Ranjona Banerji: Drowning in bad government policy

The water crisis can't just be blamed on the past government alone when the current regime continues to make flawed policy decisions

Did Kanhaiya Kumar get assaulted on an aeroplane or not? Should the Modi government have given a visa to a Uighur dissident only to take it back when China objected? How important is it for an engineer to know Sanskrit? What is the justification for actor Salman Khan being made India's 'brand ambassador' for the Rio Olympics? Will industrialist Vijay Mallya come back to India now that his passport has been revoked? Was the imposition of President's Rule in Uttarakhand justified?

All these are serious, weighty questions and must be debated. However, when you take a look around you or talk to anyone, there are two related issues on the top of most people's minds: The extreme heat and the severe lack of water. The prime minister has kindly given us some advice in his monthly radio chats, telling us to conserve water and use technology or some such.

A tanker empties 10,000 litres of water on the ground to prepare a makeshift helipad for Union minister Radha Mohan Singh's visit to Bhiwandi last week
A tanker empties 10,000 litres of water on the ground to prepare a makeshift helipad for Union minister Radha Mohan Singh's visit to Bhiwandi last week

Frankly, that's not enough. Where we need the government to step in and act, we have instead 10,000 litres of water being wasted for Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh to visit Bhiwandi in his helicopter. We have heard government spokespersons on TV blaming the last government for the current mess. In Maharashtra, at least, the spokespersons are absolutely correct. The last Congress-NCP government and Ajit Pawar, in particular, had a lot to answer for when it comes to badly implemented irrigation projects.

But the last government was voted out of power two years ago in Maharashtra and at the Centre. When a crisis of this magnitude hits, people — perhaps unnaturally, from a political perspective — expect the government in power to do its job and come up with solutions, both short-term and long-term. We do not want to be told that Motilal Nehru is to blame.

This government might like to explain why it took a court admonition to release MNREGA funds to some states. Also, it might like to tell us why it has cut MNREGA funds this year, which has added to rural distress. It might share its views on farmer suicides which do not seem to be stopping, regardless of who's in power at the Centre or in the relevant states.

Advisors to this government and newspaper commentators have told us repeatedly that the country's problems can be blamed on the evil NGOs and activists on Congress president Sonia Gandhi's National Advisory Council who wasted the government's time and money by concentrating on the poor and on the villages. But in times of distress like this, alleviation work will also be done by NGOs, especially when a government is missing in action.

The experts discuss changes in agricultural patterns which will take years to make a difference when the problem is immediate. The market economists are waiting for the trickle-down effect (we have been waiting for that since 1991) and quibbling over GDP forecasts. There is still no water though, or any plan on the ground for drought-affected people.

The middle classes — who are also suffering — can barely do more than switch off their showers and have 'bucket baths' and pledge not to wash their cars every day or their hair or whatever. They can rail against the Indian Premier League using undrinkable water while watching IPL matches on TV. For even the intelligent among them know that the IPL has nothing to do with it.

The tragedy is that if we have a normal monsoon — and meteorological projections say that we will — all the misery will be forgotten. Nothing will be done, no plans will be made for future droughts, no progress will be made on water management. The Indian 'chalta hai' — anything goes — attitude will win.

To be against development is to be anti-national, we are told over and over again. But the truth is that it is unrestrained development that has brought us partly to where we are now. Rules are not followed whether it is construction or industry. Water is still being diverted to sugar mills, for instance, rather than people.

Water will always make its way to a soft drinks factory. Water will always find its way to the construction site next door, but not to your tap. And trees will always be cut because they get in the way of growth. Then we can all sit down and choke on our future.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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