"Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights."
(United Nations Economic and Social Council, November 2002.)
How is India to cope with one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century: providing access to safe drinking water for its copious population? Or for that matter, clean water for irrigation, since India’s continuing high population growth will undoubtedly have consequences for food production in the country. And last but not least, how will India balance scientific and commercial priorities with a desire of its indigenous people to retain their cultures and traditions? India's rapid population growth and fast-growing industries call for alternative measures to be taken to management of its water resources.
The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw dams as "temples of modern India", monuments to a nationalistic vision of modernization and unlimited growth. Hence, after its independence in the 1940s India went on to build some 3,600 dams, which were believed to improve human quality of life by providing drinking water to many, while at the same time they were to support economic growth in the country by diverting water for power, and irrigation of fields. And indeed, as some argue, India's irrigation systems have enabled the country to be self-sufficient in food production since 1974.
Yet, in the past two decades there has been the wind of change in India. Big governmental projects, especially dams like the one planned across the Narmada River, designed to provide water and power to the most pressured regions in central India, proved to be the major bone of contention. Hundreds of thousands of Adivasis, the indigenous people who live in the Narmada valley, are threatened to be drowned if they do not agree to be resettled. To many of them the resettlement means moving to the slums of big cities where they cannot afford clean water and food.
The NBA, the largest non-violent people’s movement in India since Gandhi, founded and led by Medha Patkar, gathers hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and peasants who are losing their land and livelihoods to large dams on the Narmada River. Through hunger strikes and civil disobedience they challenge big governmental projects and search for alternatives to solve water shortages in India.
While activists are hostile to the government's traditional reliance on big projects, such as dams, to provide clean water supplies for its people, others argue that India’s biggest problem is not water shortages, but its mismanagement.
From Imperial Past to Asia’s New Tiger Economy
India, once ”the jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, after gaining its independence in 1947 has seen some major changes in its economical, social and cultural spheres. Since independence the literacy rate has risen from 16% to 64,8% (2004), life expectancy from 31 to 64, the population from 340 million to 1.08 billion in 2005. Indeed, today India accounts for the fifth of the world’s population and over the next 50 years it is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. With its rapidly growing industry, competitive labour market, and English language being the most widely used language in the country, India has become an attractive marketplace for the outsourcing of the white-collar services and production from the USA and Europe.
“After the European centuries, from about 1500 to 1945, and the American century, from 1945 until some time in the first half of this one, the Asian century dawns on the horizon” writes Timothy Garton Ash in his article, Decadent Europe in the Guardian (June 9, 2005). And he quotes from his American colleague, Tom Friedman of the New York Times: “while Europe is trying to achieve the 35-hour week, India is inventing the 35-hour day”
Who pays for progress?
Yet India’s recent rapid development is not without costs. It is forcing its indigenous people and small farmers whose fields are drowned by the big governmental projects, such as for instance the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River, into slums of big cities. Their statutory rights to their land and adequate compensation, when resettled, are being undermined. Only the 'lucky' few get to work for companies who compete to make the best product at the cheapest prices, thus cutting corners on health, and safety, paying low wages, and enforcing long working hours.
The question, thus, "who pays for progress?" or "progress for whom?", put first on the agenda by Karl Marx in the 19th century, is taken up again by numerous activists and campaigners today, such as Medha Patkar or Vandana Shiva, who fight against injustice, inequality and exploitation of Indian workforce by huge multinational corporations in the process of globalisation. They argue that progress is not uniformly and unequivocally good for all members of society: what is good for some may be bad for others.
India’s water shortages or mismanagement
But how is India to cope with one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century: providing access to safe drinking water for its copious population? Or for that matter, clean water for irrigation, since India’s continuing high population growth will undoubtedly have consequences for food production in the country. And last but not least, how will India balance scientific and commercial priorities with a desire of its indigenous people to retain their cultures and traditions.
“Unlike European countries and elsewhere, 80 percent of the rain (red. in India), one will get over eight to ten days time. India can ill afford for this kind of potential to just run away and go to sea”. Thus goes the argument for big governmental projects such as the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River, articulated by no other than Jay Narayan Vyas, Minister for Narmada Affairs, Gujarat.
Yet as the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan, “Save the Narmada Movement”), argues hundreds of thousands of indigenous people and farmers are losing their land and livelihoods to large dams on the Narmada River. They are threatened to be drowned if they do not agree to be resettled. To many of them the resettlement means moving to the slums of big cities where they cannot afford clean water and food. Through hunger strikes and civil disobedience they challenge big governmental projects and search for alternatives to solve water shortages in India, such as cleaning up the rivers and preserving the natural water catchments and recycling of water. They argue that India’s biggest problem is not water shortages, but its mismanagement. And indeed, The World Bank supports their views, pointing out that:
“Drier countries than India have higher agricultural yields and more water available for drinking, sanitation and industry. India's policies practically guarantee mismanagement. In Punjab, India's breadbasket, price supports and free electricity encourage farmers to grow water-guzzling rice, oblivious of the threat to the soil's fertility. Half of India's villages have inadequate drinking water.
Water is virtually free to most consumers, but their rights are fuzzy. Groundwater belongs to the owner of the land on top of it; surface water is the property of the state, which is loth to charge consumers anything close to the price of supplying it. Bureaucracies are too poor and indifferent to administer it efficiently or fairly. India's canals lose 70% of the water they carry before it gets to the consumer. Under the constitution, water is mainly the business of the states, not the central government. Their quarrels are bitter.”
(The Economist, Aug 22nd 2002)
Thus, arguments about how to manage water resources in India get heated. As Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned Indian environmentalist, campaigner, and the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1993, said: “Water belongs to the people and the earth. It is a community resource, common property. Common property cannot become state property.”