Writing on water

The new national water policy must be treated as a work in progress

We now have a new National Water Policy (NWP) 2012, in place of the NWP 2002. The policy was officially adopted at a meeting of the National Water Resources Council (NWRC), although the consensus on it appears to have been imperfect.

The new policy has several good features. For instance, water in general is recognised as a community resource, the public trust doctrine is mentioned, and the importance of community participation in water management is recognised. The new policy also stresses on "demand management", to a certain extent. As for the question of water pricing, the idea of "differential pricing", that is, the need to distinguish lifeline and high-priority water from water for other uses, is accepted. The conservation of river corridors, water bodies and infrastructure is emphasised, and where encroachments or diversions of water bodies have taken place, restoration to the extent feasible is recommended. In project planning, the Integrated Water Resources Management approach is recommended.

There are some fairly good provisions relating to floods. The unqualified reference to private sector participation in the earlier draft has been toned down to a milder recommendation of public-private partnership "wherever the state governments or local governing bodies so decide".There is a statement that hydrological data should be in the public domain (but this is qualified by a reference to national security considerations). The reference to a National Water Framework Law, an idea that I have been urging for some years now, is welcome, but it remains to be seen whether the draft law prepared by the committee set up by the ministry of water resources will truly be a framework law, avoid the danger of centralisation, and be acceptable to state governments.

Turning to one's dissatisfactions with the NWP 2012, the first is that it is not strong on a fundamental right to basic or lifeline water, and the need to declare it explicitly as such, instead of depending on the judicial interpretation of the right to life. Second, there is no clarity on the question of whether water is state property or private property or a common pool resource. There are indeed statements about water being a community resource, and the public trust doctrine is mentioned, but there are also references to water as an economic good, to pricing on economic principles, to public-private partnership, etc. The idea of "tradable entitlements", promoted by the World Bank and certain Indian economists, lies behind the recommendation of a Water Resources Regulatory Authority (WRRA). There may not be contradictions here but these diverse statements have to be reconciled.

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