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Why the draft water policy 2012 might need more steam!
Although the Draft Water Policy 2012 proposes to make water an ‘economic good’ while keeping livelihood and ecosystem needs as the first priority, it certainly fails to recognise that one cannot simply assert a number of propositions without considering their inter-relationships and possible contradictions
Issue Date - 30/05/2012
It is nothing short of an irony that a country like India, which is home to about 17% of the world’s population, has access to a mere 4% of earth’s total usable fresh water. Now, with the government in the process of finalising a new national water policy, there are contradictions that could further pose threats to the worrying water scenario in the country. The new policy draft in effect calls for the privatisation of water-delivery services and suggests that water be priced so as to “fully recover” the costs of operation and administration of water resources projects. Circulated to water experts for responses, the policy draft suggests among other things that the government withdraw from its role as a service provider in the water sector and that communities and the private sector should instead be encouraged to play this role.

On the face of it, the policy seeks to manage water as a community resource held by the state under public trust doctrine to achieve food security, livelihood, and equitable and sustainable development for all. However, a deeper look reveals contradictions that could impose some serious burden on the impoverished. While the government contends that the policy (the first such policy came in 1987 followed by another in 2002) is based upon a recognition to the fact that planning, development and management of water resources has to keep pace with current realities, the other side of the coin indicates that this move would translate into a steep rise in the cost of water for both rural and urban users, an outcome that the policy suggests will help curtail misuse of a “precious but scarce resource”.

In fact, contradictions actually exist aplenty. Contrary to the lofty ideal of equitable distribution of a community resource, it also calls water an economic good. The Ministry of Water Resources, in the draft policy, also wants to take away proprietary rights on water. What this would effectively mean is that no one will be able to draw groundwater without government permission even from private land. The draft policy further calls for the abolition of all forms of water subsidies to the agricultural and domestic sectors saying it leads to a “wasteful use of both electricity and water”, but proposes “subsidies and incentives” should be provided to private industry for recycling and reusing treated effluents.

Experts suggest that as a limited, life-giving resource, access to water must remain a fundamental right. The state, as custodian under the public trust doctrine, should uphold the right of the citizen to clean, safe drinking water. “It is a strong, rights-based approach that should underpin official policy on water in India. The draft fails to recognise that we cannot simply assert a number of propositions without considering their inter-relationships and possible contradictions,” Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources and Principal Draftsman of India’s first National Water Policy in 1987 tells B&E. Criticising the draft policy for simultaneously advocating community participation, public trust doctrine and PPP, Iyer says, “There is really no fundamental departure from the conventional approach of supply-side response to projected demand, and the advocacy of large storages as the answer to all problems.” In fact, Iyer has also sent an alternative draft policy for consideration to the ministry of water resources that sets forth a broad national perspective on the nature of water and on its prudent, wise, sustainable, equitable and harmonious use. Iyer is of the opinion that instead of trying to amend the 2002 Policy, the ministry should draft a new policy, starting from first principles.

However, in 2005, a World Bank paper made recommendations similar to what the government is now advocating. “If India is to have sustainable economic growth, the role of the Indian water state must change from that of builder and controller to creator of an enabling environment, and facilitator of the actions of water users large and small,” said the report. The paper called for, among other things, “stimulating competition in and for the market for irrigation and water and sanitation services.”

While the government’s intentions might be right, the policy draft fails to touch upon points crucial to the Indian scenario. Consider demand management and water-use efficiency for instance. The paper declares that water saving in irrigation use is of paramount importance, but fails to even attempt to focus policy attention on the perverse and rising reliance on non-renewable, ‘mined’ groundwater to feed irrigation, the single-biggest usage. World Bank figures suggest that some 55% of pan-India irrigation needs are now met from groundwater, that 15% of all aquifers are in ‘critical condition’ and further that 60% of them would be similarly affected over the next couple of decades without purposeful, proactive policy. The pressing need to step up water storage infrastructure for irrigation and other needs also does not find mention. This is despite the fact that India has a highly seasonal pattern of rainfall, with about 50% of annual precipitation falling in just 15 days, and 90% of all river flows taking place in barely four months.

“Maintaining ecological flow, a major concern across the globe, has also not been accorded due seriousness in the draft policy,” says Ranjan Panda, a leading water researcher and activist. “Like the 2002 Policy, the draft proposes to set aside a portion of river flow to meet ecological needs. Considering the extent of degradation of India’s rivers and the pace of industrialisation and urbanisation, with scant control over the use and abuse of rivers by these sectors, ensuring the minimum ecological flow of rivers will be difficult,” Panda observes. Here, water as a survival need and as an economic good contradict one another. The draft policy puts the onus of local-level awareness, maintenance, etc on local communities but fails to recognise that most river basins are polluted and stressed by industry and urban settlement.

“While the latter need water for survival and basic livelihoods, the former has historically been an abuser. Further, whilst basic users cannot pay for the use in ‘cash’, commercial and luxury users can use ‘cash payment’ to justify their abuse of the resource,” says Panda adding that the current draft has done nothing further than advocating age-old and unviable transfer of water from open to closed basins and the formulation of regulatory authorities.

Given that this is an issue that merits a sensitive approach, the Ministry of Water Resources is cautious to say the least with officials standing by the draft and the need for private sector participation. “The truth is that the government’s efforts needs to be supplemented and that is why we are looking at the private sector,” a ministry official told B&E. The government needs about Rs.2 lakh crore just for irrigation and it cannot be met by the treasury. Also, the promise of right to food too cannot be fulfilled unless there is water.


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