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THE Centre and the states are at it again, this time over water. The bone of contention: the draft water information bill finalised recently by the Union ministry for water resources (MWR) that seeks to accord the Centre unhindered access to water resources data collected by the state governments.
The states in which the major river basins of the country are located view the bill as an instrument of interference by the Union government in a matter exclusive to the states. Some states have alleged that the bill would tantamount to a Central takeover of the country's water management.
The bill seeks to provide a statutory basis to collection of statistics -- by both the Centre and the states -- related to water availability in rivers and streams and its usage in the country. Statutory statistical authorities will be established both at the Central and the state levels to collect, collate and generate data for better management of the country's water resources.
Defending the bill, A D Mohile, chief engineer, in charge of irrigation management, Central Water Commission, says, "Matters related to inter-state disputes over water fall within the ambit of the concurrent list in which the Parliament can intervene in the national interest. Also, development projects related to water require the approval of the Planning Commission. So there should be no confusion over the legal and the administrative implications of the Central intervention."
The bill seeks to implement a provision of the National Water Policy of 1987 which had called for the creation of an information network on water balance and usage in the country for better planning of the water resources. The policy states, "A standardised national information system should be established with a network of data banks and data bases, integrating and strengthening the existing Central and state level agencies and improving the quality of data and the processing capabilities."
Highlighting the merit of the bill, MWR officials point out that a huge amount of data is required on parameters such as climate and topography, run off and hydrology, for planning water projects. A national data system would make for quick processing of information on these topics, which requires a highly data intensive technique like a wide range of mathematical modelling and simulations.
Elaborates Mohile, "A certain set of data related to river and canal flow is generated within the water sector but there is a wide range of other data related to land use, cropping pattern and the economic profile of an area crucial for water management, which is generated in other sectors. The new bill will ensure inter-sectoral flow of data."
But this hi-tech proposition to be supported by an intricate computer network may fail to materialise in the absence of cooperation from the state governments. This ominous warning comes from B N Navalawala, advisor, (irrigation), Planning Commission. "Implementing this bill will be a problem as barring one, all 16 major river basins in the country are zigzagged by inter-state boundaries indicating a stiff competition for water allocation from rivers. In such a scenario, holding back information on water balance and actual usage is politically expedient," contends Navalawala. But the success of the scheme will depend largely on free flow of data from the states who now wield a proprietary right over statistics relating to irrigation.
It is ironic that such scepticism should gain credence when official justification for the bill hinges on the argument that the bill can actually help in resolving many pending inter-state water issues. Major river basins, such as the Kaveri basin, are in the grip of intense inter-state disputes over access to and allocation of water. Mohile holds the lack of reliable data on water-related parameters responsible for the disputes.
MWR officials are at a loss to suggest how state governments can be made to comply, inspite of the bill, to part with the strategic information. They emphasise the need for creating proper channels and institutions for a transparent flow of information. Officials feel that creation of statistical authorities at state and central levels is a step in the right direction. They point out that under the proposed bill the Central statistical authority can examine techniques employed by the state governments to generate data "If it deems it necessary."
But the officials cite cases where even after a conflict has been resolved, accessing information remains a problem. As an example, the MWR officials cite the settlement of the dispute in the Krishna basin in which the water dispute tribunal had established legal entitlements of the contending states -- Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The tribunal had stated that there should be an exchange of information between the states regarding the actual usage, and type of usage from different tributaries of the Krishna river within the state boundary out of the total entitled quantum every year. But even now, the states are hesitant to furnish full details and provide only the aggregate figure of total usage. This hampers reliable projection about future water demand for diverse uses and thus hinders the planning of new projects.
Ever since the mooting of the bill in 1988, it has run into rough weather on account of furious objections from the state governments resenting Central intrusion. The draft bill, prepared by the MWR, was considered in the first meeting of the National Water Board in 1990 to facilitate consultation with the states. A sub-committee set up with representatives from the states and the MWR in 1991 to look into the various aspects of the bill came up with specific recommendations which were reviewed by the National Water Board, renamed in 1992 as the National Water Resources Ministers Council (NWRMC).
Navalawala feels that a forum like the NWRMC should be fully utilised to sensitise the state governments to the need of the ongoing exercise and dispel their fears.
The members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee for the MWR also admit that only political commitment can make the bill effective. Says Krishna Marandi, a member of the consultative committee, "The key link is the political cooperation from the state governments to share information."
But the issue on which the bill is critically silent is access of the non-governmental agencies to the proposed data bank. Critics feel that peoples' access to such information is crucial as the ongoing controversy over the Sardar Sarovar dam has highlighted. "The purpose of any information system is to aid in democratic decision-making. If information remains classified, inappropriate water technology can be pushed by taking the ignorant public for a ride," says Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, a voluntary organisation. Mishra is involved with grassroots studies on traditional water harvesting systems of the country.
However, the bill circumvents a provision of the National Water Policy which clearly states, "There should be free exchange of data among the various agencies."
Even the Union minister for water resources, V C Shukla's contention that the bill will ensure easy availability and transparency in respect of data, does not extend beyond the ambit of the government. The bill states, "Keeping in view the national interest, the Central government can classify data or allow limited access." The slant here is towards the international implication of river basins like those of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra which spill over the national boundary.
Officials shying away from commenting on this resort to diplomacy, "Let us acknowledge the merit of the proposed information system in a different way. If there is an intention to part with the data, then it will be readily available in one place."