Hunger deaths and farmer suicides are now becoming a common phenomena in this country. Initially, when we would hear of a hunger related death in Kalahandi or Baran in Rajasthan, it would prick our conscience. As economic globalization, privatization and liberalization proceeded and we were made to believe that India was shining, reports of more people succumbing to poverty and hunger started pouring in. It was not the case that there was a shortage of food grains. The FCI godowns, we are told, had enough. But the food grains were not reaching the people who needed it because of massive siphoning off in PDS. The worst is, probably, yet to come.

Water has now become a commodity. Bottled water is a thriving business in this country. Rivers are getting sold and MNCs are eyeing the water supply in big cities. Mahatma Gandhi had said that there is enough in this earth to take care of everybody’s need but not enough to fulfill anybody’s greed. The relationship between human beings and water was based on fulfillment of human needs before the companies in water business came into existence. The human being would take as much water from nature as was required to fulfill her drinking and irrigation needs. However, the companies were interested in making profits by selling water, even though they had no role in its creation or conservation. They were not ashamed of taking a raw material free of cost, packaging it and selling it at exorbitant prices – more than that of the milk! We have to give credit to our ancestors for whatever water we find today in earth, as they did not treat it as a saleable commodity. With our relationship with water undergoing a change, now there is a threat to water. Companies like Coca Cola and Pepsico are amassing so much profit from this business that they were the fifth and fourth largest contributors, respectively, to Geroge Bush’s election campaign during the last US elections. Like petroleum now there is race to make as much profit over water in the quickest possible time. Corporations are competing with each other fiercely in emptying the earth of two of the most precious resources – one without which we may be able to live but the other without which we’ll be doomed.

The Coca Cola plant in Mehdiganj, Varanasi, for example, has caused the water table in wells to fall 18 feet during the last decade compared to 1.6 feet in the decade previous to that, as revealed by a study conducted earlier this year by V. Chandrika of all water sources falling within 3 kms. of the plant site. The plant has been responsible for sucking most of the wells, hand pumps and tube wells dry or causing them to go out of order. About 90% of wells in the region have been affected. 25% wells have completely dried, 14% wells are in the process of drying and 50% have witnessed a fall in water table. Out of 73 bore wells in the area, 10 have dried up which includes 4 which have dried up after the Coca Cola plant started operations. As the traditional source of water, the wells, started drying up people resorted to hand pumps. 220 hand pumps have been installed since the Coca Cola plant was set up as opposed to 45 which were installed in the decade previous to that. But 43% of the hand pumps are already adversely affected. 11% have completely dried and 32% work intermittently. Coca Cola alleges that drought and excessive use of water by farmers is responsible for dangerous fall in water table. The reality is, however, that the situation of drought was about the same during the last decade as it was in the decade previous to that. The region saw droughts in 1991-93, 2002 and 2004. The number of bore wells installed in 1990-2000 was 15 and after the Coke plant started functioning some 12 new bore wells have been installed. Hence the number of bore wells cannot be the sole reason for dangerous fall in water table. Another independent survey shows that the state of affairs of ponds is equally dismal. Out of 18 ponds falling in a radius of 4 kms. from the plant site, 1 has dried completely, 14 are seasonal and the remaining 3 retain too little water.

The farmer of Mehdiganj says that she is not going to survive by drinking Coke. If the water table falls so much that they will not be able to grow their crops then what will they eat? In spite of whatever the GDP may be and however much the credit available might be, we’ll need food grains to eat to survive. Our planners must realize this simple fact. If the privatization of water is not stopped soon, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where all the water sources will be controlled by private water lords, the interlinked river network will be controlled by one of the big MNCs, and water will be available at a price in bottles which will be beyond the purchasing capacity of most of the common citizens of this country. Thirst related deaths cannot be completely ruled out in the next 50-100 years.

By Sandeep Pandey