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Rajasthan Heading Towards Water Famine

By Devinder Sharma

26 May, 2010

Rajasthan is faced with an unprecedented water crisis. For over several years now, Rajasthan was drying up. With successive chief ministers busy inviting investments – to open up malls, hotels, water parks, real estate projects, special economic zones, golf courses -- the semi-arid lands of the Thar deserts have been sucked dry.

Rajasthan is in reality heading towards a water famine.

I do not know the yardstick that determines whether the state is faced with a famine-like situation or not but the fact remains that water trains and water tankers are quenching the thirst in all 33 districts. Reports say that daily supply of water through water trains is meeting the drinking water requirement of Bhilwara and Pali districts. In addition, water tankers are catering to the needs of 77 cities/towns and 15,287 villages.

This is certainly an alarming situation. But it did not happen overnight. In 2009 also, water trains and tankers were pressed in to service to meet the requirement of 10,918 villages and towns. In fact, with each passing year the water crisis is worsening.

A train leaves every day from Kota to Bhilwara with water, and another train departs for Sojat block in Pali district. There is a proposal to add another water train carrying 14.40 lakh litres of water every day for Bhilwara district. The crisis has reached such an ebbing point that all officials concerned with water supplies have been asked to be back on duty, and the state government is monitoring water supply situation every week.

I am aware that monsoon rains have been playing truant for quite some time. But this is not the first time in history when rain gods have not been so kind to people living in Rajasthan. Yes, history tells us that Rajasthan was never faced a water famine like situation that it is passing through now. And that too at a time when Rajasthan has given the country two well-known water warriors – Rajender Singh and Lachchman Singh.

Some time back my friend Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi wrote an excellent book “Aaj bhi khare hain talaab”. The book is based on the remarkable water harvesting and traditional water conserving structures that Rajasthan provided. The book has been best-seller for several years, and is being referred to globally. But unfortunately, successive governments and the policy makers in Rajasthan never made an effort to read the book, and instead travelled to Israel to learn about drip-irrigation.

The water crisis that Rajasthan is faced with is in many ways a man-made crisis. I have always been saying that blame for water crisis is 30 per cent on the truant monsoon, and the remaining 70 per cent is man-made. We are primarily responsible for accentuating drought conditions because of the relentless water mining that we have indulged in merrily over the years. But have we learnt any lessons? Are we willing to make necessary corrections howsoever radical they may be? The answer is NO.

I do not understand why a dry state like Rajasthan encourages golf courses. Each 18-hole golf course daily consumes water equivalent to the needs of about 20,000 households. Each supermarket mall that is being built, consume on an average 1,000 litres of water per person who comes to shop. Each five-star hotel consumes another 600 litres per person per day. The worst are the real estate projects. They literally mine water.

What is the use of saving water in the parched and arid lands of Rajasthan if we allow the marble industry, producing almost 91 per cent of total marble in India, to guzzle every hour around 2.75 million litres of water. No wonder the majestic lakes of Rajasthan have all gone dry.

It doesn’t end here. I have never fathomed the wisdom of allowing sugarcane and cotton to be cultivated in the semi-arid regions. To make it much worse, water-guzzling cut flowers and jetropha cultivation is being promoted. We need to know that sugarcane for instance requires three times more water than wheat and rice put together. Common sense tells us that we should be cultivating crops which require less water in the dry lands. Why can’t Rajasthan cultivate mustard, jower and bajra on a large scale, and also take to pulses. All these crops require very less water.

To make its economics workable, Rajasthan must adopt an agricultural policy that lays emphasis and provides assured market for these coarse cereals and pulses. It needs to redesign the price structures in such a way that farmers do not lose out when they cultivate pulses and crops like jower and bajra. In fact, Rajasthan can easily turn into a pulse bowl of the country, meeting the shortfall that the country faces continuously in cases of pulses.

At the same time, I am shocked to learn that that agricultural universities in Rajasthan actually promote the cultivation of hybrid crops -- hybrid rice, hybrid sorghum, hybrid maize, hybrid cotton and hybrid vegetables -- which require almost 1.5 times to 2 times more water than the high-yielding varieties. On top of it the government is now busy pushing Bt cotton, whose water requirement is 10-20 per cent more than even the hybrid varieties of cotton.

You can ignore these suggestions at your peril. Don’t forget, a recent report by NASA has already warned that Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are consuming 109 cubic kms of water in six years. NASA finds that the groundwater withdrawal is 70 per cent more in this decade than in the 1990s. At this rate, Rajasthan would be the worst affected. It already is.

If Rajasthan does not wake up now, the time is not far away when there will be mass exodus from within the state. People will be left with no alternative but to migrate. Let us not forget, Mohenjo daro civilisation collapsed not very far away from where Rajasthan is today.