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‘Indian Rivers are in ICUs, Drying up Fast’—Waterman Rajendra Singh

The well-known activist says commodification of water in response to the water crisis will destroy what is left of it.
water

On World Water Day, a rhyme haunts our country—the one that gnawed at Coleridge’s ancient mariner. “Water, water everywhere...” But most of us live far from the limitless sea, in concrete jungles that survive on borrowed water. So, what does water mean to people in Indian cities? Here in the National Capital Region, water up to 20 KL consumed by households is free. Yet a litre of bottled water costs up to Rs. 30. What does Rajendra Singh, the Waterman of India, think about this odd situation? “Twenty-one Indian cities are going to be waterless very soon,” Rajendra Singh tells me in an interview for NewsClick conducted last week in Delhi. Singh is alluding to a prediction in a Niti Aayog report on water. He says, “It means that the underground and surface water availability will become zero.” Another report says 72% of water reservoirs are in overdraft.

Singh says in the interview that 70% of Indian rivers are dry and dead, while the other 30% have nitrates, acid, chromium and other heavy metals flowing in them. Their water is not compatible with drinking or bathing. In fact, they are causing cancer in large populations. “The Ganga river, when it goes past Kanpur is filled with sewage and toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, Agra’s Sharda river is burdened with sugar mills’ wastes,” he says.

But what if we swerve southward, are not rivers there better off? Singh has walked over 1 lakh kilometres leading numerous campaigns to protect and preserve water sources, so he is no stranger to any region of India. He confidently answers, “The Cauveri river is a good example of how to destroy a river. Its surface water is undrinkable.” He says bluntly that all Indian rivers are in the ICU, drying up fast. “The Tamraparni river is another case of how industries are off-loading effluents and killing a river,” he says.

The situation is such that the polluter-pays principle seems to be protecting polluters in India. “You see murderers get punished, but river polluters are killing millions with slow poison, yet no one even goes to jail,” he says. To Singh, who has tirelessly campaigned against policies that hurt rivers, those who pollute water and serious criminals must be seen as equally culpable in their distinct domains. “Without jail time and severe punishment for polluters, I feel millions more will die,” he says. Singh takes no pleasure in harsh words; he looks grim as he speaks of stiff action.

Naturally, the next question is the solutions the State is proposing for the water crisis, for instance, the Ken-Betwa link project. Singh summarises the project as “a waste of money, water and resources”. He says the system will be complicated to run when the link is up and running. The reason is that the Ken-Betwa catchment areas fall in the same agro-climatic zones and have similar rainfall patterns. Plus, the river flow data used for the project is outdated. “They are extrapolating the model on redundant data sets. Given that climate change has impacted rainfall in the region it covers, it is unscientific to think these rivers will have the same water and rainfall levels ten or twelve years from now,” Singh explains.

Singh feels the water from this project will get captured by cities and industries, as in the past. The poor and farmers, who are told they will benefit from such projects, ultimately are the ones to lose. “Corporates will earn the benefits from linking rivers—it will become a den of such corrupt practices,” he says. But Singh also knows there is an alternative way to handle the water crisis. If we need water for farmers in parched regions and people need clean drinking water, then traditional water conversation techniques are a viable approach. “The regeneration of ponds, reservoirs, and traditional water systems can save ten times more water, and in a fraction of the cost,” he reminds. But these options are largely ignored, I tell him.

Further, does India’s Waterman think is our government could be lying about the benefits of river linking? And also, what does he feel about the Jal Jeevan Mission—will it be what it purports to be? Singh is forthright as ever. “Of course, the ghar ghar me nal [a tap in every home] scheme will succeed—because big budgets will fill the coffers of the giant corporates who get involved in it.” He points out that the profits of big corporates grew manifold during the Covid-19 crisis, when the rest of the country, especially the poor, suffered tremendously. Corporatisation and the Jal Jeevan Mission—what is the connection, you may wonder.

Probed further, Singh says, “It’s a simple case of selling plastic pipes and plastic taps. Let me tell you, there is a dearth of water today, and the future will be waterless as per the government’s own admission. This commodification of water will not help but destroy water.” In other words, to industry, there is no difference between the plastic water bottle and the plastic pipes that will bring water to households. If bottled water is a multi-crore business, the piped water scheme is the same thing, just done differently. “Commodification of water and the Jal Jeevan Mission is not about preserving life or even water. They are missions that will raise the fortunes of a few; the government thinks privatisation and sustainability are synonyms, sadly they are not,” he says.

The picture Singh paints is not bleak but alarming. After all, water transforms into food through the agricultural process. Will we not end up commodifying food even more as a result? Put another way, what do agriculture and farmers gain from such projects? “All government schemes such as river-linking, the irrigation schemes, etc., are corporate and contractor-driven. Ask yourself—who are the water schemes benefiting? The farmers are not, for sure,” he says.

In the watershed management schemes, which were decentralised and helped the smallest farmer, the money did not go to big contractors. Singh regards this scheme as a lifeline, especially for farmers in rain-fed areas. “However, when the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana [an irrigation scheme] was started, money started trickling into contractors’ pockets,” says Singh.

Singh explains the dangers of the path India is on. He believes the government should pay serious attention to sewage management because waste destroys limited water supplies and sources. He reminds us that climate change and industrial chemicals will work together to sicken soil and underground and surface water. “These water sources are limited and shrinking. As a result, there is growing displacement in about seven agro-climatic zones. Further corporatisation and water shortages will create massive migrations of farmers.”

Is there something we can do on World Water Day and after, or are individual actions immaterial to avert such a gigantic crisis? Singh responds with a mantra of sorts, “Water is not a private entity, it does not belong to any government or society. Water needs to be conserved and we must be disciplined in our use of it.” What works, he insists, is for India and the world to adopt decentralised water models. “We must help regenerate water. We cannot only waste and exploit it as we have done in the last century.” Before I leave, I ask Singh if there are hopes of succeeding? He smiles and says, “There is always hope”. We can hope India fares better than Coleridge’s mariner.

The author is an independent agri-policy analyst and writer and former director, policy and outreach at NSAI.

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