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An Act to commodify water

Posted on: 5 Dec, 2012

Meghalaya's draft water Act omits conservation and management from the sustainability point of view

Meghalaya has joined the august band of states that have legislated on water resources. Its draft water Act has a lot on “management”, but nothing on protection or conservation even though the Act purports to be about water and not just its management. The notable difference is that the state's Act does not differentiate between ground, surface or rain water while nearly a dozen other states have Acts specifically to manage groundwater.

Meghalaya has jumped the gun somewhat in that the draft Act precedes the national water policy, pending before the National Water Resources Council for action. It ignores several  important things that have informed recent water debates in India—climate change’s impact on water, pollution, reuse of water, water for life versus water for livelihood, conjunctive use of water and the peculiar problem of the state of scarcity amidst plenty. What the Act does have in excess measure is management of water by concessionaires (water managers who can be anybody or any entity) and a modicum of community involvement.

Paves way for private ownership of water

The natural resources of the state are controlled, as is land, by individuals. The Act reflects this and reiterates their right to manage water and transfer it to another manager through lease or concession. It elaborates on how this can be done and fixes rights and responsibilities. It makes no mention, alarmingly, of how the manager will manage the resource sensibly. Instead, it focuses on the revenue and distribution aspects. This lays the ground of private ownership (as against individual, government or community ownership) of water in Meghalaya. Worse, the manager can “give the river beds and water lands (sic) to other entities to carry out economic activities. It’s not clear what the current owner gets apart from the rent and how this will affect access to water. This part of the Act appears to be amateurishly drafted with no understanding of current water management or the limitations of the resource.

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There is a depressingly small section on integrated water management. It makes mention of water basin districts that the state government will demarcate and what they will comprise. The water resources will be managed by a coordination committee that, mercifully, has non-government people, but this panel will “coordinate the management measures” and not prepare the management plans. From the Act, these committees appear to be post offices with little real authority or power as they have no role in making plans or allocating financial resources.

Then there are water users' associations that suffer from the same problems as in other states—they are to be nominated bodies with little financial power but tasked with the responsibility of distributing water within their geographical area. These are “last-mile” institutions and, like most last-mile things governmental, fall between the institutional cracks. The community as mentioned in the Act sounds like the aggrieved party in a case of mismanagement, entitled to “reasonable compensation for the damages suffered due to the management of water resources”, and to file a claim in a court. Strangely, the same community also has a chance at water management planning.

Least priority to water supply and sewage

Even more strangely, the Act’s section on water supply and sewage is incredibly weak. This should be the Act’s strongest part, as drinking water and sewage management should be given the highest priority. This section states, the “state government and local authority shall not be liable to any forfeiture, penalty or damages for failure to supply water or for curtailing the quantity thereof if the failure or curtailment, as the case may be, arises from accident or from drought or other unavoidable cause unless an express provision is made for forfeiture penalty or damages in the event of such failure or curtailment.” In effect, it absolves the state of failure to provide drinking water. It should instead mandate the state will provide lifeline water.

The Act purports to set up a water resources information system that will collect data from communities, managers, government officials and others. This is welcome and should improve the information on water in the state. It would be useful to put this information in the public domain and also invite interested and competent people to update it.

The Act’s penal provisions are also welcome, but open to misuse. It says any officer (of water utility, police or forest) can arrest a person suspected of violating the Act if he or she feels that person may abscond. The fine and imprisonment terms are stiff and will deter small-time violators. The issue is, there has been no legal action against people under the various groundwater Acts in other states. How is this penal provision going to be any different?

Plug loopholes

The Act needs to take several things on board before being finalised. Meghalaya faces a drought after the monsoons and the situation is getting exacerbated by construction, deforestation and mining. The Act needs to mention these as activities that will be controlled under the other relevant Acts, beyond what it does with regard to controlling water pollution. It needs a full section on water conservation and management from the sustainability point of view, a glaring omission at the moment. Groundwater makes a few guest appearances, but has to be recognised as the lead actor and given its due, else it will continue being exploited with no mechanism for sustainable management. As it stands, the Act is useless and will only serve to commodify water by providing a legal framework for private management.



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