'The tragedy of irrigation in India is that we have created capacity but have not utilised it'

Will the integration of Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board lead to better water management? Mihir Shah explains

By Jitendra
Published: Tuesday 22 March 2016
The government wants to ensure optimal development of water resources in the country
The government wants to ensure optimal development of water resources in the country The government wants to ensure optimal development of water resources in the country

Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has constituted a 10-member committee for the restructuring of Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) for optimal development of water resources in the country. Former member of Planning Commission of India, Mihir Shah, has been appointed as the chairperson of this committee. He spoke to Down To Earth about the task at hand.

What are the shortcomings in the current functioning of CWC and CGWB? What changes can be expected after their integration and re-orientation?

I think the government feels that CWC and CGWB need to be restructured to align them better with the nationally agreed paradigm shift—to save our rivers and to bring them more in touch with the ground realities of water in the 21st century.

Both institutions were set up in an era where the main national goal was water resource development and extraction, without any consideration of sustainability or integrity of river systems. The idea is to resource these agencies so that they are more effectively able to perform the national goals mandated to them: the CWC will ensure that irrigation water actually reaches farmers for whom it is meant and save India’s rivers. The CGWB will implement the national aquifer mapping and management programme.

Please elaborate on the reforms in large irrigation projects brought about in Gujarat and other states by CWC? On what basis will the committee give recommendations?

What Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra have successfully done in some of their large irrigation command areas is to initiate Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) where Water Users Associations (WUA) have been empowered to manage the last-mile connectivity in these commands. The WUAs are empowered to collect and retain Irrigation Service Fees that are determined in a transparent and participatory manner. These fees are then utilised for operation and maintenance of the command areas, making sure the field channels that carry water to the farms are built and maintained. The tragedy of irrigation in India has been that we have created a lot of capacity but this capacity has not been effectively utilised. In order to ensure that these isolated examples are replicated requires a strengthening of the capacities of the CWC. We also have many studies which show the precise conditions under which PIM succeeds. My committee will make recommendations based on the learning so far.

Is the government looking at public-private partnerships to enable the CGWB for aquifer mapping and management?

The task before the CGWB is huge. It is not possible for any single agency to carry it out on its own. CGWB needs to partner with other scientific institutions, non-profits, panchayati raj institutions and the community at large to complete what is the most ambitious task of its kind ever undertaken in human history—that of mapping and managing India’s aquifers. India is the largest user of groundwater in the world and has an estimated 30 million groundwater structures. Managing these to ensure sustainability and equity in use is a massive task that demands partnerships.

Will this committee also measure India’s water resource availability?

No, this is not a part of our term of return.

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