The water problem in India - the ‘thirst economy’

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The water problem in India - the ‘thirst economy’

There are more and more problems with water in India, but climate change is not the only reason. There is another reason – a water mafia, which is taking away India’s water. Fiona Broom writes about it.


When there is no water in his village, Shiva Korade sells sugarcane juice in nearby Pune. Credit: Fiona Broom

For 12 hours a day, Shiva Korade stands in the hot sun and sells sugarcane juice at the roadside. He doesn’t have money to buy a mechanized juicer. And so he and people from his village work together and use a press. Korade comes from Jalna, in Maharashtra, where there is very little water. Every summer most of the people who can work leave the village and go to Pune, one of India’s largest cities. There they rent rooms together and sell juice, vegetables, and street food.

For the past three years Korade and the other 900 people in his village have had no water for farming and only received three government water deliveries in a tanker every day for use at home. This is about 40 litres per person, not including water for animals. ‘When the tankers come, you take a dish and run,’ says villager Sopan Gajanan Khedekar. ‘You are lucky if you get any water that day. There’s a lot of violence, people beat and push each other.’

This is a story you hear across India. Since the monsoons began to fail in 2012, conflict over water has really increased and more and more farmers leave their villages to find work. People say the droughts are because of climate change but they are not the only reason for India’s water problems.

‘We are in the middle of a very big water problem that is 20 years old,’ reporter P Sainath told the National Consultation on Drought last year.

In 1996 Sainath published Everybody Loves a Good Drought, which was about how business made money from water problems, and farmers and people from the country had no water and no help from the government and had to pay very high prices for only a little water. Things are still the same now. The ‘water mafia’ and ‘tanker mafia’ continue and authorities are not interested in plans to help water problems in each area They prefer big dam projects. This, Sainath says, is the thirst economy.

Digging too deep

In Jalna, there do not seem to be plans to help the water problem, and it is likely that people from the villages will continue to need government tankers. ‘Middle men are taking the money,’ says Khedekar. ‘Everyone knows about this and even India’s TV and newspapers are reporting on the water mafia, which is taking away India’s water.’

The industry that digs wells also makes money from droughts. With no canals, the people in Jalna need water from wells. They continue to hire expensive machinery to dig new 'borewells' to find water.

They have to dig deeper and deeper wells. Khedekar and Korade say they’re digging down to 90 metres now. Rivers and streams that need groundwater are drying up. There are deserts now in areas such as Tamil Nadu state. Many say Tamil Nadu state is having its worst drought in 140 years.

Environmentalists are worried about the future of Kerala’s Bharathapuzha river, where farmers recently dug borewells into the dry river bed. And they did this even with an above-average summer monsoon fall. The rains did not fill Kerala’s groundwater because cutting down forests makes rain run off into the sea.

Himanshu Thakkar is an engineer and now an activist and helped to start South Asia Network On Dams, Rivers and People. He says, ‘More than two-thirds of places that need water for farming get it from groundwater. More than 85 per cent of homes in the country get it from groundwater. More than 60 per cent of homes in the cities get water from groundwater, and more than 55 per cent of industrial water is from groundwater. It is the governments who are failing. They are interested in the big projects like dams and linking rivers. But the real need is for groundwater.’ Thakkar says that rooftop rainwater could help in the towns, but the country needs a better system.

Monsoon changes and sugar politics

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar say climate change is the reason for less groundwater but groundwater use has increased tenfold since the 1950s. The study found that higher temperatures in the Indian Ocean changed how strong and how often the monsoons were. This had a great effect on groundwater levels.

Maharashtra has the worst effects of the recent failed monsoons and it is the second-largest sugarcane-growing state in the country. They grow a lot of the sugarcane in dry districts which are not good for sugarcane. This is ‘sugar politics’. Water for farming goes to the districts of the most powerful politicians. They are often ministers and sugar factory owners.

Farmers leave

Politicians often say that the next monsoon will be good. ‘The idea that a good monsoon will end our problems is not true,’ Sainath bluntly told the National Consultation on Drought. New coal-fired power plants need a lot of water and they continue to build them in Vidarbha, which is near Marathwada. Greenpeace says the power plants use water that could be for 50 million people and is asking for an end to new power plants in areas with no water.

And a dozen big international companies which make alcoholic and soft drinks use millions of litres of water daily from the dam that is for the region’s drinking and farm water. Last year Coca-Cola and Pepsi said they plan to have juice-manufacturing in Marathwada and Vidarbha.

Millions have left farming in recent years because they cannot be sure of enough water with the droughts. In 2016 hundreds of families left their homes because of drought and in Mumbai they started camps for them. A study found that 70 per cent of farmers had failed crops because of changes in rainfall, drought, and there was no water systems for their farms.

Studies show many do not want their children to follow them into farming. They hope they will get an education and a job in the city. In recent years Maharashtra has had the highest number of farmer suicides.

Many businesses make money from the water problem. Thakkar is worried about what will happen if things do not change in India. ‘I think we can help the situation and we need to, urgently. Without action from politicians and government it’s difficult to see how things will change. My feeling is that things are going to get worse before we change course.’

Creating an oasis

Pulkoti is an oasis in the semi-desert of western Maharashtra. The area only gets 175 millimetres of rain each year, but they haven’t needed any deliveries of water since 2014. The women’s organization, the Mann Deshi Foundation, has helped villagers to find a simple solution to their water problems.

In 2012, they started a cattle camp to provide food and water to 14,000 cows. After 18 months of drought (no water), the villagers knew the situation was very bad and they asked for help.


They got advice from engineers and other organizations and worked on the rivers and built a reservoir. The village council owns and manages the reservoit, and they have rules, for example, no sugarcane, and water for drinking is most important.

The project has so far been successful – the water table has risen and farmers have doubled their harvests. Nutrition and health have improved with the extra money and better access to water.

Fiona Broom is a freelance journalist and environmental management student.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).