If you ever need to understand the water crisis that looms over Maharashtra, Jayakwadi dam in Marathwada, built on the Godavari river near the town of 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 imbalance, it built dams to stockpile water, and 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 the demand. Such new dams, crudely tacked onto the original plans, captured a large part of Maharashtra's share of the Godavari's waters well before the river reached Jayakwadi on its course towards Andhra Pradesh.

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 to them.

Jayakwadi is just a synecdoche; it 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 as well. The Tapi and the Narmada flow into Gujarat. Travel east from the Western Ghats, comments S K 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.

This means that even as demand for water within the state 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, S V 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."

A bold, but contentious step

The starting point is irrigation, which 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.

Even as demand for water within the state continues to rise, Maharashtra cannot build any more dams. There is no surplus water left for it to capture.

 •  A prescription for the doctor!
 •  Confusing water rights, quotas
 •  The coming water wars
 •  How the deal was done
 •  The World Bank and the big bang

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 may have heard of pani panchayats — where the local community allocates 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 is a fundamental right, they said, not something that could be bought 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, demolish ideas of social justice and entitlements, and take something as basic as water into the realm of negotiable rights.

A brief digression now. It is well known that India is galloping towards a water crisis, and yet we continue to take such half-hearted steps to resolve it. Why? This is the question that motivated my research for this article. And in the WRRA and the ensuing controversies, I found the first big stumbling block: everyone involved in the water debate is locked into an inflexible ideological position.

A few days after I began work on this story, I attended an activists' meeting called to devise a strategy to counter the World Bank, water privatisation and the colas. It was unedifying; 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. Their concerns were valid. The farmers were worried that water tariffs would be higher than what they could pay.

But these are not the only inflexible views. Similar silos, Iyer told 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.

Water rights - the Ojhar experience

Whatever view of water one holds - a common property, a fundamental right, a commodity to be traded, etc. - water is also a finite ecological resource. The Maharashtra government thinks it has an idea that can ensure sustainable and equitable use of its water. The question that should interest everyone really is: will this work?

To check that, I 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. 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. Their carrot-and-stick approach carried the day; 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.

Irrigated fields at Ojhar (Picture by M Rajshekhar).

In the fifteen years that have lapsed since, cropping patterns have changed. Take the case of 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, where no such rights have been established in law or practice. 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. Until 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 feet 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 3 hp pump that could be bought for Rs.3,000, and it took 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 and 9,000, and eats up power worth about Rs.2,250 every month. Small farmers can'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.

But Ojhar cannot answer all the doubts about what Maharashtra is proposing. 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 diktat? 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. Initially, this can be problematic; 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. But in the long run it did work; some women did take advantage of the provision and went far beyond being figureheads. Perhaps that success can be repeated here too. Linking water supply and landholding will tell farmers if they are being shortchanged. They may not speak up immediately. But eventually?

Is this a long-term solution? At Ohjar, the villagers have done a superb job of managing their needs with the water they get. But the alarming truth is that the quantum of irrigation water they get is falling each year. Waghad was meant to be an irrigation project with all its water earmarked for farming. But today, 30% of its water is used for domestic and industrial needs. 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 to these. 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 moves 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. Inevitably, this will spell doom for farmers in the state. Also, if the sugar lobby continues as now, it will get harder for the state to attract fresh industrial investment.

A nation in denial

But 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 or the Kandaleru dam, 170 km to its north, it is snatching water from farmers. For these growing problems, all we have seen so far are short-term solutions — more dams or river inter-linking — that let people carry on as usual for a little longer. The country is, comments R S 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 I install pumps, or buy water from tankers, but this merely transfers the shortage elsewhere. Recharging the aquifers through rainwater harvesting will not solve the problem either, says an water expert at the Planning Commission; it can at best mitigate the human impact. In the longer term, Iyer believes 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? Maharashtra acted only when it had no way out; other states may wait just as long. No decision-maker wants to commit hara-kiri. A quadrupled water bill will make voters cross. Companies, unwilling to pay more, might set up shop elsewhere.

For the moment, 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 Tamilnadu 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. This is 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; water is a state subject, and any inter-state planning might dilute their control over it.

Meeting the challenges is a tall order. There are many difficulties - the lack of rights, the weak relationship between the Centre and the States, the need to look past silos of views about water, the need to look beyond supply-side shenanigans. Perhaps I should plan for a sponge-bath future.