On Wednesday, 11 May 2016, the Supreme Court of India delivered the first part of its judgment on a public interest litigation (PIL) hearing for a suit filed by the political organisation the Swaraj Abhiyan. In the PIL, which was filed in mid December last year, the Abhiyan had alleged that governments in 12 states—Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Chhattisgarh—were not providing adequate relief in drought-affected areas. In 3 of these states—Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana—the petition noted, governments had not even declared a drought, despite significant reduction in rainfall and in surface and groundwater levels (While the hearing was ongoing, Gujarat declared a “semi-scarcity” of water in the state). In both the hearing and judgment, the Supreme Court strongly chastised the centre for not taking any action, and directed it to set up disaster relief funds within the coming few months.
A crucial part of the judgment was the reprimand it delivered to the state governments of Gujarat, Bihar and Haryana for their “ostrich-like attitudes” towards the droughts in their states. The court asked the central agriculture secretary to meet with the chief secretaries of the state within a week. But while the Supreme Court’s chastisement is a much-needed respite, it will not alleviate the problems of the people in these states in time—a fact that the court itself acknowledged. “There is no loss of face or prestige or dignity in the State Government declaring a drought if it is warranted, although succour to the distressed might be too late in the day,” the judgement said.
For the state of Haryana, this is possibly the seventh year of drought it has faced in the last 11. The monsoon is steadily declining, and so are the groundwater levels and the water quality. Despite numerous reports and evidence to the contrary, its government continues to deny the drought, and by extension, deprive its people of any relief, monetary or otherwise. “The government is trying to project that all is well,” Yogendra Yadav, one of the founders of the Abhiyan and a former member of the Aam Aadmi Party, told me when I spoke to him on 23 April. “But that is far from the truth.”
On 19 April, the Haryana government had said in court that it was not facing a drought, but a “drought-like situation.” Three days earlier, on the afternoon of 16 April, an unusually blistering one for that time of the year, I left Delhi on my motorcycle, via Mathura Road, for Mewat district in Haryana. For the first 25 kilometres, the Violet metro line accompanied me along the dusty national highway, its long transit-town stretches plastered with advertisements for real-estate brokers. The scenery changed somewhat once the metro line ended mid-air, a little before Ballabgarh town. Gradually, the frequency of towns decreased as tracts of empty land began to appear. Taking a short cut through the narrow lanes and brick houses of Dhatir and Allika villages, I reached major district road 134, about 15 kilometres from Mewat. Urbanity was finally out of sight. On either side of the road lay endless plains—green, fallow or scorched—with occasional huts, pylons and black-coughing chimneys of brick factories.
In 2014, Haryana suffered a rain deficit of around 65 percent between June and August, and officially declared itself “drought-affected” for the first time since 2002. In 2015, too, there was an average rainfall deficit of about 29 percent between June and September. A drought assessment report by the Indian Space Research Organisation and Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre that Yogendra Yadav had directed me to, analysed the rainfall received by the 21 districts of Haryana last year. According to it, Fatehabad and Rohtak were the worst-hit with a rainfall deficit between 60–99 percent; there were 8 districts with a deficit between 40–59 percent, and 10, including Mewat, between 20–39 percent. Faridabad was the only district categorised as “normal.” Of the 21 districts, 13 fell under the National Capital Region (NCR), lying within a radius of 100 kilometres from Delhi. About 50 kilometres from the capital, south Haryana’s Mewat district was a peculiar case. Through 2015, it received poor rainfall, except on 18 September when there was a burst of heavy downpour—over 250 millimetres (mm) in five hours—that flooded the region.
At Manaki village in the Nuh block of the district, I met a group of twenty men sitting by the road. Faqruddin, the newly elected, 40-year-old sarpanch, told me, “Each year in the past decade has been like a drought, and it gets progressively worse. Rainfall keeps declining, and the land is deteriorating.” While he spoke, others chimed in. They told me that the water scarcity had forced the people in Manaki to buy water from private tankers—owned by a well-established network of enterprising contractors that buy water and sell it to the villagers at discretionary rates. They said that their old wells have dried up or turned brackish. “And we just get electricity for 3–4 hours in the night, nothing during the day,” one of them said. “Congress was here for five years, now it’s BJP—our situation is still the same,” Faqruddin finished.
A few days before my visit, on 12 April, the BJP-ruled state government had directed that the district, named after Mewati-speaking Meo Muslim community that hails from it, be renamed Nuh. A 19 April Business Standard report quoted the Congress’s Aftab Ahmed, the MLA of Mewat from 2009–14, saying, “Mewat has water scarcity. It needs education. There is joblessness. The government has offered us a name change.”
On 22 April, I spoke to Ahmed over the phone. “Given the increasing heat and reduced rainfall, the water demands of the district have grown. But over the last two years, the Public Health”—in charge of water supply through canals and tubewells, and their maintenance—“and Irrigation departments have been dysfunctional.” Later that day, I spoke to Ahmed’s successor Zakir Hussain, of the Indian National Lok Dal. “Most of the villages here don’t have a single drop of drinking water. The Public Health Department has no functioning tankers of its own, and it has accepted that 80 villages in the district have zero water supply,” Hussain told me. “I have been raising these issues in the Vidhan Sabha, but my party is in the opposition, and the BJP government just doesn’t care.”
According to a 2012 information booklet on Mewat released by the Central Ground Water Board, a Ministry of Water Resources division that managed the country’s ground water resources, the “quality of ground water is not fresh in shallow as well as deeper horizons in most parts of the district,” and “is not suitable for drinking use due to high levels of salinity, nitrate, iron and lead.” The report noted that more than 75 percent ground water, when used for irrigation, was “likely to cause salinity hazards.” “The district is socio-economically backward. Agriculture, the base economic activity of the people is deprived of irrigation,” it continued. “Potable drinking water is still a problem except in the areas at the base of ridges and hillocks of the district.” The report also classified the regions of Nuh and Nagina blocks in the district as “waste land.”
On 19 April, I contacted various officials from the state administration, but they all denied the situation. “Humaare Mewat mein koi sukha nahi hai—Mewat is not suffering from a drought,” asserted the district revenue officer Rajender Singh. Mani Ram Sharma, the deputy commissioner of Mewat, who was appointed in February 2015, said, “The situation is bad, but under control. Humein sarkaar ka pura support hai—we have full support from the government.” Over our five-minute dialogue, he mentioned the government’s support several times, but its details remained vague. Sharma told me that a chief engineers’ camp had begun an inspection round of the district that very day. I then asked him what action had been taken over the past year, given that drought was common in Mewat. He responded that he too had begun assessment rounds that week. Of the over-400 villages in Mewat, so far he had been to three—Manaki, Bajarka and Ghasera. I repeated my question regarding the action taken over the past year. “That I can only tell you after a detailed study,” he replied, before hanging up. According to a Tribune report dated 10 April, Sharma had found that half of the 145 ponds that the Irrigation department claimed to be full of water in Mewat were dry.
The report also claimed that the “water mafia is raking in the moolah” around the region. As I was talking to the group of villagers at Manaki, a tanker latched onto a tractor crossed us. The outlet at the back was gushing, and children chased after it for a quick shower. As the unwieldy vehicle rattled on, I followed it for about a kilometre before stopping near a bhatti, or brick factory.
For the past decade, each summer, Yakub, the driver of the tanker, a 50-year-old resident of Salaheri village, has been driving his 11,000-litre tanker to the nearby Palla foothills, where he gets it filled through private borewells for about Rs 100–150. Then, depending on the distance of a village from Palla, he sells it for Rs 500–1000 rupees at the numerous brick factories dotting the Mewat block. Usually, he told me, he makes 2 or 3 trips a day, earning around Rs 2 lakh each season. For the rest of the year, he returns to his fields.
“People call me on my mobile to place orders, and I deliver the water. Har gaaon mein aise hi tanker milenge Mewat mein—inke bina guzaara nahin hai yahaan—in every village in Mewat, you’ll find similar tankers. There is no doing without them here.” About a dozen people from the brick factory clustered around us. A local contractor told me, “8-10 saal se tankeron ka dandha chal raha hai. Pehle kuein the, lekin kam barsaat se sab sookh gaye—the tanker business had been ongoing for the past 8–10 years. Earlier there were wells, but due to the rain shortage, they’ve all dried up.” I asked him about irrigation. “Kheton ke liye khaare paani se guzaara ho jaata hai—lekin zameen kharaab ho rahi hai. Ek fasal ho jaawe hai har saal, lekin barsaat na ho toh dooji fasal na howe—In the fields, we make do with the saline water. But the ground is slowly spoiling. We can do one crop a year, but the second one is impossible without the rain.” The contractors told me that the region primarily grew crops that required less water, such as wheat, mustard and sorghum. “Zeher paani hai ji! Kuli karey toh zabaan faad de—the water is like poison. It tears your tongue when you gargle with it,” a young man told me. He added that no one in the surrounding areas had potable water. “Shappam-shappa hai bas—there is only trouble.”
On my way to the Palla foothills where the tankers are filled, we stopped at the Salamba village at another brick factory. Outside the factory was an underground concrete tank with a handpump, milling with women and children scurrying about the water. Every day, two tankers arrive here and fill up the tank for the 200-odd labourers working in the factory, most of whom are migrants hailing from Bengal, UP, Rajasthan and Bihar. “Fifteen years ago, the water used to be sweet,” Ganga Lal, the 55-year old accountant for the factory owner, told me. Lal had been working there for 22 years. He too, spoke of declining rainfall and the “khaara,” or saline, water. “The villages still get some water from the Yamuna canals, but for the factories we have to rely entirely on Palla.” I asked him what had been done over the past couple of years to alleviate the drought. “BJP sarkaar? Kucch naa kiya saadon ne!—The BJP government? They’ve done nothing,” he said. “Na light, na paani . . . Chunav ke baad shakal bhi naa dikhaye koi neta . . . Koi DC-VC bhi naa aaya yahaan kabhi—no electricity, no water … no one has shown their face here after the elections … even the deputy commissioner has never come.”
I reached Palla village, situated at the Aravalli foothills, around dusk. Tankers were parked at regular intervals along the narrow road into the village, their owners sitting or resting nearby. “We have two tankers. Every day, we make 2–3 trips in Mewat,” 27-year-old Muhammad Shauqeen, who has been operating tankers for 11 years, told me. “Salaheri, Bajarka, Dhanduka, Manaki, Salamba—aath-dus gaon mein supply hai mhaari (We have a supply in 8 or 10 villages).”
Across the road, 55-year-old Abdul Majeed, a resident of Palla, told me that he had been operating two borewells in his fields for the last twelve years. Majeed said he fills 2–4 tankers a day. “There was more water earlier. We would manage to fill 6 or 7 tankers,” he told me. “Ab baarish hi naa ho rhi sasuri—now there is no rain.” Majeed’s 14-year-old nephew took me to a nearby field to show me the borewell. “Kheton ke liye bhi paani nikal jaata hai, aur tanker bhi bhar jaate hain—we manage to get water for the fields and to fill the tankers,” he said proudly.
According to the water tanker owners, Palla has 40-50 of such borewells, and around 150 tankers run by contractors such as Shauqeen. For almost half the year, this is effectively the drinking water supply of Mewat. No one I met in Mewat had heard of planned rainwater harvesting. “Baarish ko kaun rokega? Girke chali jaati hai. Thoda bahut zameen sokh leti hai bas—who can stop the rain? It falls and goes away, and only soaks the ground a little,” Majeed told me. “Yahaan bhi paani kharaab ho raha hai. Thodey time mein ye bhi baaki Mewat jaisa ho jaawega—khaara. Here, too, the water quality is falling. In some time, this too will become like Mewat—khaara.”
Ishan Marvel is a reporter at Vantage, The Caravan.