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A decade later: progression or regression

June 15, 2013
Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Caption: If there is a single prominent symbol for India’s resource-draining, energy-wasting, treasury-tilting farm policies, it is the electric water pump. The agriculture sector makes up 19 percent of India’s electricity consumption, most of it to power India’s 20 million electric pumps that pull water from deep in the ground.

I recently read an article titled “Choke Point: India — The Leopard in the Well” about the grim situation of water-energy nexus in northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab (primarily in terms of irrigation, agriculture, produce, food security and so on) and the energy crisis facing our nation as a whole. The author has used the title as a metaphor for modern India as the story of the leopard in the well is especially apt. India is a 66-year-old democracy, touched by boundless energy and driven by endless ambition. But it also is a nation trapped by seemingly inescapable walls of resource waste, management disarray, and cultural divides of its own making. The Green Revolution that catalyzed grain production in the mid-1960s ended India’s fear of famine. But achieving food abundance is overwhelming India’s mammoth and unwieldy bureaucracy, draining its freshwater reserves, and straining the energy sector and electrical grid.

Pardon me for getting a little soapy here, however whenever I read about the issues of water-energy-agriculture, especially in the context of north Indian states, I get a little nostalgic. I have to give the credit to the author for keeping the article very informative and authentic. You see being an observer from another country helps in situations like these.

The article states that unlike China, Australia, the United States, and Qatar, in particular, India’s ever-fiercer competition for water by the agriculture and energy sectors is not the result of battling for scarce resources because of the following reasons

  • Water reserves are ample.
  • Soil is fertile.
  • Reserves of coal are among the world’s largest.

The article mostly reflects on the policies of providing subsidized coal generated electricity-to draw groundwater-through tubewells-for irrigation. So you see where this is going.

I have observed this nexus so closely during the entire course of my career in India that I am almost compelled to say out loud “tell me about it”. In this blog post, I am not going to dwell upon the data and statistics (2003-13), as those facts have been adequately elaborated in the original article. This article only reflects my observations throughout the course of my career spanning a decade as a development professional in my home country.

A decade earlier:

I remember my very first assignment vividly, working at Janhit Foundation in Meerut towards the promotion of sustainable/organic agriculture practices.

When I started working at the grassroots level in 2003, I was astounded to observe how incessantly the tubewells used to run on electricity or more expensive diesel powered generators in the agricultural fields in and around Meerut district. We, Meerut residents, boast ourselves to be able to live in the Doab (region between two river, Ganga and Yamuna basins) in western Uttar Pradesh. As emphasized in the article, it has always been presumed that groundwater reserves are a plenty, soil very fertile and reserve of soil minerals adequate to grow all the water intensive cash crops such as sugarcane, wheat and paddy. However, over the decades following the green revolution the condition has deteriorated owing to the following reasons:

  • Mono-cropping prevalence throughout the region
  • Extensive use of chemicals in farming
  • Abandoning of traditional seeds and methods in farming
  • Diminished livestock usage in practicing agriculture
  • Increasing abandoning of agriculture by farmers’ next generations
  • Declining cost benefit involved in farming
  • Climate change

The list is not exhaustive. This trend continued until the time when I left WWF-India’s Living Ganga Program in 2011. WWF India also undertook an interesting study to observe the water-energy nexus in irrigation at a pilot site in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

In 2003, besides watching the exploitation of energy and water resources in the rural areas, I also witnessed the crisis in the city. It was a pain to start working in the afternoon everyday because there was no electricity supply  in the morning. We used to dread the time to use the diesel powered generator for an emergency. It was such a loss of productivity that looking back I cannot even calculate the man hours we wasted during the morning hours waiting for the electricity to come back on.

Even way before that, I remember that my parents had to buy expensive power back up (called ‘inverter’ in India) because of my high school exams. This was because of the unannounced unending power cuts in the electricity supply in late 90s.

A typical inverter for domestic use in India

A typical inverter battery for domestic use in India

That trend continued during my time in Janhit Foundation up to WWF-India and continues till date in Meerut city. It is quite ironical as my parents keep updating me proudly how real state is coming up in a major way in my home town and also because Meerut falls in the NCR (National Capital Region).

Now here we are in 2013:

A decade later, spending a large chunk of my professional life trying to support initiatives so as to alleviate all these crises, it’s heart breaking to see the situation has only got worse. We proudly claim that India is an emerging economy  and at the same time there are power cuts lasting over weeks in almost half of nation as we saw in the recent past. This incidence put India on the world map for a completely regressive reason. We all know that India still has a long way to go to fulfill the growing population’s  energy and water needs. Professionals criticize that the developed nations’ quench for/addiction to fossil fuels is being fed by different developing and developed countries rich in the same.  Given this scenario, India’s incapability to utilize the available resources in the best possible manner elevates the crises to whole other level. There exists a struggle to get water to the fields and homes; energy for the domestic and commercial usage, rural electrification and so on. We also see that the immense potential of wind and solar energy goes untapped in a tropical nation such as ours.

The writer of the original article goes on elaborating the following key issues facing our nation today:

  • Internal Indecision
  • Food Production: Government’s policy of wastage
  • Coal and electricity shortage: Endemic blackouts
  • Solutions are difficult

Way forward:

After reading the article and reflecting upon my own experience, I really felt heart broken and complained out loud that I feel like a wrong doer for having left my country. However, on second thought, I believe that maybe this is my way of protesting that I do not agree with the existing policies by which our county is being run right now. I lamented about the same to a friend, saying that I do not expect to read a similar report on regression of India in 2023, to which she reacted saying, who knows it could be progression, right? As of now, I can only say amen to that.



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