In A startling case of official apathy, successive Central governments have slept over the recommendations of at least 11 expert groups over the last six decades to adopt a uniform national water policy and protect its reckless use.
Faced with the challenge of increased commercial use of water and over-exploitation of groundwater, the Water Resources Ministry has finally decided to act.
As water is a state subject, a model Bill for setting up regulatory mechanisms has been circulated among the states for adoption by their respective Assemblies.
The mushrooming growth of bottling plants — producing mineral and aerated water — and unauthorised water tanker suppliers, has spurred the ministry into action. Presently, 118 plants, certified by the Bureau of Indian Standards, produce mineral water using the natural resource.
Rivers and groundwater are the main sources of raw water currently available to these bottling plants — free of cost.
The model Bill provides for setting up a Central-State Groundwater Authority (at the state level) with a nominee of the Centre.
The prime task of such authorities would be to rationalise the water price structure in the commercial, domestic and irrigation sectors.
For any venture that wants to commercially use water, the proposed authority's clearance would be mandatory.
Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz, in a letter to all State governments, urged them to take immediate steps to set up the proposed mechanism.
However, Punjab and Northeastern states were said to have expressed their inability to adopt the model Bill because of social and political pressures. Some other states were also dithering. Yet, Soz is confident that he would be able to convince the states on the need for a uniform nationwide water policy.
The Centre has also constituted an Artificial Recharge of Ground Water Advisory
It will advise the states on strategies to recharge the groundwater.
Starting from the Maharashtra State Irrigation Commission, 1962, to the Vaidyanathan Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water, 1991, eleven expert bodies had recommended restructuring of irrigation water rates to improve the efficacy of irrigation projects and check commercial misuse of water.
Some headway was made when a Group of Officers was set up in October 1992 to study the Vaidyanathan Committee's recommendations. In its December, 1994 report, the group recommended that irrigation water rates should cover the full annual operation and not only the crop season. It also suggested that the tariff hike be implemented in a phased manner over a period of five years.
The findings of the committee and the group were then sent to the states in February 1995.
Some states, like Andhra Pradesh (Janurary 1997), Bihar (November 1995), Haryana (September 1995) and Maharashtra (1994) revised their water rates.
But there was no forward movement on the bigger issue of policy formulation.