Editorial: Bill versus Draft
Three months after a new version of the National Water Framework Bill drafted by a committee headed by Yogendra Alagh was unveiled, the Union Water Resources Minister Harish Rawat held the first meeting of the National Forum of Water Resources and Irrigation Ministers of States. One of the main aims was to get states to agree to the need for such a law.
There is no doubt about the need for such a law, as prominent water experts noted in an explanatory note to an earlier attempt at drafting it. This versiondating from 2011 was drafted by a sub-group of the Planning Commission’s Working Group on Water Governance for the 12th Five Year Plan (called the Draft here). Curiously, the Ministry felt this was not consultative enough and proceeded, shortly thereafter to start a parallel process. Another reason the Ministry gave was the Bill should be in conformity with theexisting Acts, Laws, Principles, etc., and some minimum standards should beprescribed for the States for implementation and to prevent them from a Business AsUsual (BAU) scenario. Earlier attempts on prescriptive laws by Centre have nothelped and States themselves have acknowledged that they require a strong pushfrom the Centre to make their establishment recognize the critical stage of waterdevelopment.This statement seems at variance with the Constitutional provision that water is a state subject and at the heart of setting up the National Forum.
The Ministry’s process of drafting the law was supposed to be more consultative; the constitution of the drafting committee that has a preponderance of government officers, and the process, seems to have been anything but. Additionally, the 2013 Bill appears to be a weak and incomplete version of the 2011 draft, which itself was ‘an umbrella statement of general principles governing the exercise of legislative and/or executive power by the Centre, the state and local government institutions’.
A few examples illustrate this. The 2013 Bill mentions in section 6(1) that each state will set up an independent water regulatory authority ‘for ensuring equitable access to water for all and its fairpricing, for drinking and other uses such as sanitation,agricultural and industrial’ but its decisions will be open to judicial review. While this in itself is problematic, the experience with water regulatory authorities is very poor. Only one exists in Maharashtra and has been systematically emasculated by the State Government. The 2011 draft is more nuanced, stating the functions of water management institutions and emphasizing the need for autonomy.
By stating that a river basin shall be the basic unit for hydrological planning, development and management of water resources (Section 3-1), the Bill ignores the federal structure of government and a principle of integrated water management: planning begins at the local level and federated upwards. This is something the Draft clearly states, in addition to saying water planning must take surface and ground water into consideration. Rather than improving water management, the Bill is concerned with creating more government institutions. This will end up confounding the already convoluted water governance scenario.
Again, the Draft clearly prioritizes water for life over everything else. It also recognizes the universal right to water. The Bill is less clear in the priorities for water allocation, stating each individual has the right to 25 litres of potable water per day. This has no basis and hard-coding a figure into what is essential a framework Bill will make it impossible to implement at an all-India level. The other water priorities are unclear which is dangerous since water for industry can then be given precedence over water for agriculture or the environment.
The Bill has no mention of water conflicts and a redressal mechanism, or the role of women in water. Both are dealt with in some detail in the Draft. Regarding major water projects, the Draft advises a cautious approach to minimize impacts on the environment and human beings. It also restates the paripassu principle of resettlement and rehabilitation while constructing large projects, that is ignored by the Bill. Likewise, there is nothing on augmenting local water availability through micro interventions. Significantly, the Bill completely ignores traditional knowledge in water management, one of the main reasons for the current water emergency in the country.
The section of floods and droughts in the Bill takes an engineering approach of control, rather than a more intelligent one of minimizing their impact. Participatory water management is left to Water Users Associations (WUAs), a problematic social construct as they non-representative. The Bill says the Water Resources Information System will be the aggregator and disseminator of information; this System is closed to non-government users. There is a proposal to allow non-government users access on payment of fee and an undertaking both of which will again ensure data exclusivity. Experience has shown that India’s water data is flaky at best, and the Bill is silent on how to improve data quality. The Draft calls for total transparency of WRIS data that may help to improve its quality.
The Bill seeks to extend and centralize the country’s water bureaucracy while throwing a few crumbs to local government institutions. In its current form it will create another water management monster that will convert water into a resource to be managed, rather than a public commons to be held in trust by the State. There is a need for further debate if indeed the Ministry is serious about a workable Bill that reflects the nuances of water management.
On another note, we would like draw your attention to an announcement on rainwater harvesting.