Can the National Water Policy do away with priorities?

Draft document gives industry implicit priority over agriculture in water allocation

Published: Friday 10 February 2012

M Dinesh Kumar
executive director
Institute for Resource Analysis and Policy (IRAP)

The draft National Water Policy, 2012 document duly recognises the fact that economic principles need to guide pricing of water. But, one important issue concerning pricing is that mere use of economic principles does not address the issue of water allocation for different sectors. This would lead to compromising on several objectives including equity, social justice and water for environment.

The document is silent on water allocation priorities, an important aspect of Policy framing. The problem, use of economic principles, suggests that net marginal returns from the use of water is to be a basis for fixing prices when used for “production” for affordability. It is quite well known that the marginal returns from the use of water in manufacturing are much higher than that of crop production. This means, the manufacturing sector will be able to pay prices much higher than what irrigators can pay. So, if we blindly follow this “affordability” criterion without rules and mechanisms for water allocation, industries might be able to walk away with all the water in some really water-scarce basins. This will be at the cost of living of millions of farmers. The problem can only be addressed by clearly mentioning water allocation priorities in the Policy document.

That done, actual allocation in different basins will have to be decided on the basis of overall availability and competing demands keeping the Policy goals in mind. Pricing can then be used to encourage efficient use in each sector and financial working. At present the document only mentions about access to safe drinking water and sanitation as priority. What about other sectors, and what is the order of priority for them?

Water pricing is a broad-term and has got many connotations. There is a need to make distinction between price of water (as a “resource”) and charges for water-related services (like domestic water supply, irrigation water supply). While the first could consider the resource cost (value in alternative uses), the second concerns the cost of appropriation and supply. How these concepts affect the pricing of water from different sources and in different sectors (economic, social and environmental) needs to be spelt out. Since in the case of groundwater, the resource is mostly in the private domain, only “the resource cost” needs to be considered. Whereas in the case of surface water from public irrigation schemes, both cost of appropriation, distribution and delivery, and the resource cost need to be considered. These aspects do not find mention in the document. Also, the criteria that will be used for pricing of water for domestic uses, which are “non-economic”, need to be explicitly stated. Can we go by the “long-term marginal cost” pricing principle? In that case, the resource cost and environmental degradation due to its use will have to be considered along with the cost of production and supply of water. While this will ensure cost recovery and efficient use, how do we ensure that the poor are able to access water of sufficient quantity?

Ramaswamy Iyer
former secretary at ministry of water resources and principle draftsman first National Water Policy, 1987

There can be no general priorities for all contexts and areas and the relative priorities will depend on the right land use for the area. The question is not exactly one of agriculture versus industry, but about the best use of water in a given area, having regard to all relevant circumstances (including the availability of water). In an area with water scarcity, it would be unwise to promote water-intensive use, whether agricultural or industrial; development in such areas may have to take other forms. A general preference for agriculture could lead to the introduction of water-intensive agriculture in an arid area, creating an unsustainable demand for water.

An absolute priority, say, water for life and livelihoods, is a sequential priority and it must be met first before any other use is considered.The relative priorities among those other uses (agriculture (beyond livelihoods), industry, commerce and recreation) are proportional and a matter of sharing of what is available, with relative weights in the allocation to different uses.

Ecology cannot be asked to accommodate development needs. Our visions of development must spring from an understanding of ecological limits. We do not allocate water to the ecological system. Ecology tells us how much water we have for allocation. Ecological limits and parameters come first; human (and animal) basic needs come next; all other uses come thereafter, and these are not merely “economic” but also social, cultural, customary, and other.

Archana Vaidya
Indian Environment Law Offices (IELO)

 There is no disputing the fact that we need to have a national water perspective in our country while planning, managing and developing this scarce, natural resource. This however becomes extremely complicated given the constitutional framework of our country where water, barring interstate rivers and their management, is a state subject.

The draft National Water Policy, 2012 is surely a step ahead in the right direction in more ways than one but it still leaves a lot to be desired.  On one hand there are several progressive features in this draft but at the same time some very important issues have either been left out from the previous Policy. The draft does not categorically prioritise the use of water as was done in the previous Policy and this looks like a half-baked effort. It is understandable that such priorities should not be fixed in an inflexible manner for the entire country of the size of India with different agro-climatic regions at the Central level. It would however be advisable if basic principles of resource allocation are enumerated in the National Policy with discretion available to the state governments to prioritise their own water among various users according to their specific needs but in conformity with national perspective.

  • The following are some of the other important issues that this draft Policy needs to take into account and deal with more effectively:

  • The first part of the preamble of the Policy does not do justice to the context setting for a review of Policy. It also does not enumerate exhaustively the issues that need to be addressed by the Policy and the issues that led to the review of the Policy in the first place. For example, it nowhere speaks of the need to have comprehensive resource mapping of all available water resources to the smallest possible water management unit and it’s constant upgradation at regular intervals to enable water management authorities take informed decisions and do water planning based on reliable scientific data. The Policy also does not recognise the need to have a conducive regulatory and institutional framework with commensurate technical and financial strength to do the same.

  • The Policy also does not see any merit in having short-term, medium-term and long-term water management plans for basic water management units, states and for the country as a whole, incorporating all the variables having a bearing on such planning. Water planning of any water management unit should take into account the amount of rainfall in the region which can be harnessed, saving of water that can be achieved by mandatorily employing measures of water conservation and possibility of recycle and reuse. Any user of water should also have corresponding duty to use water in a sustainable manner, to conserve and use water efficiently and recycle and reuse water depending upon the type of user and the quantum of water being used.

  • The second part of the preamble setting out basic principles dealing with some commonality in approaches of dealing with planning, development and management of water resources does not take into account sustainable use of utilisable water, water conservation measures needed to be employed by every water user, water use efficiency in every usage, systemic efficiency for any water delivery system and incorporation of polluter pays principle for industrial users. The basic paradigm of planning where demand and supply need to balance each other and in case demand outstrips supply then multiple measures have to be adopted to bridge the gap have also not been mentioned as a basic principle. It also does not stress the need to harmonise state specific requirements with national perspective.

  • To have national water framework law to evolve a legal framework to make way for essential legislation on water governance in every state. This is a crucial requirement and should be done in a time-bound manner. However the Policy is silent on the same.

  • At the planning stage itself when available water resources are taken into account the impact of climate change on its future availability needs to be considered in the planning process. Thus, any adaptation required will automatically get integrated in to mid-term and long-term water management plans which the Policy does not envisage.

  • Enhancing water available for use, demand management and water use efficiency are interlinked concepts and need an integrated approach. All measures that would manage demand or enhance water use efficiency would automatically lead to enhanced water available for use. At the water planning stage if we know the gap between demand and supply, different strategies of water conservation, water augmentation, water recycle and reuse can be employed depending upon the specific conditions and requirement of a particular region to bridge the gap.

  • Water pricing reflecting the actual cost of water, once basic drinking and hygiene needs of human beings are met is a very basic reform that this sector needs. The Policy reiterates once again the need for the same but no time bound action is envisaged to set up institutional mechanism in the states to do the same. The Policy does speak of state-level water regulatory authorities but no guiding principles have been laid down to ensure that such institutional mechanism is free of state control, autonomous with adequate stakeholder participation and refrains from a top down approach.

  • The Policy treats preservation of natural water sources and water infrastructure in the same way, which is fundamentally flawed. The former is one of the fundamental duties of all the citizens and also a duty of state to maintain and preserve them, while the latter is a function of financially-viable organisations that are responsible for maintaining water infrastructure and is a direct fallout of administered water pricing.

  • At one place the Policy states that Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) taking river basin/sub-basin as a unit, should be the main principle for planning, development and management of water resources. Another place it states that local governing bodies like panchayats, municipalities and corporations and water users associations shall be involved in planning and implementation of the projects. However the Policy is silent on how to reconcile these two approaches. On one hand it advocates water resource planning to be done at the basic level and on the other it says we need to have a national perspective while planning.

  • Interlinkages with other relevant policies i.e. industrial policy, agricultural policy, land use policy and mining policy need to be highlighted so that all these policies have compatible provisions and can be interpreted harmoniously.

It would not be out of place to mention here that a National Water Policy should also address uniformity in water management across the country and equity for different users and within same user group. The policy should clearly acknowledge “Right to Water for drinking and basic hygiene purposes as a fundamental right” which would cast a corresponding duty on state to provide this to one and all. The quality, quantity of water, its access, distance should also be mentioned in the policy to make it a meaningful right. This would provide a remedy for people who are denied this fundamental right. Any use of water over and above the basic need can be allowed to be governed by economic considerations incorporating full cost recovery and return on capital investment principle. 

Philippe Cullet,
senior visiting fellow,
Centre for Policy Research,
School of Oriental and African Studies

This is both simple and multi-layered question which I am not sure I can answer comprehensively here. With regard to prioritisation in a policy document there is nothing wrong with the policy doing so. However, 1) this can never make the prioritisation binding, 2) a policy cannot be used to regularly change the framework by which the water sector is governed (1987, 2002, 2012). A policy in the governance system we have is meant to be a precursor to an Act which sets out rights and obligations, 3) prioritisation per se is a crude way of addressing inter-sectoral allocation of water and thus should neither be the centre of all attention nor alternatively be conceived simply as a list.

The proposed framework is inappropriate for several reasons: Prioritisation must by definition be guided by the existing legal framework. This means that the National Water Policy has no choice but to work prioritisation within the context of a hierarchy which is given in the form of the fundamental right to water. The point is not that this is not done here but that it's not done in the name of an overriding legal priority. The more important point is that a policy like the National Water Policy is to be guided not only by the fundamental right to water but also by all other rights whose realisation depends on water. This includes health (mentioned here but again not as a fundamental right), sanitation (hygiene mentioned but not the right to sanitation) and food (mentioned in terms of national food security, not the right to food).

What the above point to is the fact that an indirect of direct prioritisation will necessarily be embedded in the National Water Policy. This must be made explicit in terms of what is actually hierarchical (namely fundamental rights), as well as what stems out from other parts of the Constitution, such as Article 47 ('duty' to raise the level of nutrition). This does not leave much space for bringing in concepts like water as an economic good into a prioritisation. Beyond this, there is the issue of who should be in charge of the said prioritisation. As we have seen it in the groundwater model bill developed for the Planning Commission, this specific issue is one that needs to be also in the control of the lowest possible authority.

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