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Can India be the Vishwa [world] Guru of Sustainability

Author ; Hari Haran Chandra, The columnist is Trustee, AltTech Foundation and Prem Jain Memorial Trust, and Senior Fellow, CII IGBC.

Some years ago, Mark Tully the BBC radio legend who made India home for his love of the culture, shared something insightful: India can play the role of vishwa guru in tackling the problem of climate change for the rest of the world. As many of the sections of this book have reaffirmed, Climate change is a crisis which requires much more as fundamental change than technology can provide: we need changes in the way we live our lives. There is no part of the world which has a continuum of 3000 years and more, of chants and religious rites that continue to resonate from temples and places of worship. Like moslems offer prayers [namaaz] five times a day, the orthodox believer among Hindus offers what is called Sandhyavandanam. It is an ablution performed by Brahmins and ‘twice-born men’ at the three divisions of the day – or the period between night and day, as the sun wanes at noon, and at the twilight hour. Many of the chants offered during this prayer essentially pay obeisance to water. Our grandmothers have chided us on how ‘paap’ [sin] will befall us if we toss freshwater down the drain. In other ancient ecosystems of the Mayas and Incas in South America, or the complex cultures of Africa’s rich tapestry of tribal rituals, there resonate such deep respect for natural resources. Water has never been a commodity in the teeming subcontinent. India has over 30,000 rivers with names that revolve around legends of many of the gods, goddesses and legendary rishis [sages] and spiritual leaders drawn from a bewildering variety of mythologies. There are male [most of them destructive] rivers and then there are female rivers [standing for fertility and growth]. And yet if you care to do even a cursory search of the web for pictures of some of the rivers that flow through India’s top 500 cities [of the 7900

towns the country hosts] you will see squalid sewers winding lazily through these towns, with administrators paying no attention at all to them. Yet every Hindu will affirm that rivers are sacred. The Kumbh Melas [kumbh is the holy urn that carried the nectar—or Amrit—of life and sustenance by accounts from the Puranas, while mela is a fair] is a spectacle you cannot see anywhere else in the world for the millions they draw. These occur by a configuration of the stars every 12 years in Prayagraj [across the Jamuna and Ganga], Haridwar [on the Ganga], Triambak-Nashik [the Godavari] and Ujjain [the Shipra river]. Over 20 million were reported to have visited the last Prayagraj Kumbh mela. These are not advertised. There is no one inviting these silent masses from the 600,000 villages of India to make it to the mela. They come on their own, at their cost, with no ‘sponsors’, with stacks of bajra rotis [a leavened bread made of pearl millet] wrapped in soft cloth. You will see them, the entire family, by the banks of the river, squatted on their haunches, quietly eating a meal with salted green chillies or mango or lime pickle to accompany. Their ritual dip in the holy waters at the anointed hour of the sun and stars, and the hours they spend watching the eternal waters flow as they listen to religious discourses or watch gatherings of monks in their timeless garb is a phenomenon that is hard to explain. They return to their villages as silently as they came, walking many hundreds of miles, or taking the train or bus over a couple of days if they come from far longer distances. The way we live our lives, is epitomised by at least 700 million, or half of India’s burgeoning population. And yet India has the challenge of being the worst hit by the water crisis in the world. China has a population nearly the same as India’s, as does the Continent of Africa. With about 1.4 billion in each of these three landmasses, India faces the worst on water availability, for she has a mere one-tenth of Africa’s 30 m sq km, while China has nearly 9 million Sq km to India’s 3.3 m. sq km.

There are other oddities that mark India’s travails with water. With over 850 million people dependent on agriculture for their livelihood, it is still largely an agrarian economy, although the farm economy contributes under 20% to India’s GDP which is the fifth largest in the world, only after the US, China, Germany and Japan. Nearly 80% of the annual renewable water is claimed by about 1.5 million sq km of India’s lands that are under cultivation. Urban water demand represents under 8% in a country with over 7000 towns, while industrial water demand accounts for about 12%. So where does India start when it comes to addressing the water crisis? Like in China and increasingly so in Africa, groundwater extraction has become the norm over the last forty plus years. Seventy per cent of the subcontinent’s water demand is met by those dreadful borewells, which have depleted the groundwater table, weakened resilience that soils can provide, increased the consumption of energy sharply, and raised the threat of land subsidence across many districts. In rural or urban India, there is little as demand-side water conservation or reuse measures. Whether it is rainwater harvesting, or use of treated water, or practise of simple conservation measures that featured in inspiring ways in India’s past of a rich architecture of water, it is as though India’s schooled [not ‘educated’] middle class have been cut off from the wisdom of their forefathers. Riverfed irrigation with the big dams that sprung across India’s large rivers in the 1950s were called ‘Temples of modern India’ by Jawaharlal Nehru in that decade of hope for the nation. Governments continued to build them until 2010 despite people protests in latter decades. Today dams and canals account for no more than 15-18% of irrigation for farmlands across India. The staggering mass of 80% of agricultural lands – nearly a third of India’s landmass – is dependent vulnerably on the monsoons. For over 25 years, ecologists and agri experts and just about anyone who is outside of the government have known and understood that the only way ahead for India’s farmers is with the building of rain-fed irrigation systems. Even as I write this at the cusp of the monsoon in late May 2024, the Indian Met. Office assures us that those ceaseless, eternal winds are in place and the year will see ‘beyond-the-normal’ rainfall at 110% of the annual potential. So what’s the total quantum of water India gets through the year? Where does one start if you need to address this challenge of water in India’s 8000 towns/cities and 760+ districts? India’s urban water demand is put at 36-40 billion litres a day – and at the annualised quantum, this is about 8% of the country’s annual renewable rainfall. While it is seemingly, and assuringly, small, a city like

Bangalore that hosts 13 million people has 2.6 billion litres of water needed every day with nearly 60% of it coming from groundwater extraction. The groundwater levels are at over 1500 ft, or a half-kilometre deep. The cost of energy for feeding India’s cities accounts for nearly 45% of India’s energy bill annually—and India cannot stop the use of coal-based power until 2040, and so the exploitation of forests will continue. The situation is no different in the first 70 cities that each host a million people. India has nearly 8000 towns/cities/agglomerations on no more than a minuscule 0.2 million sq km of the country’s landmass. The lack of governance when it comes to industrial waste water is appalling, with many rivers polluted beyond every permissible limit, with no concerted effort visibly seen although activist organisations are making the right noises, and institutions like the National Green Tribunal are doing what they can to bring sanity to the process. India has over 30 million such MSME units with many of them water-intense in their manufacturing process. They need to be adopting local solutions, for dealing with waste water where it is produced, or creating sources of freshwater at the point of use is the best way to mitigate the challenge. Centralised solutions of the kind the western world has seen—and that India has aped over the last 50 years—have failed miserably, and yet administrators in cities and in other arms of the government continue to be oblivious to this. Like in nearly every other country, barring exceptions like the UK’s handful of water utilities, India suffers from a complete lack of attention to demand-side management of water. Many water experts have been urging state governments in the federal form of governance that India has, to rename water ‘Supply Boards’ as Water ‘Management’ Boards for they supply less than half every city’s need. The writing on the wall has been clear for over a decade, but little attention has been paid. No private action or initiatives can bring the sort of impact that deterrent govt regulations can. Yet, where there are good regulations in place, the govt simply doesn’t know how to identify defaulters. Says a water utility official in Bangalore at a recent meeting, “Over 40,000 homes were happy to pay penalties of over Rs 2 crore [a quarter million dollars] every month but did not want to consider installing water solutions that offered them payback within 2 years at current cost of purchase!” “Used water is the new oil of the future,” says Mary Conley Eggert, Co-founder of the Illinois-based GlobalWaterWorks and the curator of a WOW Global series [standing for World of Water] that the India-based AltTech Foundation hosts every Thursday. “There is an amazing number of water experts, watershed professionals, champions at waste water treatment or rainwater harvesting systems in India. Yet outreach, awareness among urban water-users, and the lack of big players in the water sector who have brand muscle and the bandwidth for execution of large water projects is part of the challenge India faces.” The water industry, within the small segment of urban water use, has notched an impressive 25% CAGR over the last decade and is set to grow at the same pace the next decade as the water deficit across cities and the countryside balloons. In the name of ‘technology’ startup’s, much has been touted as products or services which seek more the valuation that some perceived market potential can offer, and less as relevance to needs on ground of users in cities or in farms. Groundwater levels across more than 70% of India’s habitable lands have plunged from 10- 50 ft in the last 50–60 years to 1200-1500 feet and over. From clean ponds and open wells that served as water source at homes, we have been reduced to securing intermittent supply from water utilities [3 days a week for a few hours, if you’re lucky]. The crippling dependence on deep borewells—owned by homes or exploited by water tankers—have become, in every city, the single largest supplier of water for residential, commercial and the industrial sector. Says Jay Parekh, “In Goregaon to the north of Bombay, we have tankers that supply water at Rs 200 [USD 3] to a kilolitre, or about 5 times what the water utility’s supply price is. We have no choice but to buy such water. We are never sure of the quality of water.” And every home relies on miniature RO plants that costs upward of Rs 16000-24000 [USD 200-300]. Five star hotels rely entirely on water from deep borewells. Says a senior management executive at one of India’s luxury hotel chains, “I am ashamed to admit that among the hotels I manage is a premier hotel selling at 700-900 US dollars a night. We are terribly water-stressed. It is hard for me to accept that some of the hotels in the chain I lead have their own water tankers driving out every day to secure water from some borewell at distances that make the cost more forbidding,” says one hotelier professional. So can India be the vishwaguru of sustainability? Fact remains that in comparison to the dire scenario on groundwater in China, or the looming threat in Africa’s cities, India has managed the water situation much better. And what is redeeming is that over 750 million Indians use no more than 20 litres to an entire family, while the middle-class urban Indian uses over 600-800 litres to a home. So what makes India’s cities cope with water, without having to make world headlines as Cape Town does with even officials admitting defeat in every global media forum? News from this southern tip of Africa pops up regularly. One wonders how such a thing can happen. Does Cape Town have a challenge so unique that they can push the panic button every so often, and the world will listen? Let’s look at the magnitude of the water crisis in Cape Town before we understand the resilience India’s cities bring. Cape Town gets 600 mm rainfall [which is more than you can say of all towns in Rajasthan and most of Gujarat and eastern Maharashtra]. Jaipur gets 10% less than Cape Town at 530-550 mm annual rainfall. Cape Town hosts 3.5 million people, and Jaipur happily manages 4.5 million people [and 3 million tourists a year in the winter months alone]. Cape Town has 600 sq km while Jaipur with a million more people has barely 450 sq km. Yet you will never see Jaipur in the news for water shortage. It is this resilience that is the hallmark of nearly every city in India. The broad swathe of the lower middle-class and the poor in urban India manage with less than 30 LPCD or water access to a person. This is not to do with cost or access to water, as much as the deeper underpinning of enduring habits gained from mothers and grandmothers. Every child knows how to harvest the precious little rainwater that most of Rajasthan and western Gujarat gets. People are aware of the importance of water. A bath is done most often with 5-10 litres of water or a quarter or half-bucket which is beyond the comprehension of most Americans or Europeans. India is home to over 200,000 lakes, many of them over a thousand years old. Many cities continue to be fed by large reservoirs that store water in the rain-months to feed millions in summer. Over 2000 years, with rainfall limited to under 70 hours in a year’s 8760 hours, kings and rulers of the deep distant past built storage systems and tanks that continue to be a marvel for the foresight and the planning acumen those planners displayed. The new water policy of the government of India pronounced in 2023 its intent to created 60 lakes to every district in the country, and that would mean an additional 60,000 lakes created over the latter half of the 2020s. Unlike ponds, lakes, and streams—which are viewed as a community resource— groundwater is usually seen as an individual’s property. As people install more deep borewells, they think they can extract as much groundwater as they want. The idea of groundwater as a common resource that is meant to be shared responsibly is one that people aren’t yet familiar with. In France and in most parts of the Francophone world, groundwater has long been regarded as Res Nullius, i.e. it has no master and is subject to private appropriation by those who own the land that overlies the resource. This principle was enshrined in law as of 1804 (articles 552 and 641 of the civil code) and remains unchanged to this day. Community action in India’s villages, and sometimes even in cities are offer hope. There is the dawning of the reality that city water utilities or government projects to bring water for farmlands are a thing of the past. That reliance on solutions that emphasise the demandside, while supply-side component is bridged with wastewater reuse and rainwater harvest, is a big idea taking hold among water-users. In villages in Barmer and Bikaner districts of Rajasthan [which grow 80% of India’s cumin produce], community members are coming together in groups of 30 and 50 to sensitise villagers to the importance of using groundwater in a planned and inclusive manner, while also building the connection between groundwater usage and cropping patterns. The choice in many micro-regions that are rain-fed is made in more informed ways when it comes to low- and high-water-intensive crops they need to choose from, and grow. Using groundwater in a way that each one gets enough water to grow the crops of their choice, make profits, and save water for the coming year is part of such community planning. In a village in north Karnataka’s Raichur district, the village women and young formed a collective to assess the demand and supply of groundwater available and prepared a water budget. Mark Tully, in a book written in the early 1990s [No Full Stops in India] wrote of the success story of a panchayat, Raj Samadhiyala, west of Rajkot on the highway to Jamnagar. A 20-litre bucket of water is all that was offered to every family. This was governed with community meetings that got the village to be water-neutral with cultivation water needs of the village met with a combination of inputs ranging from change in the crop pattern to water-efficient crops, local seeds, no synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and so on. Says an NGO official working in Mayurbhanj district of South Odisha which has been long ridden by drought, “Farmers discuss their crop choices with each other. They factor in the unpredictability of rainfall, and determine the recharge of groundwater available for the season. This is a unique space for the community to deliberate upon local, water-related issues, irrigation strategies, and crop choices.” The lady adds, “To start a dialogue around water conservation in the community was our first intent. People are now discussing which irrigation method is effective for saving water, and if they should switch to growing a mix of low-water-intensive crops (such as barley and gram) and cash crops, instead of growing only water-intensive crops.” Says a Chennai-based inde filmmaker, Niki N Kalpa, who has over 800 short documentaries on community action on waste water, “Such collective thinking is needed in our offices and apartment complexes. They can bring a world of difference to the way people think through the water crisis. There is no better way of doing this, and etching in their minds the process of thinking on water than working together, understanding the range of simple, low-cost and highly rewarding water solutions that can be installed with a bit of help and support.” It may not be impertinent to close this with the sad story of Bengaluru’s Karaga festival which signifies a deep respect for water. Water is worshipped for eleven days, though water bodies of yore have gone missing. Says a custodian of the city’s oldest festivals, “Karaga, at the soul of it, is a water festival where we do the Gange Puje for eleven days. We worship Adi Shakti, the protector of life which is what water does in reality. Of the eleven days of festivities, the Gange Puje where we worship water bodies around the city draws at its peak over a 100,000 devotees.” And he laments, “We have had to change the original spots of worship because the water bodies have been lost. The Kalyani [a holy pond] is so polluted, that we order tankers, fill drums and take the symbolic bath. We had built a small tank near the kalyani which could be used for the bath, but even that is polluted. This is the case with most of other Kalyanis and ponds we used for pujas [worship].” He stares into the distance, “There is a reason cities and civilisations flourished around rivers and water, because it gave us life. Is this how we protect it?”

Hari Haran Chandra The columnist is Senior Fellow, CII IGBC, Trustee at AltTech Foundation and at Prem Jain Memorial Trust, as well as a green building pioneer and a Net Zero Water-Energy exponent guiding billions of litres of low-carbon water for a variety of projects today

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