Kanti Bajpai writes: India’s water crisis is a clear sign that a storm of epic proportions is on its way. India’s per capita water availability is now below the threshold level of 1,400 cubic metres per person. If so, India is heading from ‘water stress’ to ‘water scarcity’ and the possibility of internal water wars.
There is a perfect storm brewing for India and South Asia. To weather it will take extraordinary good governance. Unfortunately for us, the Modi government does not seem to be up to the challenge. It may not even have perceived the massive, darkening clouds.
As the storm gathers speed, the government is busy settling scores – with the Congress party or with students at various campuses. Or it is fighting banal electoral battles. Our environment minister reports that western cities are badly polluted – apparently this should console us. Niti Aayog breathlessly assures us that growth and reforms are in full swing and ‘achhe din’ are already here.
Meanwhile, India’s water crisis is a clear sign that a storm of epic proportions is on its way. India’s per capita water availability is now below the threshold level of 1,400 cubic metres per person. If so, India is heading from ‘water stress’ to ‘water scarcity’ and the possibility of internal water wars. In 1951, water availability was 5,000 cubic metres per person; in 2050, it could be just over 1,000 cubic metres.
Even if we get a good monsoon next year, the long-term prospects are dire because water scarcity is driven by excessive groundwater use. Interconnecting India’s rivers, another hopelessly dangerous scheme, will only add to the problem: providing more (free) water will not encourage people to conserve water.
Compounding our misery is global warming which will likely increase water demand and could reduce supply. Higher temperatures will damage agriculture. So will the scarcity of water. If sea levels rise, we will lose coastal land, and millions of people will become refugees and be driven inland. Expect social conflict to increase as a result. Temperature rise could cause glacier melt in the Himalayas. That means floods. Hotter weather will also unleash extreme weather events such as cyclones.
Consider India’s demography. In 30 years, we will have 1.7 billion people. China will have 400 million people fewer than us. Population density in India is about 360 people per square kilometre; it will be 500 by 2050. India is already 4 times as crowded as East Asia.
We celebrate our demographic dividend, but note that in 2050 we will have 1 billion working-age people (15-64 years) as against 0.86 billion today. Note too that in 2015, India created the lowest number of jobs in 6 years: in 8 labour-intensive sectors, it added 1,35,000 jobs.
India will grow old before it grows rich – like China. Or perhaps worse than China since it is unlikely we can match China’s spectacular economic growth. By 2050, 34% of Indians will be over 50, and 19% or 323 million will be over 65. Many young people will be supporting many old people because old people in India don’t have pensions. Some Indian states already have an ageing problem.
What is the quality of our people in physical terms? Per capita calorie consumption is probably below the poverty-line measure of 2,400 calories. It is falling with economic growth, not increasing. Low-calorie diets are exacerbated by some of the worst sanitation levels in the world (worse than Bangladesh or Pakistan), leaving hundreds of millions of Indians underweight and stunted. Insufficient calories affect mental capacity as well. Speaking of mental capacity, it is estimated that 50% of rural kids in the 5th standard can’t read a 2nd standard storybook, 75% of these 3rd standard children cannot do two-digit subtraction, and 20% cannot recognise numbers up to 9.
All this might be managed if governance capacity were high. It isn’t. India has 4,000 IAS officers for 1.2 billion souls. The policemen-to-population ratio is one of the lowest in the world. We have 1 judge for 1,00,000 people, and 31 million cases are pending in the courts. We also have 1 MP for 2 million people; in Sri Lanka, the ratio is 1:89,000. Only 3% of Indians are persuaded to pay taxes, so the government has no financial sinews either.
Stir into this mess populist leaders, widening economic inequality, increasing religious polariaation, ethno-religious extremism and a hyperventilating media – and you have not a strong, progressive India but rather a wobbling Pakistan ready to explode.