Shallow pledges

The country's new water policy is nothing more than noble intentions

By Gopal K Kadekodi
Published: Thursday 31 October 2002

-- The National Water Resource Council (nwrc) approved a new National Water Policy (nwp) document on April 1, 2002. The bill based on this document is now pending in Parliament. When compared to the water policy of 1987, it could be said that the 2002 policy explores several new dimensions and issues.

For example, paragraph 1.3 of nwp 2002 states, "Water is part of a larger ecological system." It is another matter that there is no further examination of what this statement means. If one starts from the ecological perspective, one could say that water-related ecology begins in forests, and not just in riverbeds or rainfall cycles. Evapotranspiration, precipitation through plants and undergrowths assist the process of water seepage and purification. This also regulates many ecological functions performed in the forest-water ecological system.

Do we have a policy on enhancing this capacity? Does the water policy take these into account in its concern about ecological management? A reading of the document would suggest that it does not. There is little in paragraph 25, which deals with science and technology, that deals with the forest-water ecology. In any case, there are no references to traditional water harvesting structures and techniques in the document. This is surprising in view of the fact that environmentalists have for long been pushing for wider use of these time-tested technologies.

The wording of paragraph 6.3 is interesting. In the same breath, the policy states that ecological balance is the primary consideration, and also that it should be offset with 'compensatory measures'. The multi-sectoral, multi-disciplinary and participatory approaches advocated in paragraphs 5.4 and 4.1 are also more easy to put down on paper than to implement in practice.

The policy document does assert that water resources are a basic human need, and a national asset that requires planning, development and management (paragraph 1.1 and 1.4). At a time that the country is talking about education as a 'human right', it is time to declare in unambiguous terms where exactly India stands on the nature of property rights on water. The new policy document is completely silent on this issue. It is time to declare that water is a basic entitlement of every citizen in the country. The government is the mega-custodian of this resource -- for purposes of management and equity.

And there is more to the society-water interaction than that. While it is important to recognise water as an entitlement, it is equally important to drive home the realisation that it costs money to deliver water. Therefore, if communities are responsible for managing water, they should also be partially responsible for raising the resources required to manage water extraction, storage and distribution.

It is in this context that the water user associations -- for managing major irrigation systems, as also watersheds for drinking and sanitary water supply -- will have to put together their resources. This could take the form of entry fees, user charges and annual maintenance. The Karnataka government has formally operationalised water user associations. These associations can buy water rights from the irrigation department with lump sum payments. They will, in turn, have to work out cost sharing with regard to distribution of water among members. In this way two objectives are fulfilled -- to recover irrigation charges, and effective, equitable and efficient water distribution.

An important social aspect that the present document totally glosses over is the relation between women and their water resources. The hardships that women face in collection of water from faraway sources, and the gender bias inherent in the water distribution system, is a story common to most of India. Needless to say, the costs in terms of time spent in fetching water from far-off places, and hardship in terms of exposure to adverse weather conditions are borne by women.

The role of private sector participation is also not sufficiently examined. The corporate sector, specifically, has a very important role in terms of maintaining water quality. And here we talk not just of compliance with the Water Act, 1974. Industries must also take up responsibility for the community around their units, and aspire to meet the needs of people associated with these units. This is not entirely far-fetched, for corporate units need to establish their credentials on green accounting, as well as their stewardship in environmental matters. There is some progress on this front from the Confederation of Indian Industries (cii). But there needs to be a directive in the national policy on the matter.

Finally, water policy is a major national issue. The nwp document should be put to a national-level debate before it is taken up by parliament. Hope the nation is listening.

Gopal Kadekodi is research professor, Centre for Multi-disciplinaryDevelopment Research

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