Sunday, July 8, 2007

Land of Five Rivers becoming Waterless

Water Crisis and Water Chaos in Punjab

By Umendra Dutt

Last month Punjab has been declared as the over all best state in the country by India Today news magazine for the third conjunctive year. It is good to have a prize for Punjab and state government has immediately taken this as an opportunity to have publicity campaign for its achievement. But there is another side of the picture also which shows doom, distress and destruction is fast engulfing this land of five waters. It is a Water-Chaos in the Punjab.

We can see farmers committing suicides due to failure of pumps, neighbors in farms killing each other over the quarrel for irrigation water, Women are bound to fetch water on their head from as far as 3 kms, and a vast majority of people have no option other then to drink sub-human water. We can see long queues around certain hand pumps adjacent to canals for potable water; we can find farmers fetching water on trolleys, bullock carts, jeeps, and village made jeep-the jogards, motor bikes and bicycles in several villages.

The situation is more pity in southern districts of state in Malwa region, but situation is fast becoming all most same in entire Punjab. There are news of public demonstrations, road-blocks, dharnas and civil unrest on the issue of water. Students boycotting the classes and even an engineering collage near Malout have forced to declare vacations for three days as there is no water supply to the institute in April 2006. Students at ITI Moga went on strike to protest against non-availability of drinking water.
The water crisis is so vast that it had engulfed every nook and corner of the state. You can find farmers demonstrating in Talwandi Sabo, Pathankot, Fazilka, Malout, Muktsar, Hoshiarpur and Garhshankar. Then there are demonstrations by urban people at Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, and list is end less.

Water scarcity had impacted daily lives and routine of Punjab peoples. They have to spend time and money to bring water from safe sources. Residents of Talwandi Bhai and Mudki towns in Ferozepur are compelled to drink un-potable water and if they wished to drink near potable water they had to travel as far 8 KMs to fetch the same. In Talwandi Sabo block also villagers in some of adjoining villages has to bring water from as far as 10 KMs. In Malsingh Wala village one could see peoples toeing water not only to drink, but also for bath and for their animals. It is 100% water importing village. Malsingh Wala has already declared itself as ‘village for sale’. Even earlier village Harkishanpura which was first village to put itself on sale has also severe water problem. There is no water for irrigation neither for drinking. The water crisis made village insolvent and compelled villagers to put village on sale. The situation is almost same in whole of Malwa region. The severe water crisis is also becoming a social stigma upon some villages. It is tough to find bride for village youths as no body wants to marry his/her daughter to these villages.
Water crisis is so pitiable that village Buladewala with population of 6000 is getting water from 2 hand pumps only. Situation is so grim that in urban and sub-urban areas people are forced to install expensive submersible pumps to fetch water. More is the depth more it costs on drilling and then it needs further higher capacity motor to fetch water and more power bill; it is unending process now in most parts of the Punjab.
Even villagers’ drinking water from sub-human system has no other option left “It is better to drink unfit water then die of thirst- says Barjinder Singh a farmer from village Malsingh wala.
The water crisis is fast deepening in Malwa that public anguish is raising all around. About three dozen villages of Talwandi Sabo had already declared to boycott the coming assembly elections in the state to mark the protest against non-availability of water.
Potable water is latterly become a saleable good even in villages. Villagers at Tarkhanwala, Shekhu, Check Hira Singh and Bagha in district Sangrur are forced to purchase water at Rs 150/- per trolley from neighboring Haryana village Tigri. Even in Malsingh Wala and other adjoining villages villagers have to pay for diesel to the trolley owner to get water regular. It is irony that water is selling in that very land which has abundance water resources once and it is more tragic that this commercialization of water is done not by any company it is being commercialized by villagers themselves. This is erosion of value-system related to water.

It is new trend that now farmers in Punjab are committing suicide as their tube wells are going dry. As water level is going down drastically day by day the farmers are forced to spend money to get water from new depth. In some of areas this is very common phenomenon. This also adds more debt burden on Punjabi farmers. Here are few examples:
Khushpal Singh (42) a small farmer of village Gajewas in Patiala district, committed suicide in June 2005 as he failed to get the bore re-installed after drastic fall in water levels. Already he had piled up debts and when he could not raise money to get the bore-well workable again he consumed pesticide. Another young farmer of same village Baljinder Singh (23) found dead on his farm. He faced similar situation and when he could not sow paddy as his tube-well became absolutely redundant. His mother describes the situation” we didn’t have the money to reinstall it and couldn’t sow paddy, our only means of existence. He lost all hope.”
Re-digging a bore and making it operational cost about Rs 1 lakh, which is not possible for a marginal or small farmer to afford. Same is story of Mal Singh Wala village where Makhan Singh (35) committed suicide due to debt burden accumulated over the years as he has taken loan for re-digging. There is more tragic and sad story of Sukhchain Singh and Jinder Singh both brothers in their thirties and sons of Labh Singh a small farmer of Lehel Kalan village near Lehragaga in Sangrur district. Both had committed suicide one after one as their tube-well has been failed. They are unable to pay back loan taken for re-digging and the tube-well again went dry, forcing them to end their lives.
Taking water out of deep aquifers is really becoming costly affair some body has paying its price by his life and it is no other then the poor labours. This is another deadly aspect of re-digging. Every year here are about hundred incidents in which labour, masons and mechanics working to dig deep tube-well die due to collapse of well. The poor labours lost their lives as water level has dipped to the new depths. These incidents are rising every year.

A large number of farmers suicides taken place in Malwa region were some how related to water crisis, either re-digging and re-installing and high operational cost or bad quality of water leads to decline in crop productivity.
Sorrow saga did not end here after water related suicides now we have to face murders. One farmer Sarabjeet Singh was killed by his neighbor after an altercation and sudden provocation over drawing irrigation water in village Butala in Amritsar district. One could find hundreds of news regarding altercation, tension and man handling across the Punjab over the water for irrigation, particularly during the paddy season. These instances are the indictor of social crisis knocking the door of Punjab.
Now there is growing demand for more canal water in Central and North Punjab districts in Majha and Doaba regions for irrigation. Even few farmers have started debating on riparian rights among the various districts of Punjab. This is really a bad news for Punjab. With ever increasing demand of irrigation water and with drastic receding ground water levels the problem is fast becoming very serious crisis.

This crisis further compounds as dark zones are rapidly increasing in Punjab. The Green revolution agriculture system based on greed, exploitation and misappropriation of nature has enhanced the human lust for squeezing the Mother Nature and her resources. It has broken the mother-son relation of farmer and earth resulting ruthless use – misuse of earth resources. In 1970-71 there were only 1.92 lakh Tube wells in Punjab, in 80-81 there were 6 lakh tube wells, and in 90-91 number went up to 8 lakh, 2000-01 again number rises upto 10 lakh and now there are about 14 lakh tube wells. This has resulted in making districts after districts dark zone – the highly over exploited area. Entire fertile region of central Punjab is dark zone now plunging the state into unimaginable ecological catastrophe. After any area declared as dark zone no new tube well is allowed, but one can find hundred of drilling machines working in dark zones.
In 1984 there were 53 blocks as dark zones, in 1995 they were 84 and in 2005 the figure went up to 108 out of total 138 development blocks in Punjab. Ground water level falling much faster then assumed. In 1973 only 3% area of Punjab has water table below 10 meters, it goes up to 14.9% in 1989, 20% in 1992, and 28% in 1997, 53% in 2000, 76% in 2002 and in 2004 the situation goes beyond expectations when 90% area of Punjab is drawing water from the depth of more then 10 meters. More over 30% area of Punjab has depth of 20 meters or even more.
On the contrary the Punjab has lost its most of natural systems of ground water recharging in last two decades. The natural wetlands of Punjab were almost disappears and so is the condition of village ponds. Ponds are encroached, filled and used as farm or building was constructed on its land. Thus disturbing the eco-system and jeopardizing the natural recharging of aquifers. This mind less destruction of ponds was done under very government patronage. Knowingly or un-knowingly who so ever they are, are environmental criminals who pushed the future generations of Punjab into sorrow saga of distress, death, destruction and displacement.
The great Bhupindra Sagar Lake in Sangrur district, which was once known as favorite hunting spot of Maharaja Bhupindra Singh of Patiala, is totally vanished. The mighty Bhupindra Sagar was once spread over the area of 1280 Hectares. The list of disappeared wetlands is an indication of devastation, which is knocking the door of Punjab. Few of destructed wetlands are Chhangli Chhamb – 1000 Ha, Chhangli Tabo-140 Ha, Chhamb Gurditwala -100 Ha in Ferozpur district. Then Sangeri 41 Ha in Mansa, Sharmkot -12 Ha in Gurdaspur, Gaunspur Chhamb -100 Ha, Jandwal Chhamb both in Hoshiarpur-100 Ha, Rahon Chhamb 300 Ha in Nawanshahar. The one of major wetlands in Punjab “Tarkiana” wetland near Dasuha, is no more on ground, it remains only on papers. Other wetlands as Jasterwal, Khanuwan, Lobana (near Nabha), Mand Bharthala, Rababsar and Bareta are the worst victims of man-made disaster and ignorance. This is the common fate of all natural wetlands of Punjab. But, man-made wetlands are also facing almost similar threats.
Apart from this the several major reservoirs such as Sitasar (Sunam), Ajj Sarovar (Kharar), Mullanpur GaribDass, Gharian, Pandusar (Dasuha), RajeTal, Bopa Rai Kalan, Kahangarh, Chamunda Devi, Thand Kasel, Attariwala, Batala, Gurdaspur, Bhagna, Fethgarh Churrien, Chmiari, Preet Nagar, Ramsar, Lakshmansar (Amritsar) are in condition of distress. Several among these have marvelous architectural design with splendor beauty, but now only ruin remains. Most of these ponds are situated in Amritsar district. One can see the tradition of constructing ponds in Punjab through the windows of Ghats of these majestic monuments. The former princely city of Sangrur once had four major reservoirs on all four corners of town, but the man made foolish decisions killed all four tanks, and this is too declared as the so called modern development. The princely town of Nabha was also lost its famous HattiKhanna Talab along with several other ponds in town and in adjacent villages. The ruins of traditional ponds system of Punjab can be found in the districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Ropar. The remains of puckka ghats with beautiful construction are the evidence of the rich native tradition of Ponds, their architect and design in Punjab. But this great glory of conserving water is the thing of forgotten past. Today nobody is aware about it and no body wants to care about it. It is sad and unfortunate its own people put this great pond system on death in Punjab.

With this the situation worsened more. In 1980 there are 3712 villages identified as drinking water problem villages, this figure went up to 6287 in 1990, and then in year 2000 the number goes as high as 8518 and as of now 11849 villages or habitations out of total 12423 in Punjab are facing drinking water problems.

Another aspect of crisis is fast deteriorating quality of ground water along with canal water. According to a survey done by Punjab Remote Sensing Centre at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana and National Bureau of Soil Survey and use planning, Punjab has very high concentration of sodium carbonate and salinity in tube well water. Survey says that 57% of ground water is unfit for irrigation. More over some districts of Malwa region are in deep crisis as they had very less percentage of their ground water up to the mark. Muktsar has only 38% quality water, Faridkot – 33%, Mansa 35%, Sangrur-34%, Bathinda -19.77% and Moga has poor 14.98% of ground water fit for irrigation. The Punjab level picture is gloomier as 7.7% ground water in entire state is totally unfit, 5.3% has high salt contents and 42.1% contains sodium bicarbonate. Several farmers in Bathinda, Mansa, Muktsar, Faridkot and Moga districts lost their crop productivity and yield. The geo-physical analysis of ground water of Punjab shows that it contains high levels of Fluorine, Nitrates, Sulphate, Sodium, Selenium, cadmium, chromium and even nickel.

The poor water quality also results in higher consumption of fertilizers and other nutrients to sustain the falling yields. Farmers are spending on gypsum and zinc every year to counter the effects of salinity. Salts in water the also block percolation process that facilitate recharging of ground water. This highly sub-standard ground water is also contributing high incidences of cancer in Malwa. There are several water bourn diseases spreading in entire Punjab, but Malwa is worst victim. Graying of hairs, arthritis, and fluorosis both skeletal and dental has already taken over the dieses list.
The situation is alarming as on the one hand ground water is fast going down day by day and on the other hand its quality is not only deteriorating but already deteriorated.

The doom does not ends here, there are more stark facts yet has to come. Take canal water now. In earlier days canal water is considered ideal for irrigation is no more so, courtesy industrial pollution and un-treated effluents released in rivers and rivulets. This has further deepens the water crisis and woes of common people. The canal water in most of areas is contaminated and polluted. The situation had becomes worst during summer-season. This year Malwa region had faced unprecedented water crisis when black water flows through canals containing contaminators, pollutants, toxicants and whole lot of chemicals. Districts of Faridkot, Muktsar, Bathinda and Abohar-Fazilka were literally on water wars, as Municipal Committees were forced to stop supplying tap water to the people. Even Muktsar civic body had made public announcement to not to drink municipal water. The water is stinking and a dangerous substance flowing in taps distributing diseases. This canal water is even unfit for irrigation also.

The ground water is contaminated more near the rivers and drains. The untreated industrial waste released into drains ,which is further seeping into the lands and thus polluting the ground water. Several towns are witnessing this problem. The lives of people living along side of drains in Punjab are fast becoming vulnerable to even DNA damage. Dr J S Thakur of PGIMER who is working on this issue admits that water contaminated by untreated industrial waste might be leading to the DNA change and making people predisposed to cancer and congenital diseases. His views were supported by Dr. Gursatej Gandhi scientist at Genetics Department, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar who had worked in Mahal village situated on the bank of a drain which carries industrial affluent. She says the ground water contamination due to industrial waste disposal in drains is causing very severe health challenge. The toxic waste after seeping into ground water brings several irreversible health damages. She cites examples of not only DNA damage, but also chromosome damage, premature ageing and other adverse effects due to drinking of this contaminated ground water.
This situation again put extra financial burden on citizens. The sale of water filters and purifiers has shot up in last two years in Punjab. The ordinary people in fear of cancer and other deadly dieses are purchasing expensive water purifiers, even by taking loan. Providing safe water has become money minting business in the very land of five rivers. This has bound to be deep cultural impacts besides socio-economic stress in society.

These are few glimpses of water crisis in Punjab. To bring Punjab out of this devastation, the civil society has to act today only, tomorrow may be too late. Save Water is not mere a slogan it should become convection, commitment and mission of every proud Punjabi. More over the role of Punjab government, politicians, beurocrates and decision makers is yet not in accordance with the gravity of the crisis. Punjab has to evolve a strategy, action plan, water policy and most important its water vision to save its existence. But all these should based on eternal values preached by our glorious water heritage and wisdom.
The land of Guru Nanak, who has given a rousing call for wellbeing of all creators and shown the first struggle on water rights of common people, is fast loosing its water heritage. There would be no more Bhai Khaniya, if there is no water left in Punjab. It was Bhai Khaniya who was called the true Sikh by Guru Gobind Singh and who had served water without any thought of friend and enemy, who gave water to each and every one without any discrimination. But waterless Punjab can not follow Bhai Khaniya anymore.

Without Aab we can not imagine Punj aab. How could we do Sarbbat da Bhala – wellbeing of alls if there is no water? State number One should wake up to save its very character.

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