Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The big thirst

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Marathwada’s worst-hit district, Beed, reports the highest number of farmers’ suicides, with women and children bearing the brunt – of the 336 million hit by the drought nationwide, 164 million are children according to official statistics

Column in Business Standard, May 6, 2016

Several snapshots in recent days sum up the desperation of a parched nation. The worst is a widely-denounced photograph of Pankaja Munde, Maharashtra’s rural development and water conservation minister and daughter of the late BJP heavyweight Gopinath Munde. She is standing in what looks like a dry canal in Latur, a district where human life and livestock is severely endangered from acute water shortage. Flanked by hangers-on, with a fleet of air conditioned cars in the background, Ms Munde is smiling into her smartphone and taking a selfie. The selfie – as made fashionable by film, sports or political stars like Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is the self-adoring image of instant gratification. When no doting fan or fool is available you can celebrate the Cult of the Self by clicking away in abandon.

Pankaja Munde’s ominous shocker has come to symbolise the callousness of the politicians to a man-made crisis. The BJP government’s ally-turned-adversary in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena, has cause to turn up the heat. Going hell for leather with regular exposes of the Devendra Fadnavis government – “In parched Latur 1,000 litres of water for minister’s helipad,” reads a headline in a party mouthpiece – the Shiv Sena is suddenly the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Marathwada’s worst-hit district, Beed, reports the highest number of farmers’ suicides, with women and children bearing the brunt – of the 336 million hit by the drought nationwide, 164 million are children according to official statistics. Intensifying climate changes or the vagaries of El Niño aren’t altogether to blame. Politically-backed water mafias siphoning off relief supplies from tankers trains have deepened the crisis.

In Parliament the debate on drought can descend into farce. BJD MP Rabindra Kumar Jena from Odisha popped up in the Lok Sabha this week to complain that the worst effect of water shortage in his constituency, Balasore, was that boys were unable to find suitable brides to marry. He was outshouted by members who told him to shut his trap and sit down.

It is not as if solutions to slake the big thirst are unknown or unavailable. There are hundreds of remarkable stories of non-profits, big and small, in far flung villages and in big metros, that contrast the disgrace and flippancy of elected representatives like Pankaja Munde and Rabindra Jena.

Among the best-known is 56-year-old Rajendra Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh who has saved a thousand villages in the arid Alwar district of Rajasthan from chronic drought. Known as the “Water Man of India” and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize and Magsaysay award, Mr Singh has revived the traditional technique of johad to create rainwater storage tanks and check dams. These are inexpensive low-level banks of earth that allow water to seep into the ground for future use, replenishing aquifers sucked dry by borewells. “This is the century of exploitation, pollution and encroachment. To stop all this, to convert the war on water into peace, that is my life’s goal,” he said not long ago.

Such idealists are to be found everywhere. I accidentally found one recent success story in my densely packed urban backyard. While researching a piece on the crisis in the real estate industry, I took a tour of expensive Vasant Vihar in south Delhi where scores of luxury apartments in four-storeyed palaces are languishing for want of buyers or tenants. Vasant Vihar may be tony but it is stony. Built on hard rock it is without natural water resources; its well-heeled residents mainly rely on private tanker supplies. But unlike poor village women who trek many kilometres for a few pots, the memsahibs of Vasant Vihar flip open their designer handbags to throw thousands of rupees each week to water their lush roof gardens and green boundaries. As temperatures soar and usage escalates, their purses begin to painfully thin out.

To cut costs and assuage their conscience they now turn to Edible Routes, an NGO established by Kapil Mandawewala, a young ex-farmer from Jamnagar in Gujarat. For a fee, his non-profit will teach builders, plumbers and homeowners how to save and recycle “grey water” and grow crops of vegetables and herbs in any space, from tiny balconies to terraces. In Gurgaon’s high-rises, school compounds and Delhi’s community centres, Edible Routes is a hit. I asked Fazal Rashid who works there, if government, the capital’s biggest property owner, with hundreds of acres of offices and housing colonies, could be a potential client. “We were summoned to Krishi Bhavan once,” the 26-year-old confessed. “Agriculture ministry officials were very curious. They asked us to produce a 70-hour training module on how we work. We explained that our website and phones was swamped with public demand. We didn’t have the time to produce 70-hour modules!”

“The conversation,” Mr Rashid noted with audible relief, “died right there.”

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