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BOOK>>Towards Water Wisdom Limits, Justice, Harmony by Ramaswamy Iyer Sage Publications, New Delhi 2007
This remarkable book attempts to showcase the essential features of India's--and to an extent the world's--water sector and point the way towards achieving equity and harmony in the use and sharing of our water resources.
Ramaswamy Iyer has two major qualifications for writing such a book, which is a follow-up of his 2003 publication, Water Perspectives, Issues, Concerns. First, he has the insider's view in terms of governance, having been secretary at the Ministry of Water Resources and author of India's first National Water Policy in 1987. Second, even after retirement over two decades ago, he's been continuously involved in the water sector in both official and independent capacities.
The author makes it clear in the first chapter that the current water crisis is largely due to "gross mismanagement". He reasons that official responses to the current crisis--proposals for more big dams, interlinking rivers, privatization and commodification, public-private partnerships--aren't the answer to the crisis. Iyer questions the justification of the various demand projections that have been uncritically accepted and used to push projects through.
He also stresses the need for better water management on the demand side. But while he notes that officials continue to propose large dams and reservoirs as solutions to everything from water crisis to climate change, he doesn't hold anyone accountable for these inappropriate decisions.
However, Iyer's anger at big projects dominating the water resources development scene can be sensed throughout the book. But this isn't just an emotional expression. He offers valid reasons as to why he finds this problematic. He notes how limited the Indian Constitution's view of water resources is, and how it neither refers to groundwater (India's water lifeline today) nor to traditional water harvesting systems. "In both the Directive Principles and the Fundamental Duties sections (of the Constitution), there should be carefully drafted statements on water," he recommends and goes on to argue, somewhat unconvincingly, for a national water law. Towards the end of the book, Iyer also proposes putting forth a new global declaration on water to replace the current, faulty doctrines.
There are many books on India's water sector these days, but few take a holistic view of the sector as this one does. The book is remarkable for its clarity, even when expressing views that go against accepted wisdom. The author's narrations of the international and interstate water sharing disputes are informative, analytical and provide thoughtful suggestions.
The book, however, has its share of limitations. One major issue missing necessary emphasis (it is mentioned only in passing) is that while India has the world's largest irrigation infrastructure, it's also among one of the worst managed water systems. Better operation of the existing systems would nullify the need for new infrastructure. In fact, that may be one of the best options before India as we attempt to cope with our current agriculture crisis.
The author could have highlighted this either in a separate chapter, or with due emphasis at right places. Inadequate allocation of resources for upkeep of existing infrastructure is also applicable to the hydropower and water supply sectors. One wishes the author had emphasized this more strongly.
Another limitation, as I see, is that Iyer doesn't advocate hard enough the need to ensure that rivers have freshwater flowing through them all the time. There is no statutory requirement in India that rivers must have freshwater flow and this needs very strong advocacy considering the central importance of rivers in keeping the ecology and societies alive. More attention could also have been given to the importance of system of "rice intensification", a new rice cultivation method that can potentially reduce water use by half and yet give high yields. This is important since agriculture is by far the biggest water consumer in India.
During the book launch in New Delhi, Iyer explained that though one is more likely to come across words like crisis, conflicts and disputes, the key words in this book are actually in the subtitle "Limits, Justice and Harmony", which is what any water policy should strive towards.
Iyer succeeds in showing the way towards water wisdom but it is doubtful that the road he has indicated will be taken.