appeared mainly because of water related issues. It is estimated that unable to face water scarcity around 50,000 villagers already migrated from Latur to other places, towns and villages and several industries were closed down due to lack of water. It is significant to note here that, since all sources of water have dread up, Section 144 of the Act has been invoked in Latur to avoid riots over the use of water. It is said that the authorities are supplying water once in 20 days.

In order to tackle the situation the govern-ment supplied water through a train, called Water Express, to the drought-affected districts of Latur. Two trains carrying 25 lakh litres of water have already reached Latur from Miraj.3 In some places the village community people padlocked the household tanks in order to prevent theft of water. “Now water, like other precious materials, is being guarded by the people.” Supply of water in tankers has become a big business. The water market in Latur city has a turnover of at least 10 lakhs a day. The tanker lorry operators, who supply water, are trying to exploit the situation by demanding more money for domestic use and other purposes.4

Drought and Court Reactions

The Bombay High Court has come down heavily on water being used for cricket pitches for conducting the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches when the entire State was reeling under acute water shortage. The Bombay High Court opined: “Ideally the IPL matches should be shifted elsewhere where there is no water crisis. Only if water supply to BCCI is stopped you will understand the situation.”

Further, the Bombay High Court observed: “How can you (Cricket Associations and BCCI) waste water like this? Is it whether the people are more important or your IPL matches? How can you be so careless? Who can waste water like this? This is criminal waste.”5

Because of the Bombay High Court’s severe admonition and warning, the IPL matches, scheduled to be held in Maharashtra, were shifted to Rajasthan. But the Rajasthan High Court concurred with the Bombay High Court’s opinion when it expressed its opinion in such words: “Why should the Government of Rajasthan allow IPL matches to be held in the State when the State itself is facing acute water shortage?” The Court issued a notice to the Rajasthan Government and BCCI and asked the BCCI: “Why were the IPL matches being shifted from Maharashtra to Jaipur when Rajasthan itself is in the midst of a severe water crisis.”

The Division Bench also sought a proper reply from the State Public Health Engineering Department, Water Resource Department, Water Resources Regulatory Authority etc. It was alleged that for the purpose of conducting IPL matches and maintaining the pitch at least three lakh litres of water will be consumed daily for 27 consecutive days. Therefore, 81 lakh litres of water will be drained only for conducting the IPL matches. The issue came to limelight through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by an NGO ‘Laksatta Movement’. The NGO said that for pitch formation itself, 60 lakh litres of water was used. It is really disheartening to note here that when the entire State of Maharashtra is reeling under water shortage and drought, IPL matches are being held placing lakhs of people to misery and hardships.

The Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court has directed the State Government to authorise 50 per cent water cut for breweries and distilleries in the area with immediate effect and a further 10 per cent cut from May 10, 2016. Further, the Court also directed water cuts for other industrial units be increased by five per cent from the current 20 per cent from May 20, 2016. The Court significantly observed that “when the people had not seen water for several days, it was inhuman that breweries were guzzling the precious resource”. Industrial units in the Marathwada region get four million litres of water a day from the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC). The Court’s decision would cover at least 13 districts, no fewer than 16 distilleries and breweries.6

Migration due to Water Dearth

Due to acute water scarcity, migration of people from rural areas to urban centres is considered a regular phenomenon. In places such as Yadgir, Raichur, Koppal and other parts of Hyderabad large groups of people migrated but this time the number of people who migrated is much higher than in previous years. People from areas hit by irrigation failure and drought and crop failure migrated more. Normally the landless people were the ones who left for other pastures to other districts but this time people with two or three hectares of land left their villages in large numbers to find work in cities like Bengaluru, Pune, Goa or other urban centres. They were usually employed in construction and other industries.7

People’s Agitations 

In several places in the State of Tamil Nadu people are agitating against the State Government for according sanction to multinational companies who ruthlessly extract several lakh litres of water from river beds for producing soft drinks and mineral water and reap enormous amount of money. For instance, local people, political parties and other organisations have been protesting in Tirunelveli against the government’s permission to a multinational company for erecting pipes in the Tamirabarani river bed and tap water for use in their soft drink plants.

It is an unblemished truth that Tamil Nadu is one of the topmost States which has been facing acute water shortage because of the reckless urbanisation process. Every day the demand for drinking water is increasing at an alarming level in which the local bodies are not able to provide a regular supply of drinking water to the people.

Hence allowing mega industries to exploit ground water for commercial purposes is unacceptable and such action cannot be justified on any ground. Discarding the public interest such industries with the sanction of the State Government even in the drought-hit areas would absorb enormous amount of ground water for commercial purposes.

Similarly people in Perundurai, Erode district of Tamil Nadu, have been protesting over the government’s decision to allow a soft drink company to establish its bottling plant in the Sipcot area. The agricultural associations along with the local people are fighting against the proposed establishment of the soft drink company because the people dread the company’s excessive use of ground water for producing soft drinks. And the people will definitely suffer if the ground water level is gradually reduced.

It is estimated that if the company is allowed to establish its plant, it would absorb 38 lakh litres of ground water every day and this would naturally affect the ground water level in more than 80 villages and towns in and around Perundurai. The district is already known for its depleted ground water level and any attempt to allow the soft drink company to tap ground water would further aggravate the situation and lead to irremediable suffering of the people.

In Vellore district, also known for severe water problem, the village people are protesting over the functioning of several mineral water plants which tap ground water for commercial purposes. The people expressed their apprehension over depletion of ground water and these water purifying companies had dug several deep borewells. Where water from these borewells are purified, only one-fourth of the water available can be used for drinking purposes and the remaining water is packed and bottled and transported to Chennai and Bangalore for sale. The media was informed that in spite of their wide protest and petitions to the government, people have vehemently opposed the functioning of such mineral water plants.8

Water Scarcity or Poor Water Management?

It is incorrect to lay the blame entirely on the poor or insufficient monsoon but the State and other stakeholders must take the blame as they have utterly failed to save or preserve the natural water resources. For instance, Tamil Nadu witnessed torrential rains during the months of November and December, 2015 and the Chennai deluge in 2015 was estimated to be one of the worst deluges in the last 100 years of the history of the city. But the administration and other stakeholders have failed to preserve the rain water and nearly 90 per cent of the water was let off to flow into the sea. Encroachment over water bodies and waterways is also predominant in the State. People unfortunately saw land as a place to build buildings and not a place to preserve the water.

Ordering the IPL matches to shift out of the drought-hit areas and effecting water cut to the breweries and distilleries and other industrial units may be a good beginning to address the water scarcity issue. The crisis that Maharashtra and nine other States in the country are facing is not just scarcity of water but also poor governance of the situation. The water crisis is not just the result of two consecutive failed monsoons, it is a direct outcome of the inability of the governments over decades to manage sensibly, sensitively and sustainably India’s water resources.9

Disappearing of Water Resources

Maharashtra has 1845 dams, more than any other State in India, and yet only around 18 per cent of its farmland is irrigated. The recent “dam scam” exposed the extent to which public funds have been utilised to build dams without equally yielding irrigation benefits. Of the 70,000 minor irrigation projects in the State, only 12 per cent are benefiting and working today. An EPW editorial notes that the power of the so-called “sugar lobby”, rather than prudence, has dictated the allocation of surface water for irrigation. Cutting across party lines, no State Government will contemplate placing any limits on water-intensive sugarcane cultivation, even in water-scarce regions like Marathwada, or on sugar factories that need thousands of litres of water everyday for their use.10 Despite the failure of monsoons, sugarcane cultivation in the Marathwada region has increased considerably.

Similarly in the State of Tamil Nadu the districts such as Namakkal, Erode, Salem and Karur are already under severe water scarcity but the number of poultry, textile and other units have increased considerably. Successive governments, irrespective of their party labels, have failed to put reasonable restriction over the extraction of ground water by these industries. Like in the Marathwada region, sugarcane industries are also active in the State of Tamil Nadu even in the water scarcity areas.

In the forthcoming years water-related human conflicts are going to dominate the politics at the State and national levels. Like in other countries, especially African and Latin American states, the water-related human conflicts and tensions would, indeed, undermine our socio-political and economic systems. We need to strengthen the role of the local community people in the preservation of the water resources. People should be sensitised properly about protecting and restore water-related ecosystems, water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency and waste water treatment.


1. The Times of India, January 3, 2015, p. 13.

2. http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/water-and-sanitation/.

3. The Hindu, April 8, 2016, p. 7.

4. The Times of India, September 1, 2015, p. 11.

5. The Times of India, April 7, 2016, p. 1.

6. Shoumojit Banerjee, The Hindu, April 27, 2016, p. 8.

7. The Hindu, April 24, 2016, p. 9.

8. The Hindu, August 19, 2015, p. 3.

9. EPW, Vol. 51, Issue No. 16. April 16, 2016.

10. Ibid.

Dr P. Sakthivel is an Associate Professor, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, Annamalai University, Annamalai Nagar, Tamil Nadu.

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