India’s growing water crisis, the seen and the unseen


United Nations World Water Development Report of 2022 has encapsulated global concern over the sharp rise in freshwater withdrawal from streams, lakes, aquifers and human-made reservoirs, impending water stress and also water scarcity being experienced in different parts of the world.

Growing water stress: various reports:

  1. In 2007, ‘Coping with water scarcity’ was the theme of World Water Day (observed on March 22).
  2. The new Water Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sounded a note of caution about this silent crisis of a global dimension, with millions of people being deprived of water to live and to sustain their livelihood.
  3. Further, the Water Scarcity Clock, an interactive web tool, shows that over 2 billion people live in countries now experiencing high water stress; the numbers will continue to increase.
  4. The Global Drought Risk and Water Stress map (2019) shows that major parts of India, particularly west, central and parts of peninsular India are highly water-stressed and experience water scarcity.
  5. A NITI Aayog report, ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (2018) has sounded a note of caution about the worst water crisis in the country, with more than 600 million people facing acute water shortages.

Water stress and water scarcity:

  • Water scarcity is a physical, objective reality that can be measured consistently across regions and over time. “Water stress” refers to the ability, or lack thereof, to meet human and ecological demand for water. Compared to scarcity, “water stress” is a more inclusive and broader concept.
  • India is experiencing a very significant water challenge, approximately 820 million people of India – living in twelve river basins across the country have per capita water availability close to or lower than 1000m3 – the official threshold for water scarcity as per the Falkenmark Index.
Falkenmark Indicator or Water Stress IndexIt is one of the most commonly used measures of water scarcity.It defines water scarcity in terms of the total water resources that are available to the population of a region; measuring scarcity as the amount of renewable freshwater that is available for each person each year.If the amount of renewable water per person per year in a country is:below 1,700 m3, the country is said to be experiencing water stress.below 1,000 m3, it is said to be experiencing water scarcity.below 500 m3, it is experiencing absolute water scarcity.

Types of water scarcity:

Water scarcity is the lack of fresh water resources to meet the standard water demand. There are two types of water scarcity: physical or economic water scarcity.

  1. Physical water scarcity is where there is not enough water to meet all demands, including that needed for ecosystems to function effectively. Arid areas for example Central and West Asia, and North Africa often suffer from physical water scarcity.
  2. Economic water scarcity is caused by a lack of investment in infrastructure or technology to draw water from rivers, aquifers, or other water sources, or insufficient human capacity to satisfy the demand for water. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa has economic water scarcity.

Other issues of water scarcity:

  • The typical response of the areas where water shortage or scarcity is high includes transfer of water from the hinterlands/upper catchments or drawing it from stored surface water bodies or aquifers. This triggers sectoral and regional competition; rural-urban transfer of water is one such issue of global concern.
  • Increasing trans-boundary transfer of water between rural and urban areas has been noted in many countries since the early 20th century. A review paper published in 2019 reported that, globally, urban water infrastructure imports an estimated 500 billion litres of water per day across a combined distance of 27,000km. At least 12% of large cities in the world rely on inter-basin transfers.
  • A UN report on ‘Transboundary Waters Systems – Status and Trend’ (2016) linked this issue of water transfer with various Sustainable Development Goals proposed to be achieved during 2015 to 2030. The report identified risks associated with water transfer in three categories of biophysical, socio-economic and governance. South Asia, including India, falls in the category of high biophysical and the highest socio-economic risks.

Urban water use:

  • According to Census 2011, the urban population in India accounted for 34% of total population. It is estimated that the urban population component in India will cross the 40% mark by 2030 and the 50% mark by 2050 (World Urbanization Prospects, 2018).
  • Although the pace of India’s urbanisation is relatively slow, it is now urbanising at a rapid pace — the size of the urban population is substantial. Water use in the urban sector has increased as more and more people shift to urban areas, and per capita use of water in these centres rises, which will continue to grow with improved standards of living.
  • Examining the urban water management trajectory, it is evident that in the initial stages when a city is small, it is concerned only with water supply; in a majority of cases, water is sourced locally, with groundwater meeting the bulk of the supply. As the city grows and water management infrastructures develop, dependence shifts to surface water.
  • With a further growth of cities, water sources shift further up in the hinterlands, or the allocation of urban water is enhanced at the expense of irrigation water. Almost all cities in India that depend on surface water experience this trend. City water supply is now a subject of inter-basin and inter-State transfers of water.
  • Dependence on groundwater continues particularly in the peri-urban areas in almost all large cities that have switched to surface water sources. While surface water transfer from rural to urban areas is visible and can be computed, the recharge areas of groundwater aquifers are spread over well beyond the city boundary or its periphery.
  • At present, the rural-urban transfer of water is a lose-lose situation in India as water is transported at the expense of rural areas and the agricultural sector; in cities, most of this water is in the form of grey water with little recovery or reuse, eventually contributing to water pollution. Rural and urban areas use water from the same stock, i.e., the water resources of the country. Therefore, it is important to strive for a win-win situation.

Way forward:

  • Such a situation is possible through a host of activities in the rural and urban areas, which is primarily a governance challenge. A system perspective and catchment scale-based approach are necessary to link reallocation of water with wider discussions on development, infrastructure investment, fostering a rural-urban partnership and adopting an integrated approach in water management.
  • Institutional strengthening can offer entry points and provide opportunities to build flexibility into water resource allocation at a regional level, enabling adjustments in rapidly urbanising regions. In India’s 75th anniversary of Independence, it is time to examine the state of its water resources and ensure that the development process is not in jeopardy.

The future of old times in India


  • Life expectancy in India has more than doubled since Independence — from around 32 years in the late 1940s to 70 years or so today. Many countries have done even better, but this is still a historical achievement.
  • Over the same period, the fertility rate has crashed from about 6 children per woman to just2, liberating women from the shackles of repeated child-bearing and child care. This is good news, but it also creates a new challenge — the ageing of the population.
  • The share of the elderly (persons aged 60 years and above) in India’s population, around 9% in 2011, is growing fast and may reach 18% by 2036 according to the National Commission on Population.
  • If India is to ensure a decent quality of life for the elderly in the near future, planning and providing for it must begin today.

Outcomes of oldage and loneliness: Mental issues:

  • A survey of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Government of Tamil Nadu, reports that among persons aged 60 and above, 30% to 50% had symptoms that make them likely to be depressed.
  • The proportion with depression symptoms is much higher for women than men, and rises sharply with age. In most cases, depression remains undiagnosed and untreated.
  • As one might expect, depression is strongly correlated with poverty and poor health, but also with loneliness. Among the elderly living alone, in the Tamil Nadu sample, 74% had symptoms that would classify them as likely to be mildly depressed or worse on the short-form Geriatric Depression Scale. A large majority of elderly persons living alone are women, mainly widows.

Pension helps:

  • The hardships of old age are not related to poverty alone, but some cash often helps. Cash can certainly help to cope with many health issues, and sometimes to avoid loneliness as well.
  • The first step towards a dignified life for the elderly is to protect them from destitution and all the deprivations that may come with it. That is why old-age pensions are a vital part of social security systems around the world.
  • India has important schemes of non-contributory pensions for the elderly, widowed women and disabled persons under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), administered by the Ministry of Rural Development.

About NSAP:

  • NSAP is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme of the GoI that provides financial assistance to the elderly, widows and persons with disabilities in the form of social pensions.
  • Only BPL persons are eligible for it.

Components of NSAP:

Presently NSAP comprises of five schemes, namely –

  • Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS)
  • Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme (IGNWPS)
  • Indira Gandhi National Disability Pension Scheme (IGNDPS)
  • National Family Benefit Scheme NFBS) and
  • Annapurna

Issues of NSAP:

  • Eligibility for NSAP is restricted to “below poverty line” (BPL) families, based on outdated and unreliable BPL lists, some of them are 20 years old.
  • The central contribution to old-age pensions under NSAP has stagnated at a tiny ₹200 per month since 2006, with a slightly higher but still paltry amount (₹300 per month) for widows.
  • Many States have enhanced the coverage and/or amount of social-security pensions beyond NSAP norms using their own funds and schemes. Some have even achieved “near-universal” (say 75%-80%) coverage of widows and elderly persons.
  • “Targeting” social benefits is always difficult. Restricting them to BPL families has not worked well: there are huge exclusion errors in the BPL lists. When it comes to old-age pensions, targeting is not a good idea in any case.
  • Targeting tends to involve complicated formalities such as the submission of BPL certificates and other documents. The formalities can be particularly forbidding for elderly persons with low incomes or little education, who are in greatest need of a pension.
  • Even when lists of left-out, likely-eligible persons were submitted to the local administration, very few were approved for a pension, confirming that they face resilient barriers in the current scheme of things.

Way forward in social security schemes : Beyond targets :

  • The problem in targeting issue is generally not a lack of effort or goodwill on the part of the government officials. Rather, many have absorbed the idea that their job is to save the government money by making sure that no ineligible person qualifies by mistake.
  • In Tamil Nadu this often means, for example, that if the applicant has an able-bodied son in the city, they may be disqualified, regardless of whether they get any support from their son. In their quest to avoid inclusion errors, many officials are less concerned about exclusion errors.
  • A better approach is to consider all widows and elderly or disabled persons as eligible, subject to simple and transparent “exclusion criteria”.
  • Eligibility can even be self-declared, with the burden of time-bound verification being placed on the local administration or gram panchayat. Some cheating may happen, but it is unlikely that many privileged households will risk trouble for the sake of a small monthly pension.
  • And it is much preferable to accommodate some inclusion errors than to perpetuate the massive exclusion errors we are seeing today in targeted pension schemes.

Widening the net :

  • The proposed move from targeted to near-universal pensions is not particularly new. India’s social assistance schemes have low budgets and make a big difference to large numbers of people (about 40 million under NSAP). They are well worth expanding.
  • The southern States are relatively well-off, but even some of India’s poorer States (such as Odisha and Rajasthan) have near-universal social security pensions. It would be much easier for all States to do the same if the central government were to revamp the NSAP.
The NSAP budget this year is just ₹9,652 crore — more or less the same as 10 years ago in money terms, and much lower in real terms. This is not even 0.05% of India’s GDP!This shows the need to raise the budgetary allocation for social security schemes.


  • Social security pensions, of course, are just the first step towards a dignified life for the elderly. They also need other support and facilities such as health care, disability aids, assistance with daily tasks, recreation opportunities and a good social life. This is a critical area of research, policy and action for the near future.


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