Tempers boil over water in India

Riots in Bangalore brought to a head a water crisis, with industry and households battling over supplies. Already troubled by drought and poor monsoons, India can scarcely afford this conflict.
A lorry burns after it was set alight by activists as the water dispute erupted following the Supreme Court's order to release water to Tamil Nadu in Bangalore. Manjunath Kiran / AFP
A lorry burns after it was set alight by activists as the water dispute erupted following the Supreme Court's order to release water to Tamil Nadu in Bangalore. Manjunath Kiran / AFP

MUMBAI // Scenes of burning lorries and buses torched by protesters, riots and violent clashes with police gripped Bangalore this month, as tensions surged over a water dispute.

The city is often referred to as the Silicon Valley of India because it is the country’s IT hub, attracting some of biggest the world’s corporate giants such as Google and Microsoft.

But the city and its economy ground to a halt amid the deadly violence and as curfews were imposed. Offices were evacuated and shut and shops and other businesses also closed. The dispute arose following an order from the supreme court to release water from the Cauvery river to the state of Tamil Nadu, which neighbours Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is based.

This brought into stark focus the troubles that India faces over water and the challenge this presents to the country’s economic growth prospects. Indeed, at the same time, India’s rapid economic growth is a major part of the problem because it is fuelling a surging demand for water in the country. It is not only Bangalore that faces problems with water. There are smaller-scale water wars being fought across the country. And India suffered its worst drought in decades this year following two years of poor monsoon rainfall. Households and industry were in competition for water supplies, while, given the country’s large agricultural sector, farmers and factories competed with each other and among themselves for access to water.

There were post-apocalyptic scenes in central Maharashtra of weary villagers queuing for hours on end in the searing heat at pumps to fill up a couple of pots with water. As India aims to scale up its economy and boost industry, including manufacturing, the problem urgently needs to be solved to avoid more water wars breaking out and to create economic growth and a good business and investment climate, experts say.

“We feel that sometimes some of the problems that are coming up, whether it’s in terms of access to water, the conflicts, is a fallout of the types of policies that the government has been following,” says KJ Joy of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, based in the city of Pune in western India, and the co-editor of the book Water Conflicts in India: A Million Revolts in the Making.

“In India, there is this whole emphasis on a higher growth rate of 8 to 10 per cent. As a result of this, more and more water is getting reallocated from the rural as well as the agricultural sector to urban areas and the industrial sector. There’s hardly any thinking that is taking place around this. More and more industries are grabbing water.”

India is set to be the world’s fastest growing economy this year, and Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister, is striving to boost growth levels even further, given the need to create enough jobs and support its burgeoning young population of more than 1.2 billion.

“Water can be correctly described as a catalyst in the economic growth of the country,” says Mahesh Tejwani, the president of the Vivekanand Education Society, based in Mumbai.

“The economic sustainability of the country to a large extent depends on the unhindered access to water. As the global population continues to expand, economies diversify and there is increase in urbanisation, the challenge for any modern-day government is to manage its water resources, which are limited and finite, in an efficient manner.”

He says that industry’s pollution of water has also reduced the availability of safe drinking water in the country.

“Reckless exploitation of groundwater by companies without consideration of sustained replenishment is also vastly depleting precious water resources,” he adds. “Mismanagement of water resources coupled with civic apathy and low consciousness about water as a key economic resource has resulted in mass wastage and inefficiencies.”

He says that the challenges surrounding water in India “can have a debilitating effect on the investment climate of the country as global investors may put off their investment initiatives in the country in the face of an irrational and unstable water supply framework”.

Experts agree that there is a need for coordinated efforts at the central government and state government levels to develop a unified water policy.

There needs to be “a democratic space” for stakeholders to come together and there should be reliable data on water available in the public domain, according to Mr Joy.

Business leaders believe that Bangalore’s image as a corporate destination was damaged by the riots.

“The constant bandhs [strikes] and threats have dented the economy badly,” says Pratik Mehta, the managing director of Unishire, a Bangalore property developer, “With so many non-working days, businesses have been affected and hence the impact on the overall economy is evident. While all the businesses suffered with the bandhs and curfews, most badly hurt were e-commerce and on-demand companies, mostly start-ups.”

D S Rawat, the secretary general of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham), says that Bangalore was “home to almost all the Fortune 500 companies”.

“The way the violent incidents had spread is demoralising the business and industrial community, particularly in the capital city of Karnataka,” he says. “The image that India built around Bengaluru as its Silicon Valley is being sullied.”

Assocham estimates that Karnataka lost some 220 billion (Dh12.12bn) to 250bn rupees as a result of the disruption.

Industrial production, movement of cargo and retail trade at malls and restaurants were some of the areas that were impacted, as well as losses to the IT industry, and the travel and tourism sector.

“While water is a basic requirement and an emotional issue, the situation is being exploited by miscreants, scaring away the peace-loving workforce which has settled in both Bengaluru and Chennai from all over the country and even abroad,” says Mr Rawat.

“While we are selling ourselves to be the fastest growing economy of the world, we cannot afford the incidents which are taking place in the metropolitan cities. After all, the two states had built with a lot of hard work image of progressive areas.”

There are concerns that the chaos will recur in Bangalore and the situation could get even worse next year if the right action is not taken to manage India’s water problems.

“A growing economy like ours cannot afford to get dented by such issues,” says Mr Mehta. “Hence it is important that the government aims at resolving it and seeking a solution – otherwise the situation will be no different next year. Various technologies such a desalination of water at the coastal areas can resolve this water crisis, and that’s the best way forward. But there should be adequate intent to come to a certain logical resolution and avoid further conflicts in the future.”


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Published: September 24, 2016 04:00 AM


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