For reasons that are easy to discern, the way India has developed in recent times runs utterly contrary to any possibility of environmental sustainability, at least so far as water is concerned. Mumbai metropolitan area is perhaps the only major urban-industrial hub that has evolved in a region that is well endowed with water. It falls in the group of river basins called west-flowing rivers south of Tapti. These basins are, taken together, water surplus, at least as of now.
Other major urban-industrial hubs such as Ahmedabad, Pune, Bengaluru, Coimbatore, Chennai, Hyderabad, etc., are located in acutely water-deficit river basins. Worse still, they have some other attributes that keep exacerbating their situation. They are growing rapidly, with lakhs of people coming to settle there from other parts of the country each year. Quite a few of them (Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru) are at a high altitude.
They have not managed to install any reasonable water recycling plants and have failed to instill any sensible urban development discipline in citizens or the city administration. For instance, new housing complexes not only keep paving every inch of open ground, chocking the thirsty Mother Earth’s way of absorbing rainwater, but also have wasteful luxuries of not recycling wastewater. Ironically, the people who stream in and crowd the cities often come from middle or lower Gangetic basin or even Brahmaputra-Meghna basins, which are water surplus!
Effect on the hinterland
How does this affect the hinterland? There are complex water-related interactions between the town and the countryside. There are at least three dimensions to this interaction. In the first place, where the cities can muster enough funds or enough clout with the state administration, they sequester water of any and all nearby dams and storage structures for urban supply. That water was meant to be used for irrigation.
For instance, the Pench project, instead of irrigating farmlands in the eastern tehsils of Mauda-Ramtek in Nagpur district, feeds water to that city, which threatens to be the fifth-fastest growing city in the world. Jayakwadi keeps Aurangabad and Jalna alive, while the farmers who should have got the water do not. Several dams in and around Pune now feed the city rather than irrigating crops. And so it goes everywhere. After all, human needs are treated on a priority.
This appropriation of water meant for agriculture for meeting urban demand creates the town-country conflict, which one sees around many cities in western and peninsular India. This is an interesting phenomenon. The villagers want all the prosperity of being at the periphery of a vibrant and rich city, seek and get their employment or business in the city, but also want to keep their water!
Secondly, in return of getting fresh water from such reservoirs, the cities contribute their sewerage and effluent water to such villages that are unfortunately downstream. If the city had been careful, it would have treated the water. But most cities are growing too fast to be careful. So the water may not be treated. So all the biological and chemical oxygen demand is met from the air in the environment of the downstream villages. The villages in turn pay the city back in its own coin by supplying vegetables cultivated using that sewage. The International Water Management Institute has spent years researching peri-urban agriculture around Hyderabad.
The third dimension concerns us the most. The huge and growing spread of the city, taken in conjunction with inadequate planning and even worse investment in infrastructure by the city inevitably implies a secular shortfall in piped water supply to residents. This leads to a booming tanker economy. This economy is run by actors who have limited entry barriers of investment, but high margins.
So the economy is run by local politicians, musclemen and other people who are just a shade better than street ruffians. All they need is to secure water supply from wells or bore wells of pliant and obliging farmers. The farmer sees far better returns to his well water than would be obtained from any crop.
The tanker mafia makes more money than the farmer per unit of water, residents of the outlying housing complexes feel fulfilled or at any rate satisfied for the time as they have no option and the rent seekers thrive on all of these. Later the water mafia happily buys or loots water from the city water infrastructure with impunity gained through its political connections.
As the regions in which the cities we have described are all dry and water-deficit, this only means that over time, wells close to the city will keep going dry and the tankers will keep going deeper in the country. This phenomenon of expanding rings of dryness, about which I wrote a paper in 2007, has only gained momentum since then.
Expanding rings of dryness
What happens to the drinking water situation in the villages in these expanding rings of dryness? The situation can be pretty grim for several reasons. In the first place, these peri-urban villages start getting populated with the urban fringe. People who live off the city but simply cannot afford residential quarters there. Such people tend to be migrants who have a short-term interest in the place. So they take no interest, save managing their immediate needs.
Secondly, the builders are already moving in, buying land and developing new housing complexes there. Thirdly, the local self-government is still with very weak and underfunded Gram Panchayats. As a result, the water needs of these villages are not met in any satisfactory and proper manner by the government or the local self-government agency.
Thus, though their water resources could make them self-reliant for their domestic water needs, the residents could be forced to buy their own water. Fortunately, the travails are short-lived as the expanding city swallows these villages in itself and the ring of dryness keeps expanding.
Everyone in this game that is played out all these years in western and southern India dreads a drought. A drought reduces available water and makes everyone extremely vulnerable. But what else does one expect when one has shortsightedly allowed the cities to grow beyond the carrying capacity of the adjoining country?
The long-term solution, of course, lies in building up poles of urban-industrial development in middle and lower Gangetic basin and in the Brahmaputra basin. But that is such a long-term thing and so much beyond the control of the cities and these states that no one wants to talk about it.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.