India’s Thirst Economy

“If we get into thinking what we are facing is only a drought, then we are in serious trouble. You are in the midst of a mega water crisis.”

There’s bad news for India’s water woes, if journalist P Sainath is to be believed. Speaking at a meeting of the National Consultation on Drought, he debunked the idea that a good monsoon will solve India’s crippling water crisis.

At least 10 states in India are in the grip of a drought will not be relieved by a good monsoon. For this “mega water crisis” is at least twenty years in the making.

Sainath begins by criticising the media for its stereotypical narratives, which deny any agency to the drought affected rural populations and make false correlations between poor monsoon, farmer suicides and the present water crisis.

“You know three of the most abused terms of the last 25 years, one of course is ‘reforms’, we throw millions of people out of a job and call it reform. The second of these, there are many, ‘level playing field’, and the third is ‘drought’.

“Do we have a serious drought? You bet – yes, we do. But place it in a context, why are people so much more vulnerable and susceptible to it today than they were two decades ago. You had deadly droughts in 1965-67 in Bihar, you had tremendous droughts in Maharashtra in 1972, but something happened differently, public action was different, social action was different, political action was different and above all the policy on using water was different, the priorities of using water were different.

“Please understand this, the two greatest crops in the world are not rice and wheat, they are hunger and thirst and more revenue is made out of them than any other crop in history…”

Sainath details how the separate sectors of this “thirst economy” are worth “tens of billions of rupees”. On the borewell industry he says, “In the 1980s government of India actually had a programme called the ‘million borewell scheme’, everybody should have a borewell, which meant of course that the richer farmers could take loans and get borewells.

“Now today the same zones which were the million borewell scheme success zones are listed by governments as dark zones, black zones, grey zones, where you cannot put another borewell because the aquifer is finished. Let me give you an example and a story of the borewell. There are farmers in Telangana, farmers in Andhra, in Marathwada who have put between 30 and 50 borewells on one farm. Borewell bankruptcies is one of the fastest routes to farmer bankruptcies, the other is tractor loan bankruptcies…”

Besides the borewells installed by farmers, Sainath points at the bottled water industry and companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi that draw a lot of our groundwater. “Now Coke and Pepsi drill in Varanasi, in Rajasthan, they will not dare drill those wells in California, they cannot. They can come here and loot your water. In Thane in 2003, before huge agitations by the Kisan Sabha and others, the Maharashtra government was selling water to them at 5 paisa a litre.

“Mr Naidu (Chandrababu Naidu) went one step better, he was then Chief Minister of Andhra (Pradesh), he collected the water, treated it, purified it and sold it to them at 25 paisa a litre, which went into a bottle, which then you were paying Rs 12 for. The bottled water industry is one of the biggest sources of water drain in drinking water make no mistake about it.”

At the outset, Sainath raises the question of whether water is a fundamental right or not. “The fundamental thing you need to decide, whatever action you take will flow out of that decision is, is water a fundamental human right? Or is it a commodity to be bought and sold as our economic neoliberals tell you – the solution to this problem is rational pricing which simply means that IPL can afford water and Latur farmer cannot, that’s all it means, that’s the rationale… Is it a human right?”

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