Draft water framework: It is suicidal in India to ignore critical issues in the hurly-burly of partisan politics

Rivers are back in fashion. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adiyanath wants Gomti to be integrated with Ganga.

We cannot wait for the perfect fit to start and the draft water framework seems like as good a step as any.
We cannot wait for the perfect fit to start and the draft water framework seems like as good a step as any.

Rivers are back in fashion. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adiyanath wants Gomti to be integrated with Ganga. But Gomti, near the ghats at the Deoband, is not a river but a nallah in the dry season, as is Sabarmati before we pump in scarce Narmada water in it. This is done as an entertainment for Ahmedabad is at the expense of the farmers, for whom it is meant. To rein in all this, the water resources minister has introduced the Draft National Water Framework Law in Parliament. So, should we plan according to agro-climatic regimes or river basins? We plan water projects in watersheds and basins, but agricultural development remains ignored.

Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY),which in a mutilated form still lives if the Budget papers are to be believed, works in an agro-climatic regime, but the water and agriculture projects work in silos. Planning and policies for convergence would have high returns as many experiments show. But now planning has been abolished. In spite of this setback, the water resources ministry has kept up a long term water conservation planning policy focus. In February 2016, Mukesh Sinha, then joint secretary policy and planning in ministry of water resources and the central water commission (CWC) ranking official on water planning presented the National Water Framework Law in Jal Manthan-2, organised by the ministry. The plan suggests we experiment with watershed basins at the lowest level and integrate with agro-climatic regimes. We can then move up to larger watersheds and the entire river basin.

Cutting edge frontier technology in water delivery and development projects has to be developed at home. Working best practices must be known and diffused. Development and applications of success stories will require data and information support. We have to set up the systems to aid the state governments, local bodies and CBOs in these support mechanisms. And, the draft bill pushes in this direction. The role of the national government in the complex area of dispute resolution is important. Experience-based solutions need to be looked at. Lawyers are always a problem and setting up Tribunals only delays solutions by decades. Asked to arbitrate in a season’s dispute on water sharing in a river basin, following the Apex Courts directive, I had suggested that a three-layer system implemented in the Mekong Basin amongst nations which had actually gone to war with each other be designed.

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This system, at the highest level political, at the second level coordinative and at the third level a delivery apparatus, was implemented and has worked reasonably well. Everybody was always unhappy, but the water flowed from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu. This year, there was again disruption. The delivery efficiencies of canal-based irrigation in India is poor. Wastage of water is high. Farmer managed modernisation and operation programs for levels below a distributary can double irrigation efficiencies. The existing systems act as a drag. The only alternative model which is seriously suggested is the plea that the Chinese experiments in private sector institutions at the village level to run water systems should be implemented. Incidentally, this model also includes a strong state run system upstream. It underestimates the role of the Communist party in directing public-private partnerships in China. Thus, the model cannot be copied without adjustment.

There are successful models in India. They require that the ownership and operation of the systems be left to an organisation of the farmers in the command. In addition, the existing resources for operation and maintenance have to be transferred to the farmers group. This has to be done by law in the sense that government orders have to be issued requiring the transfer in practice. More often than not, the principle is accepted but the practice is not there. The IWRM provides that every individual has a right to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene, and within easy reach of the household. The state’s responsibility for ensuring people’s right to water has to remain despite corporatisation or privatisation of water services. The privatisation of the service, where considered necessary and appropriate, should be subject to this provision. The water resources law has to detail how to give a minimum of water to survive.

A new research effort is needed and in a three to five year framework, it should be possible to generate knowledge, from which generalisation could begin. It is extremely likely that assessments of water as a resource will gain another dimension if such efforts are pursued. It is obvious that a lot of work is needed to operationalise integrated water resources management. This has to do with definitions, resource inventorying, planning methodologies and integration with users and the bureaucracy. But we cannot wait for the perfect fit to start. It is suicidal in India to ignore these issues in the hurly burly of partisan politics.

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