Even if the National Water Resources Council (NWRC), the apex policy-making body in the water sector, was meeting after more than a decade, one tends to look for signs of hope in the deliberations of the National Water Policy, 2012, which is being revised after many years.
Significantly, there is now focus on water governance. The draft policy acknowledges that water governance has not been addressed adequately. Mismanagement of water resources has led to a critical situation. The water resources minister said at the end of the NWRC meeting on December 28 that there was "consensus on the issues of community management of water resources, climate change adaptation strategy, particularly increasing water storage through revival of traditional water harvesting structures and water bodies and efficient use of water".
The substantially increased outlay for the water sector in the 12th five year plan (FYP) won't be effective without good governance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged in his address that a national consensus on the common denominators of water governance was essential but unachieved. Neither he nor the policy he put forward had any concrete suggestions on how to achieve good water governance.
Singh rightly acknowledged that "groundwater has a prominent role in meeting the requirements of water for drinking and other purposes" and that it remains unregulated. But the only suggestion he made in this regard was to minimise the use of groundwater by regulating the use of electricity. However, that has been tried for decades without success. While the policy and statements repeatedly mention the role of communities, there is no credible process in sight to ensure that communities get a decisive role.
At the NWRC meeting, the states were rightly apprehensive about the Centre usurping their rights. They opposed the proposed National Water Framework Law, proposal for a water regulatory authority in every state, basin level water institutions and also inter-basin transfer of water. The PM talked about preservation of river corridors but not about preservation of rivers.
The water regulatory authority is being proposed in every state for allocating water across competing sectors and for tariff fixation. But the only functioning water regulatory authority in the country has not made any credible contribution in this regard since the allocation function has been taken away by the Maharashtra cabinet and it is yet to take some definite action to fix tariff. In a sector famous for lack of participatory governance and accountability, a proposal for a regulatory authority would be disastrous for the poor, as a majority of India's population still depend on natural water resources for their needs and livelihood. It seems more like a confidence inspiring step for the private sector as privatisation is high on the agenda in the new draft water policy. Instead, the emphasis should have been on preserving people's right to fulfil their basic water needs. The 12th FYP document adopted recently by the National Development Council had an unprecedented allocation of Rs 4.22 lakh crore for the water sector, in which a major share has been allocated for failed major- and medium-irrigation projects. Remember the Maharashtra Irrigation scam that sunk in excess of Rs 70,000 crore? Maharashtra is not alone. At the national level, in the past two decades, no addition has been made to the net area irrigated by such projects.
The PM ended his speech by saying that on water security we have to "swim together or sink together". But for swimming - and even for sinking - we need some water.
Himanshu Thakkar is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People
The views expressed by the author are personal