It's raining GDP

This is the fortnight of India’s budget. Pink and white papers scurry around for comments on what the finance minister will do for India’s economy, completely missing the bigger questions. What will happen if the Indian monsoon fails—or fails in the critical period when farmers sow the kharif crop? What will happen if reservoirs—holding water for drinking or electricity—do not get their supply from the sky? Will we have water to drink in cities? Will we have water and power to operate industries? And, most critically, will we grow food for the next season, to build stocks, run our food support programmes for the very poor?

The monsoon is the true finance minister of this country. So, the economic present is not about disinvestment—to do or not to do—but about water and livelihood security. Indications are grim. The monsoon is more variable this year than before. Even if it pours in the next few months, and the rainman’s calculator shows normal or near-normal rainfall, it does not mean there was rain when and where needed. The variability is leading to a bizarre situation today: Mumbai, for instance, is drowning in rain, and gasping for water, because its reservoirs—located some distance away—have not got any rain. The city will need to ration its water if the situation does not get better, fast. At the same time, rain events are also getting more extreme—it only pours—leading to floods and devastation. Not good. Not good at all.

Is this change in our monsoon because of climate change? Nobody can say yes, or no. But weather scientists agree something is definitely afoot. Indian monsoons have always been unpredictable and variable. And yet, after years of study and investment in improving our science and instruments of prediction, the variability is growing, and prediction becoming more impossible. Now join the dots. Models predict the impact of climate change will be seen in terms of increased sub-regional variations and more extreme rain events. This is what we are beginning to see: more rain, in lesser rainy days. In a country which already gets rain for less than 100 hours in a year (a year has 8760 hours), this is disastrous.

It is this change that must be simulated, for the future. Our need and thirst for water are growing exponentially. We forget we cannot develop our economy without water. Just consider: in the western rich world, the bulk of water—roughly 80 per cent—is consumed in cities and by industries. But it works for them: the same proportion of people live in cities. Water has moved with the people and the economy.

Now consider where we are: the bulk of India lives in villages, where water drives agriculture and local economies. But cities and industries are growing and need more water. Yet, since people have not moved in the same proportion, the water need has to be shared—between old users and emerging ones. It is no surprise cities, with their powerful constituencies, are pulling water away from what remains a diffused constituency in rural areas. Today, most cities get their water from dams, lakes and groundwater aquifers located further and further away. This ‘appropriation’ is leading to tension, indeed war, in many cases. These skirmishes will grow as the stress grows.

So there are two distinct features to our water-present. One, variability in rainfall has increased, making it difficult to predict or plan for. Two, our water need (and greed) has increased. In this situation, we are literally on the edge of water-stress. Today, most of the country does not have the capacity to withstand delay in the monsoon, let alone one year of near-drought. We cannot cope with the change that is afoot. Unless we do things differently.

Are we getting the future right? Let’s take the budget 2009 speech. The finance minister has, it can be argued, provided for a water-insecure world. He has substantially increased allocation for the irrigation sector, for water and sewage provisioning in cities (through the urban mission) and for rural areas (through hugely hiked funds for the employment guarantee programme). The money for drinking water is also not small—this year, allocation has increased to over Rs 9,000 crore.

But all this is still a zero-sum game. The more money is allocated, even spent, the more thirst increases. Say the government identifies 100,000 villagers have a shortage of drinking water. Funds are sourced, spent. But does the problem go away? No. The next survey finds 100,000 villages not yet ‘reached’. Villages are reached but not supplied; the water source is now contaminated; the tubewell has dried up.

The situation is no different in spending on irrigation systems, where capacity already created is lying wasted because canals or other systems are hardly maintained. In fact, even as government after government has spent money in building large water irrigation systems, people have moved away to use the resource they can depend upon—groundwater. Today, not only does the bulk of Indian agriculture remain rainfed—now, on increasingly variable rainfall—but also it depends on groundwater, not surface water. This is where the budget stings: while allocation for surface irrigation has gone up, groundwater remains ‘minor irrigation’ and has got less money. There are over 19 million groundwater wells and tubewells in the country. This resource, over-used and over-extracted, provides a distributed water system in the country. The question is if rain is distributed, why can’t recharge be distributed as well?

Let us be clear: we have a water emergency. Much more needs to be done to secure our water for the future. But what? Next fortnight, no rain or rain.

—Sunita Narain