Material World: India Goes Dry

The sun goes down on one of Bangalore’s diminishing lakes.

India, Asia’s third-largest economy, is facing perhaps the worst water crisis in its history, with millions of lives and livelihoods at risk. Indian temperature highs have been breaking all records. Overuse of rural groundwater is threatening food production and the country’s food security. The acute water shortage has devastated villagers’ agriculture. Major crops including maize, soya, cotton, sweet lime, pulses and groundnuts – drivers of local economies – have suffered, livestock left starving and thirsty. Scientists predict the region will experience harsher extreme weather events and water shortages. India’s water crisis is far from even-handed – the elite in the country remain relatively unaffected while the poor constantly try to cope with what water there is.

The struggle for water has intensified in many parts of India, where villages and cities have run out of water. Groundwater, the source of 40 percent of India’s water needs, is depleting at an unsustainable rate, Niti Aayog, a governmental think-tank, reported in 2018. Twenty-one Indian cities – including Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad – are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40 percent of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, the report said:

60% of nearly 17,000 groundwater wells monitored to check ground water level showed a decline compared to the average level of the last 10 years,’ said Kishore Chandra Naik, chairman of India’s Central Ground Water Board. ‘The decline is because of extraction, whatever may be the purpose for it.’

Bangalore, India’s ‘Silicon Valley’ hi-tech hub, is no longer a city of lakes. Bangalore, which had more than 260 lakes in 1960, now has about 80 – and most of those are ecologically dead. Bangalore’s population has more than doubled to about 12 million since 2001 and is predicted to hit 20 million by 2031. Bangalore’s groundwater is running dry. Unprepared, city authorities did not adequately plan for Bangalore’s growing water needs. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board can provide only about 60 percent of the city. Much of the shortage is met by private traders. But as well operators drill deeper and deeper to find water, the price per tank has tripled over the last 15 years.

Chennai needs 800 million litres of water a day to meet demand. At the moment, the government can provide only 675 million litres, according to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Its four major reservoirs have fallen drastically to one-hundredth of what they were at the same time last year. Chennai depends on more than 4,000 private water tankers for its everyday water needs, with every tanker making up to five trips a day. Altogether, the tankers deliver 200 million litres of water a day.

A worsening drought is amplifying the vast inequality between India’s rich and poor. In Delhi, India’s capital city of almost 20 million people, the wealthy in central Delhi pay very little to get limitless supplies of piped water – whether for their bathrooms, kitchens or to wash the car or water a lawn. They can do all that for as little as £8-£12 a month. Delhi’s privileged district gets about 375 litres of water per person per day but residents in lesser neighbourhoods receive on average only 40 litres. In one of the numerous slum areas or the sprawling housing estates on the outskirts, there is a daily struggle to get and pay for very limited supplies of water, which is delivered by tanker rather than piped. And the price is soaring as fast as the water is depleting.

The Delhi water board’s 1,033 tanker fleet is well short of the city’s requirements. Hundreds of private water tankers are operating. Most private tanker operators in Delhi either illegally pump out fast disappearing groundwater or steal the water from government supplies. In Delhi, nearly half of the supply from the Delhi water board either gets stolen with the connivance of lowly officials or simply escape from leaky pipes. The situation has given rise to a ‘water mafia’ where criminal gangs and corrupt politicians which have total control over who will get how much water in the city and practise price gouging. People totally dependent on tankers are saying they are being held to ransom.

Chennai’s highest court ruled that groundwater was the ‘backbone of India’s drinking water and irrigation system’ and companies extracting it for profit without permission were engaged in criminal ‘theft’

In village after village in Mumbai’s hinterland, the wells have run dry due to a persistent heatwave with estimates suggesting up to 90 percent of the region’s population has fled, leaving behind the sick and elderly to fend for themselves in the face of the water crisis. ‘

By the end of May, 43 percent of India was experiencing drought, with failed monsoon rains seen as the primary reason. With 80 percent of districts in Karnataka and 72 percent in Maharashtra hit by drought and crop failure, the 8 million farmers in these two states are struggling to survive. More than 6,000 tankers supply water to villages and hamlets in Maharashtra daily, as conflict brews between the two states over common water resources. About 20,000 villages in the state of Maharashtra are grappling with a crisis, where no water is left in 35 major dams. In 1,000 smaller dams, water levels are below 8 percent. The rivers that feed the dams have dried up.

The water crisis is worsening,’ admitted Shakespeare Arulanandam, a bottled water producer, ‘In the future we can only pray more fervently and hope for good rains to ensure there is enough water to go around. It will be up to the Gods.’

Together with our fellow socialists in the World Socialist Party (India), we urge our fellow-workers not to rely upon the divine. What is required is a change of social system where water is recognised as a natural resource to be shared fairly according to needs and, if a shortage means some form of rationing, it is done rationally and not reliant upon what people can pay.