Karnataka has the second largest dry and semi-dry area in India. The dry maidan districts of north Karnataka and the southern districts of Chitradurga, Tumakuru and Kolar are most prone to droughts in the state. As per trends in the last 200 years, Karnataka faces moderate to severe drought conditions once every four years.
It’s particularly severe now after poor southwest and northeast monsoons ruined the Kharif and Rabi crops, respectively, last year. Inadequate rainfall in the catchment areas of Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka has resulted in poor storage of water in the main reservoirs of the state.
As a cascading effect, the generation of hydroelectric power, which constitutes about 35 per cent of the state’s total electricity generation, has fallen drastically. Erratic power supply to borewells, lift irrigation schemes, drinking water schemes has hit agriculture, horticulture, supply of drinking water and industries and pushed up prices of food commodities. It will not be surprising if many sugar factories do not re-start at all for the next crushing season as the standing sugarcane crop is withering.
The severest problem this year is the shortage of drinking water supply. Unless a few good pre-monsoon showers are received in the next one month, we may witness “water riots”. The doomsday prediction that the next war will be fought over water no longer seems like an exaggeration given what we are witnessing in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana.
Daily media reports are full of scenes of hundreds of hapless women standing in endless queues beside multiple lines of empty pots and buckets, awaiting the arrival of water tanks in the drought affected villages of the state. If a tanker does not arrive, or arrives too late or does not supply water to everyone in the queue, violence follows inevitably. Such incidents are on the rise. They may take a political toll.
The state government, which woke up from its deep slumber too late, is now pressuring local officers at the district, taluk and village levels. At these levels, the administration is highly chaotic due to political patronage and caste-based postings. Moreover, there is corruption in the contracts for water supply through tankers, political interference, nepotism, lack of control over subordinate officers owing allegiance to local politicians.
The chief minister ordering suspension of half a dozen district-level officers for “dereliction of duty” during his hurriedly announced visit to drought-hit villages is not a good sign. It demoralizes officers and staff, does not recognize genuine difficulties, and ignores individual merits. This is merely a gimmick to cover up the government’s failures by making scapegoats of a few officers.
Since water supply is a panchayat or municipal responsibility, the delay in conducting elections to the chairpersons of local bodies has contributed to the worsening of water supply simply because there is no one in charge. That was simply an act of misuse of incumbency by the ruling party, which is now backfiring!
The rural development minister says there is no drought. The chief minister says that drought in the state is not severe. Do they not read media reports and understand the seething anger in the drought-hit areas?
At the same time, they are pressuring the central government to give them more than Rs 1,000 crore to deal with the drought. Can they have it both ways -- on the one hand, denying or downplaying the drought while, on the other hand, demanding central money to deal with it?
Water supply is the primary function of panchayats and municipalities. The state government has to provide funding to these bodies for costly water supply schemes. It was the Congress government in 1993 that enacted the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act even before the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution of India. 22 years are past. Had the state government taken up on priority the rural water supply schemes, this situation would not have arisen. Why are they now crying hoarse and putting the burden on the Centre?
The trend-line of drought occurrence is fairly well known, and recent mid-term and short-term weather forecasting is more reliable. What’s lacking is systematic, well-organised and timely intervention measures to mitigate the impact of the failure of rains. As a country and as a state, we are lax in learning from experience. The preparedness of the state to mitigate the impact of drought, so far, largely follows a pattern set long back by the British.
Parliament enacted the Disaster Management Authority Act 2005 for a systematic approach to manage droughts and other natural calamities. At the state, district and taluk levels, Disaster Management Authorities have been created to deal with and manage natural disasters. Unfortunately, in Karnataka, those authorities have remained only on paper.
The informal and ad hoc committees created by the state government under the chairmanship of local MLAs at the taluk level and district in-charge ministers at the district level rule the roost. Local officers are compelled to give water supply, fodder supply, and other contracts to henchmen, party men, relatives and friends of the MLAs. Villages supporting the MLA get the best, those not voting for him the worst. That is the style of our democracy!
Unfortunately, even if the administration is robust and MLAs more conscientious, nature’s fury is unparallelled so far. Water sources are dwindling. Existing borewells are drying up very fast in large numbers. The newly drilled borewells have to go too deep and yield too little. River beds are dry since most rivers are dammed, reservoirs are either already dry or will last only a few days. Tanks and open wells are also dry. Local politics and partiality, inherent corruption and nepotism, false accounts far in excess of actual expenditure, false depths of borewells, etc., are adding fuel to the fire in the already disturbed situation.
Acute water supply problem in drought years is neither new nor irresolvable. But political will, right priorities, resource mobilization models, effective implementation mechanism and a water pricing policy should be sorted out. Better water distribution methods and application of technology to these issues is possible. We must learn from the tough experience of Israel in this matter.
Karnataka’s experience in respect of 1,012 multi-village water supply schemes is one of the worst: these schemes were taken up since 2002 with funding from the World Bank, ADB and other foreign agencies. Cost and time overruns have plagued these schemes. Supervision and equipment quality are terribly defective. Source failure is equally serious, which indicates technical incompetence. Proper maintenance and repairs are not taken up. Distribution schedules and pricing policy, apart from disputes between different villages, are making these schemes a failure. Unless these issues are resolved, the water supply crisis cannot be overcome.
Government alone cannot manage this year’s drought. Farmers who have high-yield borewells, NGOs, philanthropists must all join hands to mitigate the problem of thirst. Learning from this experience, the government must deepen all village tanks, clean up Mann wells and other abandoned open wells that have plenty of water, and settle the issues plaguing multi-village water schemes. MNREGS implementation must be overhauled. One only hopes that even at this late stage, the government finds the political will and resolve to act quickly to stop this disaster from turning into a calamity.