India’s Water Crisis. Part 1. How did we get here?

(This first appeared in Firstpost on Aug 08, 2018:

India’s water crisis: Tracing the country’s history of water management and crucial, destructive shifts in policy

This past week, I, like many parents across the country, was revising history with my son for his test, which happened to be on the kingdom of Mesopotamia. More than 5000 years ago, the kingdom came into being on the lower reaches of the Euphrates river. The river carried and deposited rich silt deposits there, which allowed farmers to grow more than what they could consume.

Euphrates River by Dura-Europus, Syria. (V)
River Euphrates/ Image Source: Flickr/Institute for the Study of the Ancient World

Farmers then sold their surplus produce for “stuff”, sowing the seeds for growth, innovation, and finally, civilization. The link between water and society goes back all the way to the dawn of human civilization. But alas, the Mesopotamian kingdom died, my son’s textbook says, because the river Euphrates changed course and they ran out water, and the desert sands swallowed them up. Civilization, it appears, cannot exist without plentiful and readily available water.

The opening line of the Executive Summary of the Niti Aayog ‘Composite Water Management Index’ states, ‘India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat.’ While we will, in the course of this mini-series delve into the report, and what it does, the impact of climate and what we can do, we first need to understand what brought us here. To this place, where farmers lose income and yield because of the lack of water, and millions of urban Indians live in a ‘Day Zero’ of sorts – planning their lives and home trying to get and squeeze out the last drop of utility out of water.

Ancient India

Indians rightly point out they have had a rich history of managing water. While India has three major sources of water – the rain, the ice and snow in the mountains, and groundwater, rain in India has never been an everyday thing. As the World Bank puts it: India has a ‘highly seasonal pattern of rainfall’, with ‘50 percent of precipitation falls in just 15 days and 90 percent of river flows occur in just four months’. This means water management has been, more than in other places, central to the functioning of Indian civilizations. Our ancestors have learned to eke out the water that was given by the monsoons over the remaining dry months in the year. The exposed brickwork of the surviving sites of the Indus Valley Civilization act as mute witnesses to their expertise, as do the tanks, the step wells and the Kallanai or Grant Anicut that the Cholas built around 1800 years ago.

Adalaj Stepwell, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, Picture by Author
Ruins of Lothal, Indus Valley Civilization; Picture by Author.

Underlying the water management of ancient India was the belief that water was a communal, and might I add, non-free resource to be managed by the community for the well-being of all. Chanakya clearly states that water belongs to the kingdom, and users had to pay a water rate or tax to use water from irrigation systems. Moreover, by charging a higher proportion of the crop as tax when using mechanical or civil means to draw water (as opposed to manually drawing it), such a water tax or price was progressive.

Many of the water management structures, like the system of tanks or eris in Tamil Nadu, were social in nature, depending on strong community rights married with strong community responsibilities, with the king or the ruler enforcing rules. Groundwater remained out of reach, so communities had to design their infrastructure and water use around the naturally occurring patterns of rain. This lead to storage systems like the Johad that captured seasonal rainfall and stored it in underground aquifers. Forests too formed an essential part of ancient India’s water infrastructure.

Water, Forest, community interdependence worked in hand in hand and allowed multiple civilizations to flourish in India.

What happened to break this equilibrium?

 Disruption#1: Philosophy

Many of the seeds of the current crisis were sown during the British colonization of India. Let us start with the philosophical disruption first. The British replaced dispersed, decentralized water management with a more centralized, authority-driven water management with maintenance falling to the Public Works Department, or the PWD. Importantly, such a change meant that people gave up the responsibility of managing canals and the rights to the water they provided, and instead saw water as a dole given by the powers that be – then the British, now the elected officials, or the bureaucracy. Keep this in mind – this will become important later. Also, this usurping of responsibility by the PWD was not necessarily a positive thing: The fascinating report of Dr. A.J. Voelcker, a chemist who was tasked by the British government to tour India and suggest agricultural improvements, states that, even in the 1890s, farmers from Madurai complained of the delay in getting their tanks repaired by the PWD!

Image result for Farming in British India
The change in agricultural policy coupled with climate changes led to a series of famines. Figure source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second important philosophical legacy of the British was the Common law principle that held the root of a landowner owning all water resources held under his land. This set the stage for the groundwater revolution that came decades later.

Disruption#2: Topography

The British altered, in no uncertain terms, the topography of India. While we can further divide this alteration into two pieces: deforestation and grand water infrastructure building, both have a common underlying philosophy. Depending on your own inclinations (and where you fall in the right/left spectrum), you could call this large scale modification of a nation you had just come to as either (a) precipitate action that emanated from an incomplete understanding of the ecosystem services provided by forests and riverine systems or (b) overwhelming hubris of a conqueror subjugating Nature to serve the will of Man.

Let us tackle deforestation first. Indian forests provided the building blocks of the Indian railway to cart resources from the hinterland to the ports, and thence to export and add to the might of the British empire. Clearing forests gave coal and timber – so important in the British scheme of things – as well as created new lands (with new revenue). Entire forests, made up of thousands of trees were cleared to provide deodar, sal and teak to build sleepers for the Indian railway, and for firewood. The real tragedy was that in older, richer, mixed forests, the commercially exploitable species accounted for less than 10% of the crop, and vast tracts of forest, and forest produce were wasted.

Hunting in the Raj. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Samuel Howitt

In Punjab alone, the hill forests that peppered the Chenab and Ravi valleys were nearly exhausted, causing the creation of reserved forests – not just for the sake of the environment, but to more sustainably serve the needs of the railways.

But by reserving forest, the British again broke the link between the forest (or natural infrastructure) and the community. Many tribes considered the forest as their homes. At that time, their lifestyle was consonant with the active functioning of the forests, and tribal groups saw the “reserves” as an intolerable intrusion into their way of life. This often led to uprisings, and the creation of a reserve was the final grievance that led Bhumkal rebellion of 1910.

Deforestation damaged water collecting infrastructure like the Johads, which silted up when the tree roots that held soil in place were removed. Also, forests were the origin of many peninsular rivers and supplemented the flow of larger rivers in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Thus, the clearing of forests set the stage for water shortages. The Government knew about the link between trees and water, even trees and climate, especially rainfall. As Dr Voelcker writes,

“Previous to 1870, Ootacamund and its neighbourhood were nearly bare of trees, so much so that a photograph taken about that time has no resemblance whatever to the now thickly-wooded Station, … The returns show that, taking first the rainfall for the months of March, April, and May (when the rains are purely local), there were, during the five years 1870-4, 121 rainy days in all, while in the same months of the five years 1886-90 (by which time the” Station had become fully wooded) there were no less than 147 rainy days.”


Not only did the number of rainy days go up when there were more trees. So, did the quantum of rainfall.


 “Also, the increase of rainfall for these months during the period 1886-90 has been about three inches a year, a not inconsiderable difference, though, from an agricultural point of view, the distribution of rain over a greater number of days is more important than a mere increase of rainfall.”


But the then-Government did not heed the words of its own expert. More forests were cleared for the two world wars – with 228076 tonnes of timber (apart from railway sleepers) being supplied in 1917-18.

Barges waiting to leave the dock, British India, 1870s; Image Source: Wikimedia Commons


The second way in which the British altered the topography was in large-scale canal building. Some like the system of canals built in erstwhile Punjab (now in Pakistan) were wonderfully successful in improving crop productivity in previously dry districts. In other cases, interventions did not pay sufficient heed to local conditions, and left the farmers (especially in terms of soil quality) worse off.

To blame the British alone would be unhelpful in crafting future solutions, because it gives an incomplete picture of what brought us to the sorry mess. Because both deforestation and canal building were carried forward with gusto post-Independence. Forests were felled to make way and feed industries and to create space for grazing and crops as populations rose. In an increasingly land-scarce India, forest lands were the lowest hanging fruit for development or re-allotment. Early India was also fascinated with giant engineering programmes, especially with the “temples of modern India” – the dams. These, however, did not work as they were supposed to for many reasons, including delays in construction and corruption.

The topographical changes made India more vulnerable to what, in my mind, was the biggest disruptor of all: technology.

Disruption#3: Technology

The discovery of Penicillin, and the importance of sterile technique in operations and in infancy, and the widespread adoption of vaccines caused India’s population to rise.

Population Growth India

Figure 3: Annual Population Growth and growth rate (as per Indian census)

India added nearly 10 million people a year to its population between 1951 and 1971 (See Figure 3).With the Bengal Famine not erased from the memory of the decision makers, the powers that be decided India needed to stock grain to guard against famine. Why was wheat chosen as the grain of choice as opposed to say millets, which many of the farmers in drier regions of the country were used to?

Was it because of the PL (Public Law) 480 programme of the US, which made wheat so readily available? Or was it a colonial hangover, where the Punjab had become the break basket of the Empire?

In any case, the grain came as wheat from the United States, as part of the PL 480 programme in the US – a scheme by which America would sell its grain to friendly developing countries and allow them to pay for it in their own currencies. Called ‘Food for Peace’, it was a programme that married international diplomacy with a great sales programme for America’s surplus grain. But this cosy agreement went sour in 1965/66, after the India-Pakistan war and when India dared to criticize the US actions in Vietnam. India had just gone through two droughts and needed the grain desperately. The U.S., however, played hardball – demanding payment in US dollars, tightening supply windows, and asking for other concessions in lieu of wheat. India literally lived “ship to mouth”. Finally, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, had to plead for the grain to be released.

Indian agriculture had been dozing, lulled to slumber by soothing imports of American wheat. But the 1966 experience set the stage for the Green Revolution, which improved crop yields by using improved seeds, manufactured fertilizers, and a regular application of water to irrigate the fields.

Rice fields Punjab. Figure source: Wikimedia Commons. By Sanyam Bahga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Higher yields were impossible without regular and predictable watering. India’s poorly designed, poorly maintained canal systems that often failed to follow good practises (like ensuring tailend farmers got water first), looked far better on paper than from the point of view of the smallest farmer. The loss of forests and the poor maintenance of tanks made tank-based irrigation systems less attractive. So, farmers turned to the tube well.

The tube well appeared as the saviour to the individual farmer – ready to

Tube well; Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/Tesh Tesh

give water at a flip of a switch (if you were lucky enough to get a connection). Groundwater appeared to be a vast, seemingly inexhaustible resource of water, just waiting to be tapped. The sheer convenience, and the cost-benefit logic made groundwater irrigation the leading source of irrigation in Indian agriculture.

Irrigated area by source

Net Irrigated Area by source (Directorate of Economics & Statistics, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India)

Disruption#4: Politics

The technology of the tube well was helped by the politicians, who discovered a new political lever. Many states, such as Uttar Pradesh, provided direct subsidy for borewell pumps, while many others provided free electricity to run the pumps. Politicians have discovered that giving “free” water by providing free electricity to run pump sets (while also being lax in collecting irrigation charges) was a wonderful electoral gambit. Farmers, long conditioned to expect water as a dole, complied and voted those who gave the biggest doles to power. Water gotten so cheaply was wasted, and the state electricity boards made thousands of crores in losses as a direct result of this. And groundwater, our insurance against drought, is being frittered away. This is important, as the experiences of Punjab and Tamil Nadu show, the genie of free electricity can’t be put back (easily at least) into the lamp, even when the groundwater is running out.

Finally, the government role in influencing the crop choice of an individual farmer has deep implications on the country’s water resources. In the 19th century, most farmers practised multi-cropping, but that changed when the Empire needed wheat for its daily bread, and cotton for the mills that were sprouting up. The monocropping practise continued even after India became independent. Crop choice became narrower after the 1966 Food crisis, which led to formation of the Food Corporation of India and which was tasked to buy two crops – rice and wheat – at remunerative prices. Now, put yourself in the shoes of a Punjab farmer – when you have patient hand-holding by the Punjab university in the best strains to grow and the best practises to follow for wheat and rice, ready procurement of wheat and rice at good prices, free electricity to run the pumps – why go for multi-cropping and try to save water and care about soil quality (when you get subsidized fertilizer as well)?

Moving to the present

  1. Why care?

Because the history provides a useful lens through which to view the suggestions in solving our present water crisis. An area of concern is the world view: Indians have been conditioned for over a century to see water as an entitlement – not something for them to manage and have rights and responsibilities for, but as something that will be ‘doled’ out by rulers.

Another thing history teaches us is that if we want to move to a more water safe future, we will need to shift our equilibrium – which means moving multiple pieces at once– forests, water management, crop procurement, electricity pricing and so on. To any politician, changing any one of these things looks like political suicide. Unless Indian voters understand that we vote for unpopular measures like pricing electricity and setting aside inviolate land (from any special interest – tribal or industrial) for forests, our water future is likely to be insecure.

But the Niti Aayog report highlighted the dire water situation in Indian cities. Accordingly, next time, we will focus on the history of water in cities.



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