Water woes acquire gargantuan proportions

The country’s national leaders have shown a remarkably weak appetite on policy and legislation

By Nitya Jacob
Published: Tuesday 04 June 2013

The country’s national leaders have shown a remarkably weak appetite on policy and legislation

With great GDP growth have come even greater challenges of water management. During UPA II, these have been exacerbated by poor governance, corruption and kow-towing to industry. The water sector is in a bigger mess than ever before, and certainly more so than before UPA II. While earlier there were isolated instances of public-private partnerships in water service delivery, it has now become common-place with usually poor results.

The shift from big dams to run-of-the-river projects has run rivers out of their normal courses into the maws of private power generators. Many tens of thousands of crores of rupees have been ‘spent’ on paper irrigation projects to transfer non-existent water through non-existent dams and canals to very real farmers who are trapped in a cash economy partly of their own making.

On the governance front, the country’s national leaders have shown a remarkably weak appetite on policy and legislation. While adopting the National Water Policy at a December 2012 meeting of the National Water Resources Council, states made their own priorities clear and effectively told the Centre to ‘clear off’. Union water resources minister Harish Rawat, the wiser for this experience, set up a parallel National Forum of Water Resources and Irrigation Ministers to try and buy consensus on the Water Framework Law, a badly drafted piece of legislation that curiously ignores an earlier and better version.

States set bad precedence

At the state level, things aren’t any better. Water sector ‘reforms’ are moving towards state regulatory authorities but the only state to set up one till now, Maharashtra, has little to show. A precursor to the state’s exit, the authority has been systematically shorn of powers and decision making is back with the state’s politicians. Maharashtra is now a graveyard of irrigation projects, mocking farmers as they continue to kill themselves.

In Odisha, the state government decided to divert water from the Hirakud dam to industries. In Rajasthan, an expensive pipeline from a dam diverts water for farmers to Jaipur. States debate how to deal with arsenic contamination of groundwater even as the malaise spreads, even though neighbouring Bangladesh has work worth emulating. Meanwhile, governments blindly promote PPP as the silver bullet; this is more an abdication of responsibility by the state. Pollution is on the rise as government data shows, making rivers and lakes unfit for human use, with groundwater following close behind.

Agenda for action 

The two big ticket items for action are corruption and pollution. The engineers who run the water infrastructure have built themselves an opaque bureaucracy that needs to be dismantled and replaced with a multi-disciplinary transparent system. This means more capable and efficient water utilities, not less. Changing mindsets to treat sewage as a resource can go a long way to reducing pollution as this is the first step to reusing it and closing the nutrient and water cycles. On the other hand, it is essential to improve enforcement through pollution control boards. Maximising local water availability by restoring lakes and ponds across the country can substantially improve per capita storage with minimal cost and environmental impact. Finally, reducing water consumption can help to bring down the need for additional water sources and also the quantum of wastewater generated.

Nitya Jacob is programme director-water, with Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

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