Water is more precious than GDP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on the water crisis facing the nation in his first Mann Ki Baat of the post-election season. This is not a model that the BJP necessarily built though it is a model that Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat has comfortably used to benefit big business and to the detriment of the environment. At the national level, it has flourished under the Congress at the Centre when the voice of business became louder and more demanding than many other voices after liberalisation, and led eventually to the mayhem caused by monumental corruption under Dr. Manmohan Singh. It was the UPA government that removed its minister for the environment Jairam Ramesh in the face of criticism that the ministry under him was becoming too fastidious about environmental clearances.  Ramesh, who lasted 26 months in the environment ministry, is quoted has having said last year: “If I had not taken the decisions that I took, I would have lasted 60 months.”

This is then a national trap of lopsided development, and escaping from it won’t be easy. If anything, the government has already fallen into it and it was Ramesh’s turn to tell the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javdekar, just a few days before the Prime Minister spoke, that he must stand up for environmental laws and not seek credit for clearing projects. Yet, today no one is better placed than this government, fresh with a huge mandate, to explore alternatives and to seek a new path to innovation and growth.  This may not be a radically different path but even small directional changes (like stricter enforcement of the laws of the land)  will mean a lot in the long run and can set the stage for a green economy.  This will still be a version of green capitalism, but that, too, will be better than the place we are in – drilling, mining, concretising and depleting our water resources recklessly.

On the one side is intense usage of water for crops like sugarcane in Maharashtra, the acreage growing as it is linked to the political muscle of sugar cooperatives in the powerfully connected Western region of the State. The agriculture sector accounts for over 85 per cent of total water consumption in the country, with usage that is considered highly inefficient and with reported wastage of up to 30 per cent and more in irrigation systems. Then there is the example of “development” of the kind seen in “India’s first private city” near Pune called Lavasa, diverting water, taking over tribal land and lifestyles and bringing artificially-constructed lake-side beauty to residents migrating in – the project has since filed for insolvency under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC). Or people running short of water while construction magnates, already subsidised by the financial system, building swimming pools into overpriced residential complexes with funny names. And on the other hand there is the continued pressure from business leaders who want to expand and set up projects but see environment laws as a hurdle that must be somehow crossed. Industry and the energy sector account for less than 5 per cent of water usage but some of the damage left behind, particularly when regulatory systems are weak, can be very long lasting.

Issues of the environment, of rights of the local residents, respect for due process, respect for local needs and sensitivities, indeed of local flora and fauna, then come to be sacrificed at the altar of what passes off as development. Violence, often with State cooperation, is a common fallout and the State becomes one with the cronies who can take on exploitative roles in the name of growth of the economy.  As the nation receives the Union budget, there are already groups asking the government for “relief” at a time the economy is doing badly.  One prominent demand came in from the Chairman of Vedanta Resources Anil Agarwal, who after a meeting at the NITI Aayog, was quoted by PTI as saying mining in 200 blocks should be approved immediately and big blocks of coal, bauxite, copper and iron ore should be auctioned, with no production cap such as ones existing in Goa and Karnataka on iron ore. The scrap merchant turned billionaire tycoon in metals said all forest and environment clearances should come in 60 days and corporate tax should be reduced to 20 per cent from the current 30 per cent. Clearances in 60 days are fine but what about the violators? Should they not be jailed in 60 days and projects taken away from their control?

This idea of lopsided development is tempting only if the GDP number is all, no matter the cost – the model that is seen as failing around the world. Instead, a new and sharper focus on environment protection, with the ministry making its processes even more robust, transparent and speedy, with stiff penalties and heavy barricades for violators, is the only way to change course and nudge for a greener form of development.  That would be the least required in these times.

The direction and energy for this change must come as much from the ideals of Gandhi-ji whose words ring loud today (The earth, the air, the land and the water are not an inheritance from our fore fathers but on loan from our children. So we have to handover to them at least as it was handed over to us) as it must come from shifts in the economy that tell us yesterday’s models are spent and will soon be discarded. It will mean drawing on native wisdom that helped build the water tank in Porbunder that still stands behind Mahatma Gandhi’s house 200 years later and harvests rain water, as the Prime Minister said in his Mann Ki Baat. It is a part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs), notable SDG6, or the “water goal”, which is so critical that it “does not only aim for sustainable water management across the globe, it also underpins many other SDGs; meeting SDG 6 would go a long way towards achieving much of the 2030 SDG agenda.” This is the deep interconnectedness of water to everything else. While all systems are very complex and interconnected (that is the nature of systems), water is the critical thread that runs through all the parts and gives life and sustenance. In that sense, water is more precious than GDP.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)