March 27, 2022

Water a Right not just a Need

Tikender Singh Panwar

Watersheds come in families; nested levels of intimacy. On the grandest scale, the hydrologic web is like all humanity ----- Serbs, Russians, Koyukon Indians, Amish, the billion lives in the People’s Republic of China-----its broadly troubled, but it’s hard to know how to help. As you work upstream toward home, you’re more closely related. The big river is like your nation, a little out of hand. The lake is your cousin. The creek is your sister. The pond is her child. And, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, you’re married to your sink.

                                                          --Michael Parfit, National Geographic

IT is clear, the world is running out of fresh water, thanks to the unsustainable model of development over the last few decades that has not just induced irreversible changes in climate change; but this model has also brought out an existential crisis.

 The normal cycles of nature have been disrupted by climate change and massive abuse of water systems across the globe. Most of the governments are abdicating their responsibility of protecting and conserving water systems, rather is handing over the management to the private sector. But this corporate control over water is a threat to the wellbeing of humans.


‘Ground water: making the invisible visible’ is the theme for the year 2022 World Water Day on March 22. The UN has called for enhancing knowledge exchange and collaboration and thereby increasing awareness of the importance of taking care of ground water.

Why groundwater is important? It is important because 50 per cent of all drinking water worldwide is from groundwater; 40 per cent of water for all agriculture irrigation, and 33 per cent of total water required for the industry comes from ground water.

There are finite supplies of fresh water. Assumptions that humanity would never run out of fresh water is inherently false. Available fresh water amounts to less than one half of one per cent of all the water on earth. The rest is sea water, frozen in the polar ice, etc.


The relationship with water and ecosystems that sustain it must change, the sooner the better. Groundwater plays an important role in sustaining ecosystems and enabling human adaptation to climate variability and change.


Ground water is the major source of water supply in many cities around the world including most of the Indian cities.

India has 18 per cent of the world’s population but only 4 per cent of its water resources. This is one of the most water-stressed nations in the world.

Come summers and water in some of the Indian cities become a commodity ‘as precious as gold’, terms a World Bank report in one of its columns on water. Indeed, it does but the solutions offered by either the multilateral agencies lay their basis on further commoditising water and alienating the people further.

Whether water is a right or a need is a question that requires considerable attention. The advocates of private control over water- the ‘Washington Consensus’ - terms water as a need and not a right. The need can be fulfilled either by the State apparatus or by a private entity. The difference is that in the former (right) the citizens accrue a right from the State, whereas in the latter it is just a matter of demand and supply.

Unfortunately, the Indian government also follows the same dictum of water being a need, though not that explicitly, and much propagated Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is an outcome of such fault lines.

The Indian story is also quite worrisome. According to a report in India Today, 30 Indian cities will face a grave water crisis and may eventually run out of water altogether. 40 per cent in Indian cities and 31 per cent urban households, most in unauthorised colonies, do not have piped water connections. According to a CSE study, 48 per cent of India’s urban water supply is dependent on groundwater and in seven of the 10 most populous cities the ground water has gone low significantly over the past decades. According to the NITI Aayog, nearly 70 per cent of India’s water is contaminated. This is the reality of India and particularly urban centres.

The JJM dashboard exhibited that out of 18.93 crore households in 2019, only 3.23 crore(17 per cent) had piped water connections. This was after five years of Modi rule. The JJM works on the principles adopted from the Telangana model of Bhagiratha. Both Bhagiratha and JJM have salient features that are very appealing. Both talk about water to every household, women getting rid of the drudgery of carrying water etc. However, both underlie the strong presence of the private sector in the water supply and distribution system.

The fancy words like reducing ‘non-revenue water’ sound very good but the fact is that the NRW should mean checking leakages and loss during supply and distribution. This loss should not be linked to the user charges on water. Both the models push for such user charges by mounting the burden on the people.

In a recent report in Dainik Bhaskar, Rs 1.8 lakh crore is the water business in India through bottled water. According to Trade Promotion Council of India this business will reach Rs 4.5 lakh crore by 2023. Nearly 35 billion litres of water is bought and consumed in bottled form. Adding to it, the business done by water purifiers, the total money usurped from the people runs into billions of rupees. The State which ought to be treating water as ‘use value’ in the interests of the people,now treats it as ‘exchange value’, thus commoditising it and allowing large water companies to make profits.


In India, especially in the urban centres, governance or management of water is a key to ensuring the protection of aquifers, ecosystems and providing an adequate quantity of potable water. Why is it that a metropolitan city like Delhi should destroy the forests of Sirmour district in Himachal Pradesh by constructing a dam(Renuka Dam) and then supplying water to the city which is hundreds of kilometres far away? Just imagine the capital cost of such a project followed by its operation and maintenance.

Why should not cities be made to harvest water as a normal exercise? The government institutions and buildings occupy most part of the spatial land, why should it not be mandatory for them to ensure zero water usage. The models of city development are faulty. Most of the cities and their fresh water bodies, bauris, springs have been contaminated and once that is done then the cities because of their influence poach on the peripheries and then further to the rural hinterland. This is an unsustainable model. Gurgaon and the national capital region of Delhi are vibrant examples of such a disaster. Not only their own water bodies(urban commons) were usurped for the greed of real estate development, they were also contaminated in due course of time. Most of the smaller fresh water ponds, rivulets etc., have become open spaces of raw sewage.

The second issue in governance is the parastatals running the show in alliance with large corporations who through their consultants enter the cities and design water supply and sewage schemes in such a way that after some time they just give up. Instead of designing schemes in consultation with the people, these schemes are designed with high tech capital cost which in the long run becomes unsustainable.

Take for example the water supply scheme designed in Leh town.

This flows from my personal interactions with the water officials of Leh; despite our repeated interventions that the water supply scheme should be designed in such a way that people form the bedrock of consultations. But instead, the scheme has been designed by professionals without taking people’s wisdom and voice into consideration. The town has constructed a water supply scheme to lift water from the Indus River, instead of tapping glacial water from the top. The Indus water scheme would cost around Rs 100 crore and the operation cost would be nearly Rs 5-6 crore per year. Whereas water tapped from the glacier will flow with gravity and will not cost more than Rs 10 crore and with minimal operational cost. Despite such an alternative, the Leh town opted for the water lift scheme from the Indus. This will pass the burden of maintenance onto the people though they did not have any role in designing the scheme.

The second example comes from a visit to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, formerly the Viceroy’s Lodge, Summerhill, Shimla. Though the institute has a huge rain water harvest tank, with a capacity that can cater to its water needs for a few months together. The institute still opts for a water supply scheme from the water utility of the town. The water for the town is supplied from a distance of more than 70 km which incurs a heavy cost. Still, the institute opts for the town’s water supply instead of using its own resource.

The third example flows from a very recent statement of the Telangana chief minister abolishing its GO(Government Order) number 111 of March 11, 1996. This GO was to set a radius of 10 km buffer zone to protect the catchment areas of Himayatsagar and Osmanasagar lakes in Hyderabad city. Not only would it have a direct impact on the water supply to the city and the cost of switching from these reservoirs to fetching water from long distances. These are supposedly gravity reservoirs that supply drinking water without a single rupee being spent on pumping. The difference in pumping is stark.

 “Currently the government is spending Rs 2- Rs 5 KL(per kilolitre) to get water from these twin reservoirs, while its spending Rs 150 KL to get it from the Godavari River. This proves that it is also economically inadvisable to scrap GO 111,” Donthi Narsimha Reddy, a renowned environmentalist stated. Why is this being done? Simple answer-the real estate lobby in the city is pushing for claiming this radius for maximising their profits; which are part of the urban commons.

There has to be a demarcated differential in water management. Parastatals or city governments, preferably city governments, should have the onus and the capacity to ensure adequate quantity with quality potability of water. Protecting and conserving water sources must be a major task to follow. It is important that the least city moves out from its boundaries and rejuvenates its own resources and its ground water for a secured life.