India's Water Wars

Muradnagar, Aug. 22: Armed with axes, hammers and sticks, thousands of farmers converged on this township in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to prevent construction of the proposed water pipeline being laid to fetch additional waters from the river Ganges to the New Delhi-situated treatment plant operated by a subsidiary of water giant Suez Lyonnaise. Construction was put to a halt.

Plachimara, Aug. 4: On the 105th day of agitation, protestors attempted to force their way into a Coca-Cola factory in this South Indian state of Kerala with intent to destroying property. One hundred and thirty villagers were arrested in the ensuing police crackdown.

Kudus, September: Women’s groups converged at this obscure hamlet in the Western Indian state of Maharashtra to call for a nation-wide campaign against the deprivation of precious water supplies to local communities by multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola.

Bhuvaneshwar, September: The people’s struggles against the privatization of essential services (including water and electricity) assumed a more focused approach at a meeting of participating non-governmental organizations at the capital of the federal state of Orissa. A roadmap of a sustained struggle against international funding agencies (including the World Bank and the UK's Department for International Development) was released at the conference.

If the above gives the impression that water-related struggles are erupting today in India, the thought is not wildly off the mark.

India, with 16 percent of the world’s population, 2.45 percent of the land mass and four percent of the world’s water resources, already has a grave water crisis. In 15 federal states, the underground water levels have been falling at rates ranging between five and seven percent, and some are expected to run dry as early as 2015 because of exploitation and misuse. Twelve major rivers in the country are designated as polluted (with untreated industrial and domestic waste and pesticide/fertilizer run off from farms), and hydrological experts say that there are no more freshwater sources to be found anywhere in India.

Corporations have estimated that the total global water market is U.S.$500 billion. The emerging water market in India is estimated to be over U.S.$2 billion (one-third for water provisioning, one-third for municipal water treatment and one-third for industrial water treatment).

In India, the market for business in pollution control equipment (currently about U.S.$8 billion annually) is estimated to be growing around 10-12 percent yearly and is anticipated to grow to approximately U.S.$13-14 billion by the year 2005. The bottled industry market is growing at a whopping rate of 55 percent annually and is expected to cross the 1000 crore rupee mark (over U.S.$200 million) within the next two years.

Two years ago, when 62-year-old Kesri Singh, a former advocate of India’s Supreme Court, decided to come out of retirement to launch the Dehat Morcha (a forum to fight water privatization), a great deal had happened: global water giants (Vivendi, Swez Lyonnaise and Saur of France; RWE/Thames Water of Germany and the UK; Bechtel of the UK and Enron from the U.S.) had established a firm presence in the country and were negotiating agreements facilitating privatization of water utilities in 20 cities spread over several federal states. Community struggles had also been gathering momentum against Coca-Cola and its bottling plants, and passions were running high against policies that permitted global corporations to rake in profits, while the common people were robbed of the sacred and natural resource of water.

Kesri Singh hoped to prevent the federal government from going through with its plans to construct a pipeline through the Western Uttar Pradesh region (for fetching additional waters to a transmission plant at New Delhi managed by the French company Ondeo Degramont).

The region, India’s most fertile and prosperous farming area, had already been declared a "gray zone" on account of falling water levels, and farmers had been prohibited from digging additional tubewells. Kesri Singh arrived at the view that the federal government’s plans to lay a concrete pipeline would prevent the recharge of the groundwater and ultimately lead to the desertification of the region; he could barely figure out why the Coca-Cola factory in the region was being allowed to draw about 200 cusecs (about 200 cubic feet) of water each day when women in some villages were having to trudge between seven to 10 kilometers to fetch one pail of water.

Kesri Singh was born and raised in Western Uttar Pradesh, and he felt the time had come for him to repay his gratitude to the community. He set up the Dehat Morcha in early 2000, and has never looked back. This year on Aug. 9, the Dehat Morcha sent what was arguably the biggest contingent to the protest march against water privatization, starting from the holy city of Haridwar and culminating at Bhanera village in Muradnagar.

The farmers carrying placards ("Swez-Degramont stealing waters from Indian farmers;" "Ganga [India’s holy river] is not for sale") lost their patience somewhat upon reaching Bhanera: getting into a frenzy of sorts and damaging the water pipes and chasing away engineers and workers. Says Kesri Singh: "Take it from me, we will put mines there and blast the pipes, if need be. If two thousand farmers decided to raze a Coca-Cola factory to the ground, they will do it. But we don’t think the time is ripe yet."

Former bureaucrat Ramaswamy R. Iyer’s interpretation about water struggles in India is this: "In the Western world, one has the legacy of Prometheus, who is said to have brought fire to earth in defiance of the gods. Under the influence of that legacy, the Western world is driven by technological hubris to undertake the harnessing of nature for development. In contrast, India has the legend of the Bhagiratha who brought water -- the river Ganga -- to earth in a prayerful spirit. In our tradition, rivers have been regarded as deities to be worshipped and not as horses to be harnessed and ridden."

Of course, this tradition has hardly prevented the Indians from polluting their rivers. Throughout India, drinking water supplies are intermittent while transmission and distribution networks are of poor quality, in addition to being outdated and poorly maintained. Lately, the federal government has appeared to view privatization as the only option. Therefore, the water giants have been arriving in droves. Estimates are that there are 70 other projects (amounting to U.S.$60 billion) under procurement.

Community groups, however, have valid reasons to suspect justifications put forward that public-private participation in the water sector would serve the needs of the common people.

-- In Orissa State, the DFID-funded scheme for the creation of Pani Panchayats (Users Association) was put into practice after the public sector owned Orissa Lift Irrigation Corporation was disbanded. In the six odd months of the creation of the Pani Panchayats, the price of lift irrigation water to users has increased almost 10 times.

-- The Vaitarna had been a perennial river at Kudus village in the Thane district of Maharashtra State until Coca-Cola set up a factory there in 1997. Adivasi (tribal) women of the area are now forced to wash clothes once every two or three months in the stagnant puddles of water in the now-dry bed of the river downstream.

-- The local aquifers at Plachimara (Kerala State) have been rapidly depleting, while the Coke plant (set up in 1995) consumes 600,000 liters per day. The promised jobs have not come to the villagers, and they now have to put up with reduced incomes and without adequate water supplies.

-- In the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, the slogan coined by village women speaks for itself: "Let not the pitcher on my head fall, even if my husband dies at home."

All over India, people’s struggles on the water issue have either begun or are about to happen: regional water public hearings are taking place, public demonstrations are being organized, fresh strategies are being debated and put into practice.

Brinda Karath, chairperson of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, believes that the water question needed to be looked at from the perspective of rural Indian women, as it impacts and damages their lives the most. Karath is these days busy mobilizing and rallying women’s groups.

Well-known activist Vandana Shiva (chairperson of Navdanya, a group fighting water privatization concerns) also seems to be doing everything possible to prevent the commodification of water.

Says Shiva: "Today, in the market and greed-driven system of globalization and privatization, the common and sacred resource of water is being reduced to a tradable, profitable and economic product which can be owned, marketed and sold to whoever can pay for it."

Still, Shiva asserts that communities will ensure that this does not happen in India. Last February, Navdanya (together with other NGOs) adopted the Campaign for Water Liberation. The group has been threatening a repeat of the Bolivian experience -- where the community forced the Bechtel Corporation to flee the country and the Bolivian government had to invalidate the new laws it had made to allow privatization of water.

Srinand Jha is a freelance writer and activist living in New Dehli, India.


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