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.

How is a WRRA in every state reconcilable with democratic decentralisation, and the constitutional mandate for the devolution of local water management to panchayati raj institutions? This is a contentious idea and the NWP need not have rushed to endorse it. The one active example of such a model is the Maharashtra one, and it has been strongly criticised by many. There is a Planning Commission sub-group report on a model water regulatory system and another report on the model groundwater bill. Has the official drafting committee for NWP 2012 seen these reports and taken their findings into account?

The paragraph on "demand management" seems to argue only for a degree of moderation and not for drastic restraint, which is what a grave crisis calls for. On the supply side, how should one prioritise different interventions, that is, large projects for storage and long-distance water transfer, groundwater extraction and local augmentation through community-led rainwater-harvesting and micro-watershed development? There is no explicit mention but the old preference for large interventions seems to linger on.

On inter-state water disputes, a permanent tribunal has been recommended, but the more important questions are about the principles of water-sharing, the composition of the tribunal, a change from adversarial court-like proceedings to a committee-like problem-solving one. The NWP does not go into these matters. One is also puzzled by the statement that "there should be a forum at the national level to deliberate upon issues relating to water and evolve consensus, co-operation and reconciliation amongst party states", given that there is already a constitutional body called the inter-state council.

On the displacement of people by projects and their resettlement and rehabilitation, the NWP is silent, probably because there is a separate National Rehabilitation Policy, and a bill is under discussion. However, a brief reference to that subject might have been in order. A recommendation that "minimum displacement" should be among the criteria for project selection would have been very useful.

On rivers, the NWP is very disappointing. There is indeed a reference to the pollution of rivers, but it seems very weak. Many of our rivers are dying or dead because of gross abuse. The gravity of the situation is not reflected in the NWP 2012.

There is a reference to the principle of equity, but it is not the driving force behind the NWP. The commitment to ecology is also weak. In two places, the reference to "ecological needs" in the earlier draft now stands diluted by the qualifier "minimum". Indeed, the term ecological needs is ambiguous. It seems to me that there are ecological imperatives and not ecological needs.

Finally, the entire structure of the NWP does not seem to be held together by an overarching or governing set of principles. Clearly, the revision of the national water policy is far from complete. One's earnest request to the ministry of water resources and to the NWRC is to treat NWP 2012 as a penultimate draft to be worked on further.

The writer is former secretary of water resources, Government of India, and chairman of the sub-group on drafting a national water framework law, set up by the Planning Commission

express@expressindia.com

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