Editorial: Water Policy is a giant step to nowhere
The National Water Policy 2012 cleared by the National Water Resources Council (NWRC) a few days ago, is a mixed bag. For a change it takes the bull by the horns in suggesting an integrated approach to water management in practice and policy. It suggests an overarching act that recognized water as a sustainer of life and ecology that will prescribe what states must do even though the Prime Minister was cautious to say “the central government, I repeat, does not wish to encroach, in any manner, upon the constitutionally guaranteed rights of States or to centralize water management”.
The law will cover the development of inter-state rivers and streamline the management of water in India. It will mandate state water policies; many states already have these policies and others are making them but they are a disparate lot. It is in this context that a suggestion has been made for a national legal framework of general principles on water, which, in turn, would pave the way for essential legislation on water governance in every State.
The Policy at least recognizes India’s water challenges: the water bodies are getting increasingly polluted by untreated industrial effluents and sewage. Groundwater levels are falling in many parts due to excessive withdrawals, leading to contamination with fluoride, arsenic and other chemicals. The practice of open defecation, which regrettably is all too widespread, contributes further to contaminating potable water sources. The rapid economic growth and urbanisation were widening the demand supply gap and worsening the country’s water-stress index.
The Policy ensures people’s access to a minimum quantity of potable water for health and hygiene, determining ecological needs and bolstering water infrastructure in the east and north-east, that it claims are ‘water-rich’. However, a stronger statement recognizing lifeline water as a fundamental right and stipulations on its quality and quantity is needed here. The final Policy does not spell out water allocation priorities as was there in earlier drafts. There should be provisions holding the state accountable if it fails to provide this basic right, along with legal reforms for enforcement. The Policy does not spell out priorities for water allocation.
While community participation figures in the Policy in planning, execution, maintenance, and collection of payments, it is marred by the language. Couched in the familiar patronizing words, it implies communities are an exotic animal to be involved in managing water. It does not recognize the vital role of people in managing water, projects and finances, without which it is impossible to ensure everybody has enough water of usable quality.
There are some indications of new thinking, as in the need to use local water resources for water supply, before providing water through long distance transfer. This is also one of the Centre for Science and Environment’s principles of water management and has been incorporated in the 12th Five Year Plan (FYP).
The Policy, redrafted after 2002, has some welcome changes to deal with climate change. It states that ‘special impetus should be given towards mitigation at micro-level by enhancing the capabilities of community to adopt climate resilient technological options. These strategies could include increasing water storage in soil moisture, ponds, ground water, small and large reservoirs, and their combination, which provides a mechanism for dealing with increased variability because of climate change.’ It also calls for better demand management in agriculture and industry.
Community participation is also the key, according to the Policy, in mapping aquifers for which a provision has been made in the 12th FYP. It recognized the rapid depletion of groundwater, but does not spell out any specifics; the drastic decline in this resource needs drastic steps, and we feel the policy is inadequate in this regard. More proactive steps, retraining groundwater board staff and a national programme on community groundwater management based on successful experiments in India is required here.
In water efficiency, the Policy recognized the importance of small schemes, while making a case for efficiency across the board. Strangely however, no target is mentioned making this a vague statement.
The Policy details water pricing, while cautioning that differential pricing may be required to supply lifeline water. It recommends setting up water regulatory authorities in state to regulate water tariffs and the system as a whole. Water charges must be volumetric and water user associations must be free to fix these to suit local conditions subject to a floor tariff. However, experience with existing regulatory authorities has been very poor, and it has been seen they are very susceptible to political and industrial pressures, at the expense of agriculture and domestic supply. NWP recognizes Gujarat’s positive experience of the Jyotirgram scheme.
It calls for protection of rivers, water bodies and infrastructure by identifying and protecting flood plains, removing encroachments, checking illegal sand mining, pollution, and improving the maintenance of water infrastructure. NWP should have emphasized on completing existing projects, the cause of cost overruns, but has instead subsumed this under the need to have more such projects. The silver lining is including people – panchayats, municipalities, etc., - from the planning stage.
To control floods, the Policy does state rehabilitating natural drainages but then reverts to the old rhetoric of building more embankments, spurs and revetments. India has a mixed experience with these, and there is no mention of rehabilitating existing structures.
On water supply and sanitation, NWP breaks new ground only in stating that urban water supply and sewage treatment schemes should be integrated and built simultaneously. It re-states the obvious: cities should get their water from surface systems and encouraging rainwater harvesting. Worryingly, it introduces desalination as an option instead of pointing the way towards maximizing local water availability. There are a few noises about incentivizing reuse that are welcome, but needed to be spelt out better. The Policy ignores the elephant in the room; that cities draw half their water from the ground and this needs to be balanced by an aggressive urban water management plan.
A National Water Disputes Tribunal takes shape in the Policy but the section on institutional arrangements and inter-state rivers has blacked out the existing laws and tribunals. How the new tribunal will sit with those already around, and those that have passed verdict and folded up, is unclear. This may be recipe for further inter-state conflicts given the recent experience of the one between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka who refuse to accept orders from the Prime Minister.