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Water: The resource that will determine our future

Perhaps the planning commission needed to be disbanded. But a new water commission along the lines recommended in the water reforms report definitely needs to be created

columns Updated: Mar 25, 2017 21:07 IST
Water tables are falling in most parts of India; 60% of India’s districts face groundwater over-exploitation and/or serious quality issues
Water tables are falling in most parts of India; 60% of India’s districts face groundwater over-exploitation and/or serious quality issues(HT)

Ecologist Jayanta Bandyopadhyay once wrote that water, not oil, was the resource whose availability and quality would determine India’s future. I recalled that remark when reading a report recently submitted to the Government of India, entitled, A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms. Rigorously researched and closely argued, this report displays a deep familiarity with social and economic life across India, and offers a set of forward-looking recommendations as well. It is by far the best sarkari report I have read in years. (The full report is available here: https://tinyurl.com/m6huqzo)

Some alarming facts listed by the report include:

“If the current pattern of demand continues, about half of the demand for water will be unmet by 2030”;

“Water tables are falling in most parts of India; 60% of India’s districts face groundwater over-exploitation and/or serious quality issues”;

“There is fluoride, arsenic, mercury, even uranium in our groundwater”;

“Average cost over-run is as high as 1,382% in major irrigation projects and 325% in medium projects;”

Water use efficiency in agriculture in India is among the lowest in the world; it is 25-35%, whereas in China it is twice as high;

“The single most important factor explaining the drying up of India’s peninsular rivers is the over-extraction of groundwater”;

“Cities produce nearly 40,000 million litres of sewage every day and barely 20% of it is treated”.

The report identifies several distinct kinds of water crises in India. First, that water stored in large dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. Second, that groundwater resources are now being rapidly depleted and polluted as well. These two crises threaten the sustainability of Indian agriculture. But there is a third, emerging, crisis; caused by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. Cities and factories draw on the water resources of the hinterland, leading to conflicts between town and country. They also use these resources extremely carelessly.

The report makes many sensible suggestions to resolve these crises. It argues that water management is too important to be left to engineers alone; rather, it needs inputs from a wide variety of academic disciplines, including ecology, economics, sociology, and climate science.

Second, the present license-permit-quota-Raj system of water allocation, which gives the State and its functionaries a dominant role, must give way to a more participatory system, in which farmers and other end-users have a critical say in how water is allocated and used. (The report list several success stories in community water management, from several states in India.)

Third, there must be, at both a conceptual and practical level, integrated policies for surface water and groundwater. The report identifies a disease named “hydro-schizophrenia”, whereby the “left hand of surface water does not know what the right hand of groundwater is doing.”

A fourth recommendation, aimed at the private sector, is that it must be made mandatory for all companies to include details of their water footprint in their annual reports.

The report observes that the two bodies currently in operation, the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Groundwater Board (CGWB), have valuable expertise and knowledge. Yet both agencies remain rooted in the 20th century. They still operate on the “build-neglect-rebuild” model, which has outlived its utility. Water management now needs to follow a demand-side rather than supply-side approach, actively involving end-users, while eschewing a one-size-fits-all model in favour of one that recognises regional variations in natural resource endowments, social structures, and livelihood patterns.

The report thus recommends a new institutional architecture for water management in India, whereby the CWC and CWGB would be merged into a new national water commission. The report contains a detailed outline of what this new commission would do; what kind of organisational design it would have, what experts it would need to recruit, and what policies it might execute.

Notably, the report stresses that the new commission should have a “strong regional presence in all the major river basins of India”. The country has 22 major river basins; remarkably, at present there are 11 river basins in which neither the CWC nor CGWB has an active research centre. Once established, this new commission will overcome this deficiency; further, it will operate in a genuinely holistic fashion, so that in each of these river basins, groundwater and surface water are treated in an integrated manner.

Perhaps the planning commission needed to be disbanded. But a new water commission along the lines recommended here definitely needs to be created. Sadly, except for a scholarly round-table in the Economic and Political Weekly (December 24 2016) this remarkable report has not got the public attention it deserves.

Our media is obsessed with the winning and losing of elections; whereas the truth is that the use and abuse of water is even more critical to India’s economic, social, political, and civilisational future.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

@Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal