Unholy woes | The Economist

AT THE dawn of time Lord Vishnu made gods and demons join in churning the milky oceans to extract an elixir of eternal life. After cheating the demons of their share, Vishnu spilled four drops of the precious nectar. Where they fell sprang up sacred rivers whose waters wash away sins, now sites for mass Hindu pilgrimages called Kumbh Mela.

For a lunar month every 12 years it falls to Ujjain, a town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to host the Kumbh Mela by the revered Shipra, whose waters meander north into the mighty Ganges and eventually eastward to the Bay of Bengal. By the time the full moon reappears on May 21st tens of millions of bathers, among them thousands of bearded ascetics known as sadhus (pictured), will have worshipped on Ujjain’s teeming riverbanks.

What few are aware of is that the water is no longer the Shipra’s. Urbanisation, rising demand and two years of severe drought have shrivelled the sacred river. Its natural state at this time of year, before the monsoon, would be a dismal sequence of puddles dirtied by industrial and human waste. But the government of Madhya Pradesh, determined to preserve the pilgrimage, has built a massive pipeline diverting into the Shipra the abundant waters of the Narmada river, which spills westward into the Arabian Sea. Giant pumps are sucking some 5,000 litres a second from a canal fed by the Narmada, lifting it by 350 metres and carrying it nearly 50 kilometres to pour into the Shipra’s headwaters. To ensure clean water for the festival, the Shipra’s smaller tributaries have been blocked or diverted, and purifying ozone is being injected into the reconstituted waters in Ujjain itself.

The pilgrims and merchants of Ujjain are happy. But down in the Narmada valley there is little cheer. “They are wasting water on sadhus…while our farms go dry,” says Rameshwar Sitole, a farmer in the hamlet of Kithud. Since March the canal, which feeds his 2.5 hectares of maize and okra along with the farms of 12 other hamlets, has been bone dry. Mr Sitole’s crops have withered and died: a loss, he reckons, of some 50,000 rupees ($750). The government insists the water will return once Ujjain’s pilgrimage ends, but he is not so sure. “They turn it on when we protest, and then take it away again,” Mr Sitole shrugs. Meanwhile, over the hills, industrial users near Ujjain are lobbying loudly to exploit the fancy new water sources.

Poor monsoons are not unusual, but the back-to-back shortfalls, linked to the El Niño effect, which India has experienced in the past two years are very rare. Ten out of 29 states, with a population of some 330m, have been badly hit, with the worst-affected areas in the centre of the country. India is suffering its gravest water shortage since independence, says Himanshu Thakkar, a water expert in Delhi, the capital. Every day brings news of exhausted rivers and wells, destitute farmers migrating to the cities or even committing suicide, water trains being dispatched to parched regions—and of leopards venturing into towns in search of a drink.

The central government has responded with make-work programmes for afflicted areas, emergency shipments of water, and many promises. In February Narendra Modi, the prime minister, pledged to double farm incomes by 2022. Other ministers speak of massive irrigation projects, and have dusted off an ambitious water-diversion scheme for parched regions that is priced at $165 billion and involves no fewer than 37 links between rivers. Most links would be via canals—some 15,000km of artificial waterways in all.

Source: Unholy woes | The Economist

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