Water crisis deepens India’s rural-urban rift

Fellows Fall 2005

By Alex Kuffner

June 03, 2009

BAWADI, India – The last time Jamku Mali saw her husband alive was the day of the demonstration. Early on the morning of June 13, 2005, he left their dusty village in Rajasthan, a desert state in western India, to join thousands of other farmers in a desperate protest for water.

Local and state authorities had rebuffed their pleas to divert water from the Bisalpur Dam, just a few miles away, to their dying wheat, mustard and vegetable fields. Government officials said a growing demand for drinking water in Jaipur, the bustling state capital 70 miles to the north, needed to be met. But the farmers believed they had a right to the water.

They met in Sohela, a rural outpost on State Highway 12, which leads to Jaipur. By noon, more than 3,000 farmers had taken over the road, blocking its two narrow lanes. As the hours ticked by, dozens of police officers arrived and traffic backed up for miles in both directions.

There are differing accounts about what happened as tensions built at the protest. Government officials have said the participants grew rowdy. The farmers maintain that they were vocal but not violent.

What is undeniable is that at 4 p.m. that day the police opened fire on the crowd, killing four protesters and a pregnant woman in a nearby house.

Mali's 35-year-old husband, Prakash Sheni, was one of the farmers who died that afternoon. In compensation, the government gave her money and hired her eldest son as a clerk at the village school.

But Mali says the money will only offer temporary relief. Like the water that once irrigated her family's one-acre field, it too will eventually run out.

"We can't grow anything," she said, sitting on the floor of the mud-brick home that she shares with her five children in Bawadi, a village near Sohela. "All we are asking for is water. Why won't they give it to us?"

WITH 17 PERCENT of the world's population but just 4 percent of its fresh water, India is struggling with a water crisis that has gripped the entire country. As the population of 1.1 billion people grows -- by 18 million a year -- the situation is only expected to worsen.

The vast majority of water in India is used for agriculture, but increasing migration to cities and towns and rapid industrialization is creating new needs. The World Bank projects household water use in urban areas to double by 2025, and industrial use to triple.

The distribution of water is becoming a zero-sum game between cities and the countryside that surrounds them, says Smita Misra, senior economist at the World Bank, in New Delhi.

"The demand for water has become so great in cities that the only available option is to start tapping agricultural areas," she said.

The competing claims have exposed a simmering rift between urban and rural India.

In January, India's finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, warned of potential "small civil wars" over water between urban users, farmers and industry.

His words seemed to be a twist on former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's oft-cited statement in 1985 that "the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics."

But while there has been no war over water in the Middle East, conflicts have started in India.

Farmers in the southern part of the country have protested transferring water to Bangalore, one of the country's fastest-growing cities and the hub of its growing technology industry. Farmers in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh have opposed plans to channel water to New Delhi, the nation's dry, sprawling capital. Farmers in Kerala, a state on India's southwest coast, have forced a Coca-Cola factory to suspend operations over allegations that it was overusing groundwater and draining an aquifer they rely on for irrigation.

But nowhere is the problem more acute than in Rajasthan, India's driest state, where access to water can often mean the difference between poverty and prosperity, life and death.

The shooting in Sohela was only the latest instance of violence erupting over water in the state. In two separate incidents over a three-month span at the end of 2004, police killed six farmers in towns near the border with Pakistan during protests over the allocation of water from the Indira Gandhi Canal. The canal stretches 400 miles and was built to irrigate desert regions with water from the distant Indus River, which flows south from the Himalayas.

"The water wars have started in Rajasthan," Deepak Malik, director of the Health, Environment and Development Consortium, an advocacy group in Jaipur, said.

Because Rajasthan has only one river that flows year-round and few other sources of surface water, its residents rely almost entirely on aquifers. Rainfall across the state averages about 20 inches annually, about half the national rate. Of the 237 administrative blocks that make up Rajasthan, 205 are drawing more groundwater than is being replenished by rain.

"The water will eventually run out," S.M. Kanwar, former chief engineer of the state Groundwater Department, said. "A disaster is coming."

The disaster has already hit Sohela, Bawadi and other villages in central Rajasthan, a largely undeveloped region where cars often share roads with camel-drawn carts and nomads leading packs of donkeys loaded with their belongings. Water is so valuable here that locals will often save bathwater and use it to wash their clothes.

DROUGHT HAS ALWAYS been a part of life in the area, but farmers say the problem started to get worse in 1984 when construction crews began erecting the 131-foot high Bisalpur Dam upstream from their farms where the Banas River cuts through the rocky Aravali Mountains to the east.

Over the past 20 years, groundwater levels have plummeted by 20 feet, according to government statistics. The district has been declared a "dark zone" for water. Farmers blame the dam for the growing scarcity.

"Water stopped getting discharged into the ground, and our wells went dry," Muhammed Zakir Hussain, head of the coalition of farmers that is leading the protests, said during an interview in a thatch-roofed hut in Bawadi.

At first, the farmers didn't oppose construction of the dam, because the government's initial plan allocated water to them, farms in a neighboring district and the growing city of Ajmer not far away.

But five years ago, the plan was amended after a study commissioned by the state found that the 2.5 million residents of Jaipur, the capital, were on course to run out of groundwater, their main source of drinking water, by 2007.

A choice was made. It was decided that the share of water originally reserved for the villages around Sohela would instead be piped to Jaipur.

The farmers sent letters to the district's government representatives and the state Irrigation Department, appealing the decision and asking for meetings to discuss alternatives. Hussain said the farmers only organized last year's sit-in as a last resort after they got no response to their written complaints.

"Politicians in faraway places made a decision," Hussain said. "It was an election year, and they were trying to win votes in the cities by promising them water. Our villages are poor. We're not so educated. So we got cheated."

He and the other farmers insist the protest was a peaceful act of civil disobedience. They say the police opened fire without warning. Local officials have contended that the police action was ordered only after the farmers damaged storefronts along the highway.

"We asked for answers," Hussain said. "They answered, not with words, but with bullets."

After the shooting, the farmers tried again to meet with state officials. Again, they were unsuccessful. Last Sept. 5, 300 farmers started a march to Jaipur, prostrating their bodies on the ground along the way in a show of commitment. Six days later and less than halfway to the city, they were arrested. Hussain and the other farmers were released several weeks later.

State Irrigation Secretary S.N. Thanvi said that the government would not accede to the farmers' demands. With competition for water increasing everyday in Rajasthan, the government is being forced to make difficult choices, he said.

"Obviously, we are a water-deficit state," he said in his office in Jaipur. "If the demand for water is so high, the supply is limited. In this case, the priorities are decided. Nothing can be changed."

THE GOVERNMENT OFFICES for the district that covers Sohela sit in a three-story building in the largest town nearby, a dreary place called Tonk.

The building is surrounded by a parking lot where stray pigs can be seen shuffling about. A single neem tree grows in front of the crooked steps leading up to the office of additional district magistrate Pukhraj Sen.

Sen is responsible for the administration of Sohela. He is the third man to hold the job since the protest. His immediate predecessor lasted less than a month. The man who presided over the area during the protest was transferred out of the district two days afterward.

During an interview last fall, Sen at first denied any knowledge of a water shortage in his district. When pressed, he said the situation in Sohela and the surrounding towns was no worse than the rest of the country.

"There's a water shortage in all of India. In New Delhi. In the rest of Rajasthan. It's not just here," he said before abruptly ending the interview.

Sen would not answer questions about the shooting. A government inquiry into the incident was under way, he said at the time. Nine months later and more than a year after the shooting, it has yet to be completed.

TO GET TO SOHELA from Tonk, travelers must cross a quarter-mile bridge that was built over the Banas River long before the construction of the Bisalpur Dam. These days, there seems little need for the bridge. It spans a dry riverbed, cracked by the desert sun.

Nosar Devi lives nearby on a four-acre farm that was once supplied with water from wells replenished by the river. Now, the wells frequently run dry, and the members of her family can no longer grow wheat or other crops.

They are adavasis, members of India's indigenous tribes who occupy the lowest rungs on India's caste system. Without water for their fields, the members of Devi's family work as day laborers for upper-caste landowners.

"These are the people who don't matter," Kishan Lal Chowdhery, a farmer and local activist, said.

Devi's 54-year-old husband, Ram Narayan Jat, was killed in the shooting in Sohela. Afterward, the chief minister of the state came to her home to offer her condolences. Sonia Gandhi, the president of the powerful Congress Party and the widow of Mohandas Gandhi's grandson, also visited. Neither has come back since.

The government paid Devi 500,000 rupees, about $10,700, in compensation. It's a small fortune in a country where, according to a recent United Nations report, nearly 9 out of 10 people live on less than $2 a day.

The money could help her start a new life elsewhere, yet Devi doesn't want to leave the only place she's ever lived. And the money can't save her farm. It won't bring the water back.

Devi realizes that her village's struggle for water is likely a futile one. Still, as she crouches over a basket methodically separating the wheat from the chaff she vows to continue her husband's fight.

"I already lost my husband. But if we don't have water, I have nothing more to live for," she said. "I am also willing to lay down my life for water."