Sponge Bath Nation

The Indian state of Maharashtra has taken a step towards using water more sustainably. Will the rest of India follow? Unlikely.

If you ever need to understand the water crisis that looms over Maharashtra, Jayakwadi dam in Marathwada, built on the Godavari river near a town called Paithan, is a great place to start. Its reservoir rarely fills up.

Which is odd. There is water in the river. Jayakwadi itself is well-engineered, one of the phalanx of dams built on this river during the sixties and the seventies. In those days, the state was building dams with gusto as it tried to correct its gravely skewed rainfall distribution — Maharashtra gets 90% of its rainfall between June and September, mostly over the Western Ghats. To correct that inequity, it built dams to stockpile water. It dug canals to take this water where rivers did not go. And then, proving once more that old shibboleth that supply will create its own distortions, farmers near the dams saw this perennial gush of water and switched to water-intensive cash crops like sugarcane. As they prospered, other farmers demanded more water as well. The state built them dams too.

The technical term for this appeasement is supply side augmentation. It is the prevailing orthodoxy in India’s water management circles. Every time demand for water threatens to overtake supply, it says, build a dam, stop the river from flowing uselessly by, and use that water to meet demand. These new dams, crudely tacked onto the original plan, captured a larger part of Maharashtra’s share of the Godavari’s waters well before the river reached Jayakwadi.

The result: In the past 31 years, estimates the dam’s superintending engineer, Ajay Kohirkar, Jayakwadi has filled to 75-100% capacity just eleven times. All the other years, local farmers got little or no water. Today, local villagers are on the warpath, complaining dams upstream do not let enough water through.

Jayakwadi is just a synecdoche. It is the part that exemplifies a larger, altogether more unnerving reality. Every major river in Maharashtra flows through other states before emptying into the sea. The Krishna heads into Andhra. The Tapi and the Narmada flow into Gujarat. Travel east from the Western Ghats, comments SK Ghanekar, executive engineer and under-secretary in Maharashtra’s water resources department, and you will find dams that fill up less and less frequently. On each of these rivers, Maharashtra has built enough dams to capture its full quota of water – about 125.94 billion cubic metres (BCM) of the 163.82 BCM that courses through them in a year. Needless to say, all the water captured in these reservoirs is fully utilised – pushed into homes, factories and fields.

Do you see what I am getting at? Even as demand for water continues to rise, Maharashtra cannot build any more dams. There is no surplus water left for it to capture. Supply side augmentation is kaput. Nods the man in the hot seat, SV Sodal, secretary (water resources), Maharashtra, “All the water in the state is fully harnessed. All that we can do now is improve the efficiency with which we use this water.”

Maharashtra takes a bold step

The starting point is irrigation. It accounts for 75-80% of all water consumption in the state. More judicious use of water here will result in savings that can be then be used to quench water demand elsewhere – in other sectors, or to expand irrigation coverage. And so, in the middle of last year, the state passed two laws – the Water Resource Regulatory Authority bill and the Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act.

From now on, two things will change. One, the state water regulator, a newly constituted body called the Water Resource Regulatory Authority (WRRA), will decide how much water every reservoir along the Godavari, or any other river, can store. Supply and demand equations, really. The tougher question, however, is on water allocation within the reservoir. How does the state choose between domestic water supply, industrial water supply and agricultural use? Domestic water supply is needed if people in Maharashtra are to survive. Industry is where jobs are being created, where the state gets its revenues from, where economic growth lies. And so, the state will continue to allocate water first to homes and local industry before meeting irrigation needs (the state water policy of Maharashtra is unique in that it gives primacy to industrial needs for water over agricultural needs), but it will decentralise water distribution to ensure the remaining water reaches all farmers.

Indeed. Today, between corruption and poor monitoring, farmers at the head of a canal guzzle far more water than they are entitled to. Those further down get no water at all. The new laws, centering on water user associations, are meant to fix that. You might have heard of Pani Panchayats — where the local community allocated water among its members. That is what the WUAs are like. From now on, all farmers will have to join these associations. The state will deliver water only to these, following a ratio that links the water each WUA gets, to the total area cultivated by the WUA members. Every WUA will use the same principle while allocating water to its farmer-members.

What will this achieve? Tighter scrutiny, says Sodal. We cannot, he says, “monitor all the farmers in the state. In the new structure, there will just be 10-12,000 WUAs and the state will supervise those.” It will also make the system much more sustainable, he thinks. Once a farmer knows just how much water he will get, he will know what to grow. If he isn’t getting enough water to grow a water intensive crop like earlier, he will move to a less demanding one, or continue to grow the first crop, but in a smaller area.

Impeccable logic. Will it really work? The scheme ran into a storm of opposition. Some of it was richly deserved. In an ivory-skulled move, the state government linked the scheme to family planning. Farmers with more than two children, it decided, could not join the WUAs. Opposition was inevitable.

There were other qualms. The new regime sees water as a tradable right. A company that wants more water than it has been allotted can buy from others. For that matter, a farmer who wants more water can buy from other farmers. This touched a raw nerve. In May, shortly after the laws had been passed, human rights activists hit back. Water was a fundamental right, they said, not something that could be brought or sold. They criticised the creation of the WRRA, saying it would take the water debate out of the political arena, make it a commercial process, that the whole idea of social justice and entitlements would be demolished, and take something as basic as water into the realm of negotiable rights.

A brief digression now. The main reason for writing this story was to understand why, despite knowing that India is galloping towards a water crisis, we continue to take such half-hearted steps to resolve it. This is the first big stumbling block. Everyone involved in the water debate is locked into ideological positions.

A few days after starting work on this story, I attended an activist meeting called to devise a strategy to counter the World Bank, water privatisation and the colas. It was an unedifying event. The arguments were little more than shrill rhetoric. The World Bank has double standards. It has one set of norms for lending to developed countries, another for developing countries. It is giving loans, not aid. It aims to capture India’s water resources. It is pushing a privatisation agenda. And so on.

Markets excite strong feelings. This lot hated them. Water, they said, is an inalienable right. It cannot be traded. We won’t let you.

Silos like this distress Ramaswamy Iyer hugely. A former secretary to the Government of India, he is one of the most formidable experts on water in this country today. There are, he says, different ways of looking at water: as a commodity like any other, as a life-support resource and a basic human right, and therefore as a common pool resource, and as a `national resource’, i.e., the property of governments. The moment people pigeonhole water into one category further discussion on how to manage it becomes impossible. It is a shame. At that activist meeting, the audience comprised regional NGOs and farmers. The concerns were valid. The farmers were worried that water tariffs would be higher than what they could pay.

Similar silos, Iyer would tell me, have led to an complete absence of debate on the big dams. After the barrage of opposition that Sardar Sarovar ran into, official Indian attitudes towards dams have hardened. Less debate is entertained now.

Having said that, apart from being a common property, a fundamental right, a commodity fit to be traded, water is also a finite ecological resource. Maharashtra has an idea that might ensure sustainable and equitable use of its water resources. The question really was: would this work?

To check that, this reporter went to Ojhar. In participatory irrigation circles, this village near Nasik is famous. Nearly 15 years ago, its farmers came together, formed water user associations, and took over water allocation, linking water supply to landholding. Much the same way Maharashtra is trying to do right now.

On Ojhar, water rights and more…

By 1990, the farmers of this village were fed up. It was a familiar tableau. Farmers near the local dam, Waghad, were growing cane. Lying at the tail of the local irrigation canal, Ojhar got no water at all. That year, led by two locals, Bharat Kawale and Bapu Upadhyay, the villagers did some math. Between them, they farmed 1,151 hectares. Waghad was supposed to irrigate 6,700 hectares. And so, reasoning that one-sixth of the irrigation waters at the dam belonged to them, the villagers told the irrigation department as much. We weren’t, remembers Kawale, “willing to hear any excuses why the water could not reach the village. All we said was ‘we don’t care. That is our share of the water. If it doesn’t reach us, we will agitate.’” As a lolly, they assured the department that the WUAs would distribute water and collect payments. The farmers were told they would get water according to their landholding. That seemed to be the most sustainable and transparent way to share the irrigation waters.

In the fifteen years that have lapsed since, cropping patterns have changed. Take Ramnath Wable. Before 1990, he grew onion, fodder, wheat and bajra. Earning Rs 50-60,000 every year. Today, he grows grapes, onions and tomatoes. And makes Rs 5-6 lakh a year. The villagers also began husbanding their water carefully. Any spare water is captured in check dams to increase percolation. In all, the experiment was so successful that all the villages between Ojhar and Waghad formed their own WUAs as well.

In Ojhar, the fundamental breakthrough was the creation of these de facto water rights. Days after starting work on this story, I traveled to a village near Jaipur called Kaladera. This village is best known for its protest against a local Coca-Cola plant it blames for an alarming drop in groundwater levels. This is not great agricultural area. The rainfall is poor. The local river dried up years ago. All farmers depend on groundwater. Till about ten years ago, says Chiranji Lal Bhala, up-sarpanch to the village, groundwater could be found 15 feet underground. But now, villagers have to stab bore wells 125 ft deep into the earth before it yields any water.

In the old days, an old farmer sitting near us adds, all a farmer needed was a 3hp pump that came for Rs 3,000, and took up another Rs 400 in monthly power bills (for a ten bigha plot). But now, to draw water up, he needs a 10 hp pump. This costs anywhere between Rs 8,000-9,000, and ate up power worth about Rs 2,250 every month. Small farmers couldn’t afford any of that.

Rights are important. In their absence, water will continue to be allocated, but according to political or economic rationales. And, so far, water rights have been something of a chimera in this country. In Kaladera, the local community, even though it was living in a badly water stressed area, had no say on how the water it was dependant on should be used. The closest India has come to awarding water rights, says Videh Upadhayay, an environmental lawyer, is the 73rd amendment. It empowers the local community to make decisions on watersheds, water management, and minor irrigation work. But it is vaguely worded. It is not clear whether this gives the villagers operational or managerial control over the water resources. In Kaladera, bereft of any incentive to use their water responsibly, the villagers weren’t trying to conserve water either.

Having said that, doubts about what Maharashtra is proposing remain. For one, the experiment in Ohjar came about thanks to two committed individuals. Can it be rolled out across the state, backed by little more than government dictat? The local elite hijacked previous initiatives in participatory irrigation management. To avoid that, Maharashtra is drawing up elaborate norms on the composition of every WUA. One representative from the scheduled castes, one from the scheduled tribes, one from other backward classes, and so on…

Then again, a similar debate took place when the government reserved a third of all seats in local body elections for women. A lot of men continued their hegemony by nominating pliant women from their households. And yet, some women did take advantage of the provision and went far beyond being figureheads. In this case, the linking of water supply and landholding will tell farmers if they are being shortchanged. They may not speak up immediately. But eventually?

The main problem lies elsewhere. Is this a long-term solution? At Ohjar, the villagers have done a superb job of managing within the water they get. But the alarming truth is that the quantum of irrigation water they get is falling. Take Waghad. It was meant to be an irrigation project with all its water earmarked for farming. But today, 30% of its water goes for domestic and industrial use. Things are worse in other dams, says Kawale. “The Gangapur dam, when built in 1956, had 1.38% of its water reserved for domestic and industrial demand. Today, 69% of its water goes there. Or take Darna; built 30-35 years ago, 67% of its water goes into domestic and industrial use today. Up from 1% when it was commissioned.”

As Maharashtra tries to balance agricultural employment and industrial growth, a lot depends on how its sugar lobby behaves. Unless it shifts to drip irrigation or shifts to another state it is hard to see any significant efficiencies coming about. In which case, with the state loath to sacrifice either domestic or industrial quotas, the water allotment to the rest of agriculture will fall steeply. Which will spell doom for farmers in the state. Also, if the sugar lobby continues as ever, it will get harder for the state to attract fresh industrial investment.

And now, the scary stuff

This isn’t really a story about Maharashtra. The state is merely the first to reach a quagmire that the rest of the country is still hurtling towards. Across India, not only is demand for water rising, the available supply is shrinking — partly due to pollution, partly due to profligate use. The reliance on dams has created unsustainable cropping patterns across the country. I was surprised to learn paddy should not be grown in Punjab, till I learnt that farmers in Rajasthan, near the Indira Gandhi canal, were growing paddy as well.

So far, the outcomes of such conflicts are far from satisfactory. They yield winners and losers. In Kaladera, the small farmers got hammered. In Chhatisgarh, the Jindals are erecting a dam on a river called Kurkut; this will generate hydroelectricity for running their plant. The consequences downstream can be imagined. Or take Chennai. As it taps into water sources farther and farther inland, be it the Veeranam lake, 235 km south of Chennai, or the Kandaleru dam, 170 km to its north, it is snatching water from farmers.

So far, all we have seen are short-term solutions — be it more dams or river inter-linking — that let people carry on as usual for a little longer. The country is, comments RS Pathak, senior water resources specialist at the World Bank, “trying to solve a problem of the 21st century with 19th century thinking.” When the system falters, you and me install pumps, or buy water from tankers that transfer the shortage elsewhere. Recharging the aquifers through rainwater harvesting will not solve the problem, says an water expert at the Planning Commission; it can at best mitigate the human impact.

Longer term, as Iyer says, the only solution is to restrict use. Water has economic uses as well as life support functions. Companies, for instance, should be charged punitive rates so that they recycle. As for the citizens, water consumption beyond a level should also be charged punitively as well.

But what is the likelihood of any of that happening? Water is a state subject. Maharashtra acted only when it had no way out. I suspect the other states will wait just as long. Everything the previous paragraph suggests could be political hara-kiri. A quadrupled water bill will make voters cross. Companies, unwilling to pay more, might set up shop elsewhere.

Loath to see either happening, India’s states are doing something more unseemly. They are grubbing around for water. Which is why we have these disputes between states. Punjab recently cancelled its water treaties with Haryana. The Cauvery is another example. Both the warring states, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, says Iyer, get enough water from the river to manage. But farmers in one want to grow three crops of paddy every year. Farmers in the other want to grow cane. I find this ironic. This country has worked out water-sharing accords with its neighbours. But not within its own boundaries. World over, when allocating water, nations plan for the entire river’s course. But not in India. When mooted, the idea was resisted by every state. That would take their control over water away.

Four horsemen of the apocalypse. The lack of rights. The weak relationship between the centre and the states. The need to look past these silos on what water is. The need to look beyond supply side shenanigans. Can we master them?

If not, sponge baths will become a reality.

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I am an Indian journalist with interests in energy, environment, climate and India’s ongoing slide into right-wing authoritarianism. My book, Despite the State, an examination of pervasive state failure and democratic decay in India, was published by Westland Publications, India, in January 2021. My work has won the Bala Kailasam Memorial Award; the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award; and five Shriram Awards for Excellence in Financial Journalism. Write to me at despitethestate@protonmail.com.


…une plongée dans les failles béantes de la démocratie indienne, un compte rendu implacable du dysfonctionnement des Etats fédérés, minés par la corruption, le clientélisme, le culte de la personnalité des élus et le capitalisme de connivence. (…a dive into the gaping holes in Indian democracy, a relentless account of the dysfunction of the federated states, undermined by corruption, clientelism, the cult of the personality of elected officials and crony capitalism).” Le Monde

…a critical enquiry into why representative government in India is flagging.Biblio

…strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy.” Scroll.in

M. Rajshekhar’s deeply researched book… holds a mirror to Indian democracy, and finds several cracks.The Hindu

…excels at connecting the local to the national.Open

…refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges…Seminar

A patient mapping and thorough analysis of the Indian system’s horrific flaws…” Business Standard (Image here)

33 മാസം, 6 സംസ്ഥാനങ്ങൾ, 120 റിപ്പോർട്ടുകൾ: ജനാധിപത്യം തേടി മഹത്തായ ഇന്ത്യൻ യാത്ര… (33 months, 6 states, 120 reports: Great Indian journey in search of democracy…)” Malayala Manorama

Hindustan ki maujooda siyasi wa maaashi soorat e hal.” QindeelOnline

What emerges is the image of a state that is extractive, dominant, casteist and clientelist.Tribune

…reporting at its best. The picture that emerges is of a democracy that has been hijacked by vested interests, interested only in power and pelf.Moneycontrol.com

Book lists

Ten best non-fiction books of the year“, The Hindu.

Twenty-One Notable Books From 2021“, The Wire.

What has South Asia been reading: 2021 edition“, Himal Southasian


Journalism is a social enterprise…,” Booksfirst.in.

Democratic decay at state level: Journalist M Rajshekhar on book ‘Despite the State’,” The News Minute.

Covid-19 en Inde : “des décès de masse” dont un “État obscurantiste est responsable,” Asialyst.


JP to BJP: The Unanswered Questions“.
Mahtab Alam’s review of “JP to BJP: Bihar After Lalu and Nitish”.

Urban History of Atmospheric Modernity in Colonial India“. Mohammad Sajjad’s review of “Dust and Smoke: Air Pollution and Colonial Urbanism, India, c1860-c1940”.

Westland closure: Titles that are selling fast and a few personal recommendations,” by Chetana Divya Vasudev, Moneycontrol. (Because this happened too. In February, a year after DtS was released, Amazon decided to shutter Westland, which published the book. The announcement saw folks rushing to buy copies of Westland books before stocks run out.)

Time to change tack on counterinsurgency” by TK Arun, The Federal.

All Things Policy: The Challenges of Governing States” by Suman Joshi and Sarthak Pradhan, Takshashila Institute (podcast).

The Future of Entertainment“, Kaveree Bamzai in Open.

On What India’s Watching“, Prathyush Parasuraman on Substack.

The puppeteers around us“, Karthik Venkatesh in Deccan Herald.

Will TN election manifestos continue ‘populist’ welfare schemes?“, Anna Isaac for The News Minute.

Why wages-for-housework won’t help women“, V Geetha in Indian Express.

The poor state of the Indian state“, Arun Maira in The Hindu.

Book discussions

12 November, 2022: Stop Loss: Overcoming the systemic failures of the Indian State. Tata Literature Festival, Mumbai.

26 December, 2021: Rangashankara, Bangalore, a discussion with Dhanya Rajendran.

16 November: Rachna Books, Gangtok, a discussion with Pema Wangchuk.

29 August: Books In The Time of Chaos, with Ujwal Kumar.

21 May: Hyderabad Lit Fest with Kaveree Bamzai and Aniruddha Bahal.

28 March: Paalam Books, Salem, Tamil Nadu.

19 March: The News Minute, “Citizens, the State, and the idea of India

6 March: Pen@Prithvi, with Suhit Kelkar

20 February: A discussion between scholars Usha Ramanathan, Tridip Suhrud, MS Sriram and me to formally launch Despite the State.

6 February: DogEars Bookshop, Margoa.

5 February: The Polis Project, Dispatches with Suchitra Vijayan.

30 January: Founding Fuel, “Systems Thinking, State Capacity and Grassroots Development“.

25 January: Miranda House Literary Society