Hurtling towards a water-scarce future

Shades of Blue by Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli analyses the critical, life-supporting yet toxic relationship between Indian cities and water.

Published : Feb 29, 2024 18:02 IST - 7 MINS READ

Shades of Blue often presents a starker version of how Indian cities are coping with water. After all, there is little fun to be had when once-blue waterbodies have turned into cesspools of sewage and filth.

Shades of Blue often presents a starker version of how Indian cities are coping with water. After all, there is little fun to be had when once-blue waterbodies have turned into cesspools of sewage and filth. | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

In the context of our relationship with water, we are perhaps past the point of sunny nostalgia and heading deep into dark solastalgia. Nostalgia provides us with images of glistening lakes, idyllic streams, and fishermen rowing down placid rivers. Looking around the average Indian city with its chemical-laden streams and rivers, these seem like sepia-toned memories of a distant past. Instead, the feeling of unease that most feel when imagining water in Indian cities is perhaps more accurately described by “solastalgia”, a term that encompasses feelings of sorrow and anxiety about the future when living in a rapidly deteriorating environment.

Shades of Blue: Connecting the drops in India’s cities
By Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli
Pages: 304
Price: Rs.499

Solastalgia, first described by the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht in an essay in 2005, is reintroduced late in the book, Shades of Blue: Connecting the drops in India’s cities, that looks at the critical, life-supporting and yet toxic relationship between Indian cities and water.

The authors, Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, draw upon their own research over the years to take readers on a journey from the beels of Guwahati to the coral-protected islands of Lakshadweep; from the bheris of Kolkata that act like the kidneys of the city to the baolis of Bijapur that once sustained a royal capital in the arid Deccan plateau; from cycles of drought and flood in Chennai to the epic battle between land reclamation and the sea in Mumbai.

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Shades of Blue is a follow-up to Nagendra and Mundoli’s book, Cities and Canopies, a similar endeavour that narrated the tales of urban trees. While that book was peppered with colourful narratives and fun facts about trees, Shades of Blue often presents a starker version of how Indian cities are coping with water. After all, there is little fun to be had when once-blue waterbodies have turned into cesspools of sewage and filth.

Nonetheless, the book remains a breezy Sunday read, with chapters that narrate the inevitable hurtling towards a water-scarce future for Indian cities interspersed with historical, mythological, cultural or scientific vignettes and anecdotes. That is, the doom and gloom of India’s insatiable thirst for groundwater gives way just as easily to one that chronicles songs and deities of Indian rivers. An alarming account of anti-microbial bacteria in our water sources is offset by a fascinating story of the great colonial game of deceit and determination to map the Brahmaputra.

Misguided governmental action

Nagendra and Mundoli do not seek to hammer in a lesson on preservation and conservation. Instead, the book contains enough ideas to let the readers make these connections and draw their own conclusions.

Take, for instance, the colonial Delhi administration that decided in the 19th century—much to the chagrin of the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib—to ignore the socio-economic realities of the Yamuna and instead focus on its rejuvenation. And so they focussed on making the riverfront a place of recreation with parks and golf courses, while prohibiting activities such as bathing, washing, and even melon cultivation.

The signature of this “reimagining” of waterbodies, which is a process of exclusion of local communities and traditions, is visible across administrations of present-day India. Riverfront development projects in Ahmedabad and Lucknow follow these principles, as do many of the lake rejuvenation projects in Bengaluru.

This sort of reimagination of a waterbody’s purpose has grave implications. It is easier to swallow a waterbody whole when it is no more part of the cultural DNA of a city.

This is a recurrent theme in this book that points out, even if cursorily, the apathy of polluting waterbodies at the cost of communities that depend on it and the avarice of replacing biodiverse wetlands with towering edifices of real estate. Kolkata’s wetlands and salt lakes, which effectively converted the raw sewage of the metropolis into a fertile region where crops could be harvested and fish could be farmed, has shrunk to nearly half its size in a century. Chennai’s wetlands and marshes, which protected the city against floods and tsunamis, have become repositories of the city’s garbage.

Meanwhile the micro-cultures that depended and thrived on these waterbodies have disappeared. Nothing perhaps encompasses official apathy more than Delhi’s treatment of the Yamuna. Nagendra and Mundoli write about this toxic relationship: “What does the national capital of India, Delhi, give to the sacred Yamuna? Sewage, industrial waste, toxic foam and urban projects that constrict its flow. And what does Delhi get in return? Water for the city, a place for swimming, sacred ghats, a space to grow food and a riverfront for recreation—all this and much more…Maa Yamuna gives generously, without consideration of the one-sided nature of her relationship with the capital city. Once central to the life and growth of Delhi, the Yamuna now seems to have disappeared from its very imagination.”

The inequities of water

The book is also a timely reminder of the inequities associated with water access in India. After all, when Chennai floods, it is the slums that are washed away. In urban India, the rich may be able to afford borewells and water tankers, but it is the poor that ends up paying disproportionately more in order  to access just a few pots of water. Differences and discrimination of caste (Dalit families have the last access to water) and gender (women are likelier to be sent long distances to arrange for a household’s water needs) are exacerbated as water stress spreads.

A layer of toxic foam from industrial waste covers the Yamuna in Delhi.

A layer of toxic foam from industrial waste covers the Yamuna in Delhi. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

And as the authors point out, the propensity to build large dams to provide water for millions comes at a terrible human cost borne by the poorest and most disenfranchised of the country.

Adivasis constitute only 8 per cent of the population of the country, yet they constitute 59 per cent of the over 11.6 lakh people displaced by dams in the 1990s. “It is all well to say that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” say the authors in response to the development versus social cost narratives. “But in this case, the one who eats the omelette is not the one who lost their eggs, or farms.”

Redrawing a connection

It is hard to not to be overcome by a crippling resignation as to how Indian cities handle waterbodies. When so much is going wrong, it is easy to think what we can do as individuals or small collectives will not matter. And if it will not matter, and if we inevitably bumble our way towards a water-scarce future that is precipitated by myopic heavy-engineering-driven governmental action, then why bother?

The authors are conscious not to allow this to be a final thought when it comes to the inter-connected cycles of water and humankind. They do provide hope in the form of citizen action. Of the struggles and stories of collectives that are saving the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai; or the well-diggers of Bengaluru who are bringing back focus on recharging rainwater through open wells; or even the “Hargila Army” in Assam, led by a group of women attempting to save the Greater Adjutant Stork and, thereby, their own wetlands.

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The authors attempt to find the strain of optimism in these “water warriors”. What drives them so in the face of likely failure?  For many, it is an idyllic past and an ever-present nostalgia of waterbodies that drives them to preserve and save waterbodies in the face of detrimental governmental policy and larger societal apathy.

In some ways, that is the point of a book like this. To reawaken a romantic vision or perhaps a spiritual connection and a rational understanding of cities and water. It is a recognition that for many in urban India, piped water has severed this intimate connection to water. What does the well-heeled urban dweller in Delhi or Bengaluru know of the deterioration of the Yamuna or the Cauvery when water flows through stainless steel pipes? As the authors put it: “Absorbed in the business of urban living, we think of water only when there is too much of it in the city in times of rains and drought, or too little in times of drought. In doing so, we forget the many shades of blue that inhabit our cities and bring them alive.”

Mohit M. Rao is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

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