You are here: Home People Speak "The question of water isn’t that simple, it is a complex question. The important issue is that everyone deserves clean and safe drinking water."
"The question of water isn’t that simple, it is a complex question. The important issue is that everyone deserves clean and safe drinking water."

Mar 27, 2012

In an exclusive interview with OneWorld South Asia, Sunita Narain, writer and environmentalist talks about the enormity of water issues that India faces and how the government can help control it through intelligent and effective policies.

Sunita Narain, is currently the director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and publisher of the magazine Down to Earth.  She has been awarded the Padma Shri in 2005 by the Indian government, and she has also received the World Water Prize for work on rainwater harvesting and for its policy influence. For Narain, water is a primary area of interest and she uses her research and advocacy to change the politics and paradigm of water management in India.

 OneWorld: The union government is planning to come out with a new National Water Policy in 2012, what should be the priority area of this policy?

 Sunita Narain: Water is a big concern these days and the problem is increasing day by day because of the rapid urbanization and industrialization, hence demand of water is increasing. Water crisis will grow in this country if we don’t think seriously about it. The central government has come out with the draft National Water Policy, which is a good thing, but the question that how is this policy different from the existing one. Sunita Narain.jpgThe growing demand of water is increasing water stress between cities and rural areas. We believe that water is very important for rural areas and it should be prioritized for them. The draft National Water Policy has tried to prioritize the water for the cities and industries up to an extent. It should not happen. In the days to come, when this policy will be finalized after discussions, it should be clear that water that is required in the rural areas for agriculture and should be given to them.

OW:  But at the same time government is talking about PPPs and community engagement. Don’t you think this is contradictory?

Sunita Narain: India is a big country, everything is possible here; community participation as well as the private participation. There is nothing wrong in saying these two things but the question is that how is government planning to take it forward. If they think that industries and private players are going to collect the water and solve the water problem in the cities then this not going to happen. 

I think that there is nothing wrong in saying these two things in policy because a policy contains suggestions and recommendations for whole country. The important question is that how are you going to implement it and what are you going to prioritize. These are the two issues that need to be debated and discussed.

OW:  It is also said that putting price on water is a policy instrument to encourage intelligent use of water. Is it a solution or a problem?

Sunita Narain: I absolutely agree that there must be a price on water. Because if there isn’t any price on water, those who are rich get it on cheaper rates while it is expensive for poor. Today, poor people living in slum areas of a city either don’t get water or pay more price for it. I think this will also enhance our understanding of using water in more judicious manner.

However, the bigger issue is that how will you put a price on water used in agriculture sector. Putting a price on water in a city and in agricultural sector are two different things. If you are saying that you want to place a price on water used by agricultural sector then one shouldn’t think about placing a cap on the prices of agricultural produce too.  Then, you can’t ask a farmer to pay for the water used for farming. If you believe in market then completely believe in it, there should not be double standards.

OW: When it comes to water, what should be the role of the State: 'a service provider' or a ‘regulator’?

Sunita Narain: See, both should be there, this isn’t a question. When it comes to water then certainly, government should act as a service provider up to an extent. If you consider that in your town, someone else will provide you the water then it is not going to happen.

But this is also true that where people can take care of their own water, people can work in groups to collect water in farms and construct ponds, there we should work for collecting it. Then, I think both are required. What I want to say is that the question of water isn’t that simple, it is a complex question. The important issue is that everyone deserves clean and safe drinking water. Everyone should understand the definition of clean water; it is water that doesn’t have any kind of ill- effects on health.

OW: What do you think about the recent judgement of the Supreme Court on implementing the inter-linking of rivers?

Sunita Narain: The court has delivered such a judgement because there would have been something in their hearts. They would have this pain inside their hearts that there isn’t sufficient water in this country. But I think, that the court wasn’t properly informed about river interlinking plan. The question of river inter-linking is there from last 40 years but nothing had happened. This was not because of the government not wanting it to happen but this wasn’t a practical idea.

Today, there are so many irrigation projects and no one is stopping you from having such a project but one should understand that a huge amount of land is required to begin with a big irrigation project. There are issues of displacement and resettlement. Environment is a big question. So, we should appreciate the sentiments of the court but at the same time the court should also understand that this is a good idea but not practical.

OW: The state of rivers in India has not improved despite thousands of crores being spent, including money that come as loans, what is your take on it?

Sunita Narain: We should seriously think about it because we are losing our rivers. If you see, I can tell you three cities where earlier there were rivers but today they have become drains, there isn’t even a mark of a river. In Delhi, there was river called Sahibi but today it is known as Nazafgarh drain. If you see Mumbai, then there was Mitthi River, it was full of fresh water but today it is a drain on official papers. There is a Buddha drain in Ludhiana which used to be considered as a river but today it carries garbage of the city.

So, if we don’t want to convert our rivers into drains and don’t want to lose them then we must think about why our plans and strategies of reducing river pollution are not working. It is not working because we have failed to understand that we need to connect our flush toilets to the rivers. We keep on bringing the water to the city but never think about flushing the water out of city. We think that we will construct a sewage treatment plant to rehabilitate river water system but there aren’t sufficient drains to bring that water out from the city to the sewage treatment plant. We need to think about it in a serious manner and devise a new policy because today all the systems have become redundant.

OW: The United Nations World Water Development Report released today raises concerns over growing demand of water for agriculture. What are your views on this report?

Sunita Narain: See, if you think that you don’t require water to live then you it is fine. I think we need water to cook food and also to produce it. This isn’t a question related to agriculture; but one about our lifestyle. We need to think that how it justified to cultivate paddy in Punjab? What is the need of cultivating paddy in Punjab? It should be grown in Kerala, where water is abundant. When I was like you, I remember we had mixed crops and cereals and it required less water. If you go to Rajasthan, maize and millet is grown there and finger millet is grown abundantly in Karnataka. So, today the kind of food we eat; and when everyone is eating rice and wheat, the consumption of water will definitely increase. If you start thinking about diversity in this country, you will definitely save the water. 

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