Saturday, April 30, 2016

Water of India

As a child of the 80s, I remember seeing for the first time on hazy black and white television in India, a magic trick called "water of India", performed by the legendary magician P.C. Sarkar, Jr. He would have a tumbler in his hand filled with water. He would loudly call out "Water of India!" and then empty its contents into a bucket. He would then turn the container completely over, as if to show there was no more water left to pour. Then he would wave his wand three times over the vessel, and again shout out "Water of Indiaaaa!". Water would come pouring out of the container. People would break out into loud applause, as he would keep repeating the trick until a whole bucket would gradually fill up. In the heat of summer, as most of India cooks under average 42 degree centigrade temperatures, most people wish they had this magic tumbler in their homes, now more so than ever.

Growing up in the southern city of Hyderabad, I remember summers to be hot, but not searing. Occasionally the noon temperature would hit 40 degrees centigrade and people would take a siesta. I do remember getting a heat stroke every now and then from being out in the sun. But I also remember my summer holidays to be joyful and filled with juicy delights. Watermelons, mangoes, cantaloupes, ice cold sugar cane juice and other local succulent fruits and chutneys kept you going through the summer with cool contentment. Ceiling fans on high speed would do the job. Air conditioning was unheard of. We would use water soaked curtains made of woven Khus (a kind of fragrant grass) roots, and hang them around the courtyard to keep the air cool inside. In the night my mother would soak a towel in water and cover herself to keep her going through the night. Some people would have air-coolers blaring through the night. Three months later, the monsoons would arrive, soaking the land, releasing a special fragrance. A cool air would blow over the steaming plains bringing in the much-needed relief. Life would return to normal. Summers are etched in my memory as some of the best times of my childhood.

The average temperatures in Hyderabad this summer, which has barely begun, have been 42 degree centigrade in the shade. In some parts of the state the thermometer has breached the 44 degree mark. People have been dying on a daily basis from heat stroke. Much of the nation is gripped in a heat wave, and the water is being sucked from the land, leaving it parched and cracked.

As long as I can remember, water has always been a precious commodity in India. In the summers it would become even scarcer. This year things seem to have gotten only more extreme. Climate change is definitely a reason for the crisis facing many in India. Without a doubt, the bigger culprit is human mismanagement of resources.

For most of last year and this, I have been working on a film titled Holy (un)Holy River. Three American filmmakers traveled the 1500-kilometer length of the mighty Ganges, from its very source where the first snowflakes melt, to the very end where the water gushes to meet the Bay of Bengal. Along their journey the film reveals the crisis facing the river as half a billion people who live along its shores scramble to draw sustenance from it. The film exposes the frightful state of affairs as the river struggles to breathe, having been choked from pollution, damming and religious activity. As a cautionary tale, the film sends a clear message of urgency, that if things don't change very soon, the Ganges would cease to exist as a river and would be transformed into a sewer.

Some of the issues the film highlights are not new. Over thirty years successive Indian governments have tried to address the problem and have failed. Things have only gotten worse and there is no hope that they would get better any time soon. This week one of the largest power stations on the river, at Farraka was shut down, because of lack of water in the canal. A thousand families, which live in town servicing the station, ran out of water. Thousands of bottles of packaged drinking water had to be brought in. Fire engines rushed to the river to extract water for cooking and cleaning.

For the first time in its 30 year history, the power station that generates nearly a quarter of India's electricity was shut for 10 days. Further downstream ferries were suspended as sand bars breached the surface.

The Ganges is but a single water body in India that faces a monumental crisis. The three-month summer has barely begun, and the water availability in India's 91 water reservoirs is at 29%. In one of the nation's largest states, Maharashtra, the situation is most desperate. A 12 year old girl recently died from exhaustion and dehydration after trying to gather water from a hand pump. Underground water tables have receded to historic lows and trucks and trains have been deployed to ferry water into remote districts and villages. 330 million people in 256 districts through out India are severely affected by the drought and intense heat.

India's water woes have largely been a result of failing monsoons. Year after year, in recent memory, the monsoons have been weak, there by failing to rejuvenate and recharge the land. Climate change and deforestation have been cited as primary reasons for the failures. But there is no dearth of fresh water in India. The Himalayas hold the largest amount of fresh water outside the polar caps. India is home to some of the largest rivers in the world. Granted, there are 1.3 billion people to quench, but better water management, good infrastructure and conservation could alleviate a lot of the pain on a daily basis.

Humanity's ability to destroy that which gives it sustenance, without a thought, has always puzzled and amazed me. The title of my film Holy (un)Holy River, highlights that sentiment. On one level the Ganges is the most sacred body of water for most Indians. The river is a goddess that is worshiped. But without a care, Indians also take part in its destruction in every possible way, making it "unholy" in every sense of the word. The question we pose in the film is that, if you pollute the physical river, does it still remain spiritually pure?

There is no magic wand that can fix problems humanity faces. India's current crisis is only part of a global water crisis that has been simmering for some time. Thailand currently is facing the worst drought in decades. California's situation is still stressed. Conflicts over water resources are on the rise around the globe. Water is fast becoming a commodity, which the rich can easily afford in a plastic bottle and a gated community and the poor have to trudge miles for a sip. But this imbalance can quickly shift if the situation becomes untenable.

The "water of India" magic trick was an amazing illusion that brought joy to me as a child. In reality, water is becoming more and more illusive to more people under the hot sun. It is what it is.