Gram for gram, tomatoes have cost more than petrol in recent times. To understand why, we must return to origins, because in tomatoes as in life, where we come from shapes us fundamentally. Tomatoes originated in the Andes Mountains, where average temperatures hover around 20 degrees C. Even after centuries of being away from its birth home, the plant still grows best at temperatures between 20-24 degrees C. The climate of large parts of India is suited to tomato growing during part of the year, and so, in a geological blink, the tomato edged out the native tamarind, to become the preferred source for sourness in Indian cuisine. Then, unfortunately, the climate changed.
Before we delve in further, remember tomato prices typically peak in June-July because it’s the lean period between two big harvests. This year, those regions were affected by climate problems, and so, tomato prices rose abnormally. In mid-May, a heatwave struck many tomato-growing districts. Tomatoes are finicky about their water and temperature needs, which is why the highest tomato yields are achieved in a greenhouse. Too hot, and the plant doesn’t flower, blossoms fall prematurely, or the fruit doesn’t ripen. The Andean tomato was never meant to withstand such heat, and its yield suffered. The monsoon was delayed in large parts of India, damaging the summer crop further.
July also brought floods. Himachal, an important source of July’s tomatoes, was hit by the combined onslaught of western disturbances and the monsoon. Several districts received more than twice their monthly rainfall in a matter of days and flooded, ruining crops and blocking exports from out of state. Tomatoes rot quickly — especially in damp weather — so, delay means loss. And in the flood and rain, prices began to climb. All eyes turned to Karnataka’s Kolar market, another key source for July tomatoes. My mother grew up near Kolar, and she speaks of the delicious summer weather there — tomato-heaven as it were. But Kolar disappointed this year. Why? Climate again. Tomatoes, like us, are hurt by viral infections. Ground reports say the crop around Kolar was hit hard by tomato yellow leaf curl virus. This virus is transmitted largely by the white fly, which does better in hot, humid weather with irregular rainfall — just the conditions that prevailed this year, and just what the tomato hates. In Maharashtra too, the crop appears to have been hit by a virus, this one transmitted by aphids, which also do better in higher heat and humidity. So, a weakened tomato was hit by a stronger disease transmission network. Unsurprisingly, tomato arrivals in Kolar have fallen by 75% in July compared to last year, while Maharashtra and Gujarat have seen 50% lower arrivals than last year.
Irregular rainfall, intense rainfall, landslides, heatwaves, pest attacks — all fingerprints of climate change — are expected to become more common going forward. We must adapt, as the climate will continue to change. Other factors — low yield, too many middlemen, tomato rot, damage and loss between farm and fork — only serve to expose tomato production even further to the talons of a wayward climate, increasing price volatility. Streamlining the supply chain, like some startups are doing, would help. Substituting the finicky tomato with our native, hardier-by-far tamarind, as many are doing, can also help.
Processing more tomatoes into purees and paste, as others have also suggested, would absorb excess during booms, and increase supply during dips in production. The latter is important. During plentiful supply, prices plummet, as they did in April and May of this year. Naturally, farmers were hesitant to either plant tomato in the summer season or spend more on pesticide and labour to keep up yields. And so, production of July-tomatoes fell. Consider what might have happened if more tomatoes in April were made into puree thus supporting prices in April and increasing supply later? Processing is farmer friendly too — a 2018 RBI-CAB study shows that farmers make a higher margin when selling to processors as opposed to middlemen or at the mandi.
India processes less than 1% of its tomatoes, far less than every other major tomato producer globally. Increasing processing capacity needs private sector support, way more and way faster than is happening now. Contrast startup action in two sectors: Electric mobility is zooming — encouraged directly by government subsidies and indirectly, through a corporate carbon-reduction focus and by high fuel prices. But agritech action in processing is crawling by comparison. There are many reasons for this, but, to my mind, prioritisation is key. India has demonstrated that it can move swiftly towards targets it prioritises, like vaccines and toilets. Think of vegetable processing as a key vaccine against a warming climate — it requires the same urgency.
According to Ms. Mridula Ramesh, CEO, Sundaram Climate Institute, it is possible to work within the existing limitations to develop practical solutions to ensure water resiliency in India. “How to Make India Water Resilient”—a report compiled by her was launched recently.
If you take 100 people in the world, 18 of them are Indians. But if you take 100 water drops in the world, only three of them are from India. So those 18 people have to make do with almost three water drops. That’s India’s problem. Parts of India are worse than dry regions like Rajasthan. Cities have less water and more people. The water available per person per day is falling, and it is falling fast.
Indeed, many people say that by 2030, India will be unable to meet half of its water demand. That’s already evident across the country. This year promises to be what is called an El Nino year, which is a year with typically low rainfall. Some of the major El Nino events in the past have resulted in famines that have killed millions of Indians. We forgot it, but less than 140 years ago, millions of Indians died in an El Nino year. So what does that mean?
Need for Data
When I left McKinsey, I joined the textile company that my mother runs, where we were implementing TPM (Total Plant Maintenance). The one thing that TPM emphasizes is data. If you want to solve a problem, you can’t do it sitting in an air-conditioned room, on an easy chair. You have to get out there. With water, I didn’t have the data to understand the problem. That’s why Sundaram Climate Institute began gathering data on water and waste, which, to me, are the most important issues for India to address in its climate battle.
There’s a piece of good news if you want to see the cup as half full. India’s water largely comes from the monsoon; and this feature is common across geographical regions. So lessons from one city are applicable to others.
Our study focused on Madurai. Over five years, we spoke to 2,000 households. That’s important because if I had spoken to only 30 or 100 households, we would have obtained very different answers. If we hadn’t collected data year after year, the answers would have been different. The situation we found in 2018 was different from the situation on the ground in 2020. The water in one neighbourhood differed from that in another neighbourhood. The water in T. Nagar in Chennai is very different from that in Sowcarpet.
Need for Storage
Again and again, storage, especially water body storage, becomes important. We spoke to thousands of people to gather groundwater data across water bodies and understand why some water bodies are very effective in recharging groundwater while others fail. India recently released its first census report on water bodies across the country. In Tamil Nadu, we found that nearly half of them are not in use. So why have they disappeared? What are the key questions we’re trying to answer? Where does a typical Indian city get its water from? How is that water used? What risks does it face? And what can we do about it?
Our data is from Madurai, but many of the realities in Madurai apply to other cities. Most cities in India rely on a combination of water sources, including rivers, rainfall, groundwater, private water sources, and treated sewage. Rainfall, which is one of the main sources of water for many Indians, is highly variable. India probably has one of the most seasonal rainfalls in the world. We experience very few rainy days, and most of India’s rainfall occurs within 100 hours. But can we go without water for drinking or washing purposes on the remaining days? The one thing we need then is storage. Climate makes the water supply even more volatile, seasonal, and increases demand.
Dysfunctional Rainwater Harvesting
We conducted a survey of 2,000 households to assess the functionality of rainwater harvesting systems. The results were surprising, considering Tamil Nadu’s early legislation mandating every household to have rainwater harvesting. We found that half of the households we surveyed did not have a functional rainwater harvesting system. They had something that met the requirements on paper but didn’t actually work. With our water bodies disappearing, it’s like cutting off our leg before starting a marathon. Losing water bodies has severe consequences.
We face both perennial and seasonal water demands. During periods of abundant rainfall and when rivers are full, water access is possible. However, during dry periods, access becomes limited. Cities across India are now looking to build water supply systems by sourcing water from distant locations. For instance, Mumbai is going 200-300 kilometers away, and Delhi is also exploring similar options.
Paying for Water
In dry years, like the summer of 2019 in Chennai, only half of the households received regular water supply. So, what do people do when they don’t get municipal water? They tap into groundwater. Around 60% of households rely on groundwater, while the poorest 40% resort to buying water. The idea of free water is deceptive. These households spend around 500 rupees a month to meet some of their water needs. Essentially, they are burdened with an El Nino tax every few years, which they can’t afford.
Subsequently, compromises are made. If they can only afford 25 liters of water per day or per week, they will prioritize giving it to their newborn child while letting their two-year-old suffer with whatever dirty water is available. This is why India loses numerous school days due to diseases like diarrhea. The poorest segments of society pay the highest price for water.
What about sewage? Countries like Israel and Singapore treat and reuse their sewage. I consider sewage a hidden asset. We produce it every day, and it’s not dependent on seasons, like rainfall. However, India treats very little of its sewage and often releases it into rivers. The condition of the Cooum river is a clear illustration of this reality. If we treated sewage, we could achieve water resilience.
Measure to Monitor
Managing demand is crucial for solving the water problem. Do households have water meters? While my house has one, very few households actually have a meter to measure their water usage. Without knowing how much water they are using, it becomes challenging to manage and address the issue effectively. You can’t run a company without knowing its revenue, similarly, understanding water demand is essential. However, most people have no idea about their water usage. In our survey, only those who collected water in pots and faced scarcity knew the exact amount they were using. When I give speeches, I often ask the audience how much water they use, and most don’t have a clue.
Nevertheless, we found some interesting patterns. People with flushable toilets consume more water compared to those with common or non-flushable toilets. Similarly, those with access to borewells use more water than those without. We also discovered that 3% of the people we surveyed had dry borewells, indicating they were already living in a water-scarce situation and used the least amount of water.
With Growth Comes Demand
The Need to Collaborate
We need to collaborate with various stakeholders because this is not a journey we can undertake alone. It requires funding, corporate involvement, implementation organizations, and research institutions to work together. Those providing financial support are aware that there are many demands competing for their resources. Therefore, it’s crucial to allocate funds wisely.
Our ancestors constructed numerous water storage structures throughout the country. Surprisingly, recent government reports indicate that nearly half of Tamil Nadu’s water bodies are not in use. It remains unclear why such a mistake was made initially.
Water tanks play a crucial role in groundwater replenishment, which is essential for maintaining water resilience in cities. For example, in T.Nagar, long ago, there used to be a large tank where the Madras Boat Club held their regatta. However, it has now vanished, and the area faces flooding and water problems. I live in Chokkikulam, Madurai, where we ran out of groundwater after extracting it from a depth of 550 feet. The Chokkikulam lake is long gone. Constructing water tanks is vital for building water resilience in India.
Rejuvenating Water Bodies
We also examined satellite data to understand why some tanks perform better than others. We identified three factors: the inlet or feeder channel is critical for maintaining a healthy tank, the land use pattern (green and blue areas), and the number of months the tank holds water each year. However, community connection remains the underlying factor. The surrounding community must care about the tank. During our visit to a crowded neighbourhood, we encountered a small town where the community prevented people from approaching the tank and even requested visitors to remove their slippers as a sign of respect. Unfortunately, in many cities, the community isn’t even aware of the existence of a tank in their vicinity.
Where does this community connection come from? Consider your family—why are you connected to them? It’s because you receive something from them, such as love, food, and protection. Similarly, in rural communities, the connection to tanks stems from monetary benefits, water for livestock, fishing rights, and sacred significance. However, in cities, these factors no longer hold. Tanks are seen as a nuisance and valuable land. People wouldn’t sacrifice land to create a lake.
However, opportunities exist. Many organizations are working on water body rejuvenation. But before performing interventions, it’s crucial to understand the issues through comprehensive assessments. Just like you wouldn’t undergo heart surgery without conducting tests, you need to evaluate what’s wrong with the tank to determine the appropriate interventions. After implementing the necessary actions, re-evaluation is essential to ensure the desired outcomes are achieved. Collaboration with various organizations can facilitate this research. Our report is open source, so anyone can access it and follow the process. It involves conducting before and after tests for interventions, enabling prioritization of efforts.
Therefore, our approach suggests intervening where necessary, focusing on areas with low groundwater levels and particularly vulnerable tanks. There are also areas where intervention is unnecessary. Just do nothing and you can save valuable resources.
Partnership and Prioritisation are the first two steps. The third step is Preaching or raising awareness. The fourth P is Prosperity.
When we asked people about their role in managing water, most admitted they had no idea. If people don’t take responsibility for their water usage, addressing the problem becomes challenging. Since water is not a voting issue, policies may not be effective.
Many households are unaware that sewage can be treated and reused. These are potential opportunities for improvement. In urban areas, residents don’t realize that having a functional tank in their neighborhood can contribute to increased groundwater levels and flood resilience.
How can we promote prosperity? Our study demonstrated that an urban tank, with appropriate infrastructure, can provide a minimum of 100 jobs. Developing walking paths, cycling paths, benches, selfie spots, Wi-Fi hotspots, and performance spaces can attract food stalls and create employment opportunities. The Kodaikanal Lake supports approximately 1,000 jobs. Similarly, the Vandiyur Thepakulam, which we supported in our study, went from zero to 123 jobs. Building connections between the urban community and water bodies is essential.
Decentralized sewage treatment is also necessary. Treating just half of the sewage in Chennai can significantly impact the city’s water balance. Though the water problem is serious, we believe it is solvable within the constraints we face by focusing on community connection and sewage treatment.
In summary, solving India’s water problem requires collaboration among stakeholders, prioritizing interventions, raising awareness, and promoting prosperity. Water storage structures, treated sewage, and community engagement are vital aspects of building water resilience. While constraints such as unwillingness to pay for water and lack of voting support pose challenges, by working within these limitations, we can develop practical solutions to ensure water resiliency in India.
Warning bell: India has shown resilience but depletion of ground-
water can trigger famines
Consider the 1877 El Niño. India was then the crown jewel of the British Empire, and its wealth was being systematically and ruthlessly transferred to England. Much of India’s forests had been cleared and a fixed, payable-in-cash tax had coerced farmers to shift from climate-resilient millets to cash crops like indigo, opium and cotton, unsuited to India’s rainfall and inedible in a drought. By 1876, a powerful El Niño was forming, and India’s rains began to fail. Soon, millions left their withered fields in the Madras Presidency to beg for food. British tight-fistedness in granting relief — historian Mike Davis said the calories offered by the relief camps at the height of the famine were less than those given in Nazi concentration camps — caused public outrage to erupt. Protesting the unfairness of the conditions, 102,000 people refused to attend relief work (which, given the lack of alternatives, was tantamount to accepting a death sentence). The British administration termed this strike ‘passive resistance’ because there was little violence — a term that would come to define India’s independence movement. Over five million Indians died in that famine, leaving the country seething in resentment. This anger fuelled organisations like the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and the Arya Samaj, whose leaders like Ranade, and later, Tilak and Gokhale, played key roles in the country’s Independence struggle. The famine also unleashed a wave of dam-and-canal building in a desire to control water. Fast-forward to 1965. While India had shed its imperialistic yoke, Nehru believed that India could never be truly free as long as it lacked food security. In the 1950s and ’60s, India had become addicted to cheap American wheat. It seemed a sweet deal: pay for cheap grain in Indian rupees and save dollars for industrialisation. But when the El Niño struck, India’s grain production suffered, particularly in Bihar where the situation became dire. Early in 1966, a new prime minister, Indira Gandhi, confronted a nation that had just emerged from a war and was staring at famine. Importantly, her party was staring at electoral defeat in Bihar’s elections. Mrs Gandhi visited Washington in March 1966 to plead for aid, which the American President promised to provide. But then, India dared to condemn the American bombing of Vietnam. Pissed, America kept India on a short leash, and released its grain, tonne-by-precious-tonne, to ensure India behaved and made policy changes. India devalued its currency by 57% in June 1966, and opened up some of its economy to private forces. Smarting but hungry, India vowed to become food secure. In the background, the Green Revolution was just getting started, sparking a borewell revolution in dry Punjab and Haryana, making that dry land spew forth unbelievable quantities of grain. The mid-1960s saw the creation of the Food Corporation of India to buy grain and the Minimum Support Price to motivate farmers to make more grain. Within decades, India became food secure and truly independent. Ask yourself, could India have been able to buy Russian oil so easily today if it depended on European grain to feed itself? Let us move ahead to a monster El Niño and the back-to-back droughts of 2015-16. Surprisingly, India has shown resilience. Have we conquered the El Niño? Hardly. Our groundwater reserves have bought us climate wiggle room. But when those reserves begin to sputter, especially in India’s dry breadbaskets, the El Niño will be waiting. Even in 2015-16, India saw thousands of heat wave deaths, devastating floods, Day Zero in cities, power plants shut down by lack of water and farmer suicides spike in Maharashtra and Karnataka. When groundwater runs out, add famine to this list. Metaphorically, it’s only when the tide recedes do we see who has been swimming naked. El Niños, by pulling the tide back and exposing vulnerabilities, force change. What will it show us this time?
And it was. We’ve been warned of these dangers many times. By protests and reports over the decades. By landslides, flash floods, lost lives and now, by cracked roads and houses. And the malaise is spreading: There is more water gushing out of one of those cracks and houses in nearby Karnaprayag have recently developed cracks. With the media frenzy, political leaders have to be seen to act. Families have been moved to a safer place and there is talk of compensation amid razing unsafe structures and resettling families. Even as human stories emerge — a lifetime of earnings slipping through the cracks, of resettlement and forced migration (these will become repetitive themes on a larger scale as the climate warms) — let us consider the root causes of the problem. They pertain to the need to reduce carbon, provide water and create jobs within India’s democratic realities.
Climate ambition first. India has promised to increase the share of electricity capacity from non-fossil sources from 42% today to 50% by 2030. To do this, India is amping up its solar, wind and to a smaller extent, hydropower capacities. Energy experts believe several more gigawatts of hydro will need to be added by 2030 to stick to our decarbonising goals. That could be dicey given the existing problems with hydro. Of course, we could bring down our carbon footprint in other ways. For example, with agriculture using a good chunk of India’s electricity, we could ask those using agricultural connections (not always farmers) to pay fairly for the electricity, which would better manage demand (and save groundwater). But few politicians will risk being branded anti-farmer by doing this. Moreover, hydropower is alluring for other reasons. Energy can be stored in water and quickly released, making hydro far better for meeting peak loads than the more variable solar and wind. The rent-seeking possibilities with construction can be politically salient. Dams provide drinking water. Everything needed to build a dam is available within the country — important in a geopolitically unsettled world. Lastly, dams are a concrete (pun intended) symbol of development. When someone asks what a leader did for people, s/he can point to the dam.
Moving to roads. The people living in the hill tracts of Uttarakhand have few employment opportunities, and look to elected leaders to correct this. Enter religious tourism and the roads and hotels built to cater to it, which provide livelihoods that people asked for. Reducing the number of tourists while preserving jobs is akin to saying the grace of Lord Badrinath is only for those who can afford a helicopter flight. Not realistic. Reducing the tourism revenue overall means fewer livelihoods. Not politically acceptable. And so, we are stuck. To get unstuck, let us (rightly) descry dams and roads built in sensitive areas, but also ask how Delhi can do without Tehri’s water in May 2023, how to secure livelihoods of Joshimath’s residents, how to supply low-carbon stable electricity in a raucous democracy. But with the climate changing, the equilibrium is shifting. Who wants a dam that is overwhelmed by constant flooding and who wants to travel on roads which can slip away? The end of this road is approaching, and a new path where roads and homes are built more thoughtfully, fewer dams in fragile areas and better managing how our electricity is consumed and our water managed, is emerging. Down that path lies Joshimath’s salvation, but will we walk it?
Joshimath is sinking. Why? One reason is that the town came up on landslide debris, which was unable to bear the load of houses and roads. Another is that it’s located in a seismically active neighbourhood, and Joshimath itself lies next to a fault line. Also, because the rocks are so young, rain and snow melt percolate within, creating aquifers beneath the surface.
Spot the cracks: Pressure to reduce carbon, provide water and create jobs has led to a warped model
Ponni is the Tamil name for Kaveri and Selvan means son or wealthy man. Ponniyin Selvan is, therefore, Kaveri's son or a man whose wealth comes from the Kaveri river. (Illustration by Suneesh K.)
Have you seen Ponniyin Selvan Part-I? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a film is worth at least a million. No words could convey how wealthy and mighty the Cholas were as well as the film’s lavish sets do. What lay behind this stupendous wealth? The film’s title provides a clue: Ponni is the Tamil name for the river Kaveri, and while Selvan means son, it can also connote wealth or a wealthy man. So, Ponniyin Selvan could mean the son of the Kaveri, or Kaveri’s son whose wealth derives from the Kaveri. In either case, this title, given to one of the greatest kings of India, only highlights the importance of Kaveri’s water in creating the wealth of ancient Indian empires.
The paean to water doesn’t stop with the title. Indeed, the opening scene of Ponniyin Selvan (the book, and the song, Ponni Nadhi in the movie) sees protagonist Vandiya Thevan riding along the Veera Narayana Lake in early August, gazing at the people celebrating Aadi Perukku, a festival where village folk welcome the river water and pray for good harvests.
Why are the lake and river so prominently featured in this story? The annual rainfall of the region is less than 1000 mm - far too little to grow rice. The Veera Narayana Lake (now known as the Veeranam Lake) was built by an earlier Chola emperor to capture and store the seasonal waters of the Kollidam. Such lakes were a ingenious irrigation technology that allowed agriculture to flourish and thus delivered the wealth and might of the Chola Empire. Without the river and lakes working as a system, the Chola’s wealth would have not existed. Hence the importance to river and the lake.
Another example of ancient water engineering is the anai or check dam. The Kallanai, or the Grand Anicut, is a weir built on the Kaveri near Tiruchirappalli by Karikaal Cholan in the second century. The Kallanai is built just where the Kaveri splits into the faster, steeper Kollidam River and a meandering River to the south, which retains the name Kaveri. Ancient Tamil engineers needed the Kaveri’s water to irrigate lakhs of acres without letting that water stagnate over the flat delta. They needed to prevent silt from accumulating in the slower branch and ensure the faster branch carried more water during periods of high river flow. This was quite an ask, and the Kallanai was their answer.
What you see as the Kallanai today near Trichy is a travesty. The original design of the Kallanai was pieced together after an extensive archival search by Chitra Krishnan, who wrote her doctoral thesis on tank and anicut systems in Tamil Nadu under Professor Srinivas Veeravalli of IIT Delhi. The original Kallanai, she found, was curved, making several waves from one end to the other, mimicking the action of water when crossing a natural shoal. The weir’s surface was sloped and notched to allow sediment to pass into the faster Kollidam smoothly. During periods of high flow, the design allowed the ‘extra’ water to flow into the more accepting Kollidam, while during periods of lean flow, more water was retained by the slower Kaveri River. The surface of the weir was smoothened with a fine chunam (a traditional plaster), which made it impervious to water but had to be renewed periodically. The anai worked by understanding and working with water currents and sedimentation processes, rather than trying to control them.
The Kallanai did its job and did it well for about 1,500 years. But in the eighteenth century, the region became unsettled precluding regular maintenance. Without maintenance, the Kallanai began to malfunction, with silt gathering in the Kaveri River branch and causing irrigation to falter in the Kaveri delta. That’s when the British were called in to repair the weir. The British approach ignored both the water dynamics of the river and the design philosophy or the effectiveness of local engineering. The British engineers levelled the anicut and smoothened the slope (both of which had previously helped with sediment and water distribution) and raised the height of the anicut. These changes failed to reduce the siltation in the Kaveri branch. They tried adding under sluices to help the silt escape and built an additional dam upstream, which increased the flow of water into the Kaveri branch but eroded the riverbed because, now during floods, the excess water did not flow into the Kollidam. The British made a number of additional changes, including building regulators and dams to get the weir to a level of functioning that was roughly comparable to the far more elegant design of the Cholas.
Ancient India’s water infrastructure, like tanks and anicuts, were highly effective because they were based on a deep understanding of the facets of India’s water, like seasonality, and then worked with them rather than trying to control them. Indeed, that understanding, and importantly that philosophy of working with nature is missing today, leading us to crisis.
Moreover, today, like the British, many of us undervalue Indian engineering because it looks so, well, low tech. Indeed, during an interview, a lady asked me which water tech excited me the most. When I replied, ‘Our tank system’, she looked crestfallen. Make no mistake, our ancient tanks or anicuts may not have IoT or Machine learning or blockchain, but you will have to search hard to find a technology better suited to managing India’s volatile and variable water than the humble tank or the kacchha anai. The Cholas, no fools, understood that. Will we?
(This is part of Watershed, How We Destroyed India’s Waters and How We can save them, by Mridula Ramesh)