The curious case of Delhi – water-starved but unwilling to vote for water governance

What is the appropriate time and the appropriate scale at which to deal with water issues in a democracy?

A Question of Scale

Let’s start with scale first.

If it is to do with provision (and division) of waters – the answer is to deal with it at high a level as relevant.

Consider Delhi as a case in point. The Niti Aayog ‘Composite Water Management Index’ stated that:

India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat.’

The report went onto say that several Indian cities were likely to run out of groundwater in the next decade. Like throwing a lit match into the smouldering embers, an author of a more recent study reinforced this message.  Dr Virendra M Tiwari, Director of the National Geophysical Research Institute, whose institute conducted this study, was quoted as saying

We have no clue how much ground water storage is left in the region. But what we clearly know is that the picture is very grim.”.

Figure 1: Grace Satellite based representation of groundwater loss; Figure courtesy Dr Virendra Tiwari

Delhi’s Jal Board supplies about 900 Million Gallons per day. Where does this water come from? From the Yamuna, the Ganga, from the Bhakra storage, from the ground and a tiny bit from recycled water. Let’s take the Yamuna, which supplies the largest chunk of Delhi’s water. The control of these waters lies with Haryana – giving the power to quenching Delhi’s thirst to Haryana, especially during the lean (and critical) summer months.

Haryana periodically flexes its hydrological muscles, most notably during the Jat protests of 2016. These protests came about because members of the Jat community demanded quotas for jobs and education. In February 2016, protestors held  the Munak canal to hostage significantly reducing Delhi’s water supply. A panicked Delhi Chief Minister took to twitter, tweeting,

Spoke to Rajnath ji also and apprised him of grave situation. He has assured that army is being sent to munak canal”,

Spoke to Haryana CM. He has assured that he will immediately send army to ensure safety of munak canal”,

and later,

We’ve completely run out of water. I appeal to the centre with folded hands to immediately intervene and get munak canal started in Haryana

Image from Wikimedia

These 139 characters speak volumes of what is wrong with water management in India today. The army was sent in to take control, which it did, post which waters were released to the Nation’s capital. The Delhi CM tweeted,

Thank u army, thank u centre for securing munak canal back. Great relief for delhi

The two states – upstream and downstream – continue to bicker about the actual quantity and  quality of supplied water. More recently, the Delhi Jal Board has dropped its cases against Haryana to ensure water supplies continued in the lean season. Haryana, in turn, squabbles with Punjab over its share of water in a case over Punjab’s termination of water-sharing agreements with other states that has gone to the Supreme Court. Several Northern states look hungrily at the Indus Water Basin, whose waters primarily flow into Pakistan.

Clearly, when it comes to provision, especially when while dividing river waters which are shared by many states (and even countries), the national scale maybe more appropriate.

But wait a minute. Is this the full story?

Haryana, for its part, said

300 cusecs of water supplied by Haryana to Delhi is being wasted by Delhi due to leakage and pilferage” in an affidavit to the Delhi High Court. Haryana is not alone in making this accusation – other studies have placed Delhi’s water loss to about 40%. Lack of metering, faulty meters, theft, leaks due to aging, rusty and creaky water infrastructure all contribute to this sorry state. For that matter, Delhi is not alone in losing a large chunk of its water to theft and leaks – most cities in India share this dubious honour. Fixing leaks and theft comes firmly under the head of “management” (as opposed to provision), which is best performed by local governments.

Image from Flickr/Andrew Hart

Delhi’s groundwater crisis also owes some share to the 200 MGD of groundwater being drawn by private sources – controlling and optimizing this extraction and use is again a local issue.

Meanwhile, Delhi generates a fair bit of sewage, which appropriately treated can easily meet some part of its water needs – flushing and landscaping to name just two. This is already being done at scale in the peripheries of many Indian cities, especially Bengaluru.

This maybe the approach that finally cracks Delhi’s water problems too. Seen purely in the present, the division of waters looks to be a topic for national or legal arbitration. But we make policies not just for the present – in the future, as water grows more scarce, upstream geographies will become increasingly reluctant to loosen their grip over the waters that originate and pass through their boundaries – in this situation, management will progressively assume greater importance in the hydrological toolkit than it has now. Conversely, the more we lean on provision (i.e., a greater share in the Indus System waters, for instance), the less motivation we will have to manage our water. But it is important to note that because sewage and leakage are both something entirely within a single government’s control, it does not need an external government to be part of the solution. In that sense, it is more feasible.

So why aren’t voters saying they will vote for the politician who cuts leakage? But management is poorly suited to politics, because of one word – timescale.

A Question of Time

For the average Indian, income is highly uncertain. Consider the case of residents of informal settlements in the cities. Many of these residents have a patchwork of jobs — they are our auto drivers, waste pickers, household staff, cobblers, part-time tailors, petty shopkeepers. They are, in fact, what makes Indian cities tick. But their incomes are far from predictable — if there is a puncture, that’s an hour’s income gone for the auto driver, a sick child means a day’s income lost for a maid, a customer may not pay, or a chance accident could ruin the stock. Their expenses, on the other hand, are fixed — rent, school supplies, medical bills, alcohol, food. Expensive credit wedges the gap between precarious cash inflow and steady cash outflow.

Apart from a fickle income, there are other forms of uncertainty. Imbibing poor quality water, air and food, health becomes uncertain. Even with an electrical connection, whether or not power flows is uncertain. The quantity and timing of water availability is uncertain. Whether a teacher will come to class on a given day to teach one’s child is uncertain. All this uncertainty translates to a sky-high discount rate applied to future cash flows promised by today’s investments.

Now, tell me, if your cost of credit varied between 50 and100 percent, how long would your outlook horizon be? A week? Maybe two. The uncertainty of the lives of our main voters dictates their short term outlook, and may help explain why we are a more transactional society. Where choices are made favouring the immediate rather than the long term and on upfront cost and timing, rather than value of life-cycle impact. This explains why poorer voters prefer to vote for someone who gives them ready cash, or to someone from their own caste, who they can more reliably approach when something predictably goes wrong. To wit, the cash seizure in Tamil Nadu as of 19th April (the day it voted), was over Rs. 200 crores, a third of overall cash seized in India. Nearly Rs. 300 crores of precious metals were seized as well. If this argument is true (and my suspicion is that it is), this hammers the nail on water management, because water management works best when you apply a low discount rate, so that future gains compare meaningfully with current costs. But if those that are most affected by lack of water do not care to vote for its proper management, the future looks bleak.

Is this the end of the story? Let it be? No, but it does help explain the present political impotency of water. In the next column, we will consider how we can alter this equilibrium.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s