Subverting a basic human right

A draft water policy proposes to make water an economic good

By Shiney Varghese
Published: Sunday 15 April 2012

Shiney VargheseThe new draft National Water Policy circulated by the Union Ministry of Water Resources to water experts suggests that the government is poised to withdraw from its responsibility of water service delivery, and that multinational corporations and financial institutions might have too big a say in water allocation and policy.

At the first glance, it appears that the policy takes a holistic approach to water resources management and has a clear recognition of India’s water woes. It seems that the policy accords priority to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation to all and to meeting water requirements for ecosystems. However, a closer look at the policy shows some important points missing. To begin with, the draft does not strongly articulate the right to water as a fundamental human right. This is despite India voting in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution on Right to Water in 2010. While it does suggest “water for such human needs should have a pre-emptive priority over all other uses”, the draft policy does not give clear guidelines, stipulating service parameters that mandate specific standards.

Without any safeguards and legally binding mechanisms for ensuring that water supply systems are effective and accountable, there is little chance that such pre-emptive prioritisation will help ensure water for all. Similar mechanisms will be needed to implement the priority accorded to ecosystem needs.

While there are few institutional mechanisms proposed to support the prioritisation of basic human rights and ecosystem needs, there are various suggestions to institutionalise the treatment of water as an economic good. In addition, the draft policy proposes to limit the role of government in public services—this is when in other parts of the world, water services have been brought back into public realm due to negative experiences with private sector water provision. Instead of exploring how to make a 24x7 delivery possible by strengthening the capacity of the public sector, the draft policy suggests that the government should function simply as a service facilitator, and that service delivery should be handed over to local communities or the private sector.

Such proposals are, however, not new. What is new is that they are justified in the name of dealing with water crisis and in the name of conservation.

The draft recommends “full cost recovery” of water used as the means for achieving efficient water use. While full-cost recovery will help meet the costs of water delivery, it will not deter water use amongst those who can afford to pay. In that sense full-cost recovery will work against people of low income groups, and people will use water for activities that have low economic returns. Full-cost recovery thus needs to be accompanied by protection of the right to water for basic needs, including that for basic livelihood strategies.

Moreover, in the area of water quality conservation, the important “polluter pays principle” has disappeared. It has been replaced with “incentives” for effluent treatment and for reuse of water. While reclaiming wastewater is necessary to bridge the water deficit, in the absence of strong regulations to limit polluting activities, such incentives to polluters (to treat effluents), might become a perverse incentive to pollute more. Such a tech-fix approach is symptomatic of industrialised societies that squander away their resources. Such incentives also open opportunities for some worst water polluters to profit: companies such as Dow Chemicals are developing patented water purification technology. If these policies are unlikely to protect the basic right to water, it begs the question: who are the advocates and beneficiaries of these policies?

It is likely that a recent report, “National water resources framework study: Roadmaps for reforms”, might have had some influence on the draft policy. There are striking convergences between sections of the report and parts of the draft policy. The report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) was commissioned at the request of the Planning Commission to the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) via the International Finance Corporation. It was commissioned even though there were reports of several Working Groups constituted by the Planning Commission on various aspects of water governance.


CEEW is one of the main Indian partners of WRG, a high-profile public-private partnership housed in the International Finance Corporation (of the World Bank Group). Financed by multilateral banks and bilateral aid organisations among others, WRG’s strategic partners include multinational firms like Cargill, Coca Cola, Pepsi, Unilever and McKinsey & Company. Its report, “Charting our water futures: Economic frameworks to inform decision-making”, analysed the global water supply and demand gap by 2030, framed the problem in economic terms and suggested allocation of water based on economic returns.

WRG is systematically trying to influence how the world’s water will be allocated in future. It is seeking to influence water policy in India, South Africa, Mexico, Jordan, China and Mongolia, where it is targeting either national level commissions or public officials in water and environmental ministries. For India its targets were more ambitious: Karnataka and Maharashtra and “potentially National Planning Commission”. In its efforts to make inroads into national and regional policy making arenas, it seems fairly successful. For example, since 2010, WRG has been successfully collaborating with the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water to influence water policy in Karnataka. It seems that WRG’s reach has extended to the Centre.

WRG is particularly interested in influencing agricultural policies, especially the crop choices and agricultural water allocation in the countries they target. The reason for their focus on a “water-efficient”, “productivity-oriented” agriculture and the importance they place on the role of food value-chain players is self-evident: WRG is led by the transnational agriculture and food related businesses that constitute its main members.

Such water sector reforms will become yet another way to push the already vulnerable agriculturists further into poverty. Civil society groups in Karnataka are aware of it and oppose the dangerous path their state is tempted to take. But it is not going to be easy for such groups in Karnataka—or elsewhere. For example, a quote ascribed to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suggests he sees WRG as an answer to the problems in international water governance: “The problem is that we have no coordinated global management authority in the UN system or the world at large. The World Economic Forum’s effort to develop the economic and geopolitical forecast on water is essential. For the first time, all the different perspectives and expertise required to define the full dimension of the problem are brought together.”

In many ways the draft policy epitomises not only what is being advocated in the area of water governance but also the problems with the initiatives being pursued worldwide. Multinationals are no longer content with profiteering from their traditional areas of businesses: they want to play a larger role in allocation of world’s natural resources that have so far been in the public realm.

In the context of the climate crisis that the draft policy seeks to address, it is important to remember that a large number of water users, farmers and local communities have been taking prudent decisions in the area of effective water management and adaptation. There is substantial practical knowledge that they can bring to the table that would completely change the way issues are looked at. Rules governing the use of water, an essential part of life itself, must be the result of careful consultation with all stakeholders, especially the least powerful, and should not be driven by corporations and international finance. This is important not only in India, but for what it could mean for the future of water governance globally.

Shiney Varghese leads work on global water policy at Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a US non-profit

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