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Water policy blues

By Mihir Shah

The new National Water Policy is a hotchpotch of contradictory perspectives, completely lacking in integrity.

ON APRIL 1, 2002, the Government of India announced the adoption of a new National Water Policy, superseding the earlier policy of 1987. The new policy was drafted in 1998 and the final document was to be the product of a detailed national consultative process. I was part of the consultation initiated by CAPART that sought to incorporate the views of the voluntary sector and subject specialists into the water policy. Others who were part of this National Consultative Committee on Water included Anna Hazare, Achyut Das, Vandana Shiva and Rajendra Singh. Senior officials of the Planning Commission and all Ministries concerned attended meetings of this Committee. It is a sad commentary on the state of Indian democracy that not one of the final written recommendations made by this Committee finds a place in the new water policy.

The document is a hotchpotch of contradictory perspectives, completely lacking in integrity. A policy made in the backdrop of repeated droughts suffered by large parts of India in recent years could have been reasonably expected to give a central thrust to long-term drought-proofing. However, "drought-prone area development" is relegated to just Section 19 of the 27-section document. The country needs to urgently recognise that so long as we persist in spreading Green Revolution-type agricultural development to all regions, there will be no relief from the growing water crisis.

It is unfortunately still not known, well and widely enough, that more than 60 per cent of India's landmass is underlain by hard rock types that are not conducive to irrigation through deep drilled tubewells. But tubewells have now become India's single largest source of irrigation in virtually all areas. This is the consequence of a policy that seeks to blindly replicate the "success" of Punjab, Haryana and other alluvial tracts in expanding tubewell irrigation. Even in areas where the rate of groundwater recharge is very low. In such hard rock areas, water takes a long time to accumulate below the ground. It has been estimated that in the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh, for example, water that took over 10,000 years to accumulate in underground aquifers has been mined dry like coal in the last 30 years. Creating a crisis in an area fabled for its plentiful water.

What the new policy should have emphasised is that tubewell irrigation needs to be undertaken with the greatest of care and under severe social regulation in hard rock regions. What is more, we need to learn lessons from the alluvial tracts themselves where after initial years of apparent success, problems caused by over-extraction of groundwater are beginning to surface. The key issue that needs attention here is that water policy has an integral relation to agricultural policy. One could almost say that wrong agricultural priorities have created the water crisis in large parts of the country. India is a land of great hydro-geological and agro-bio diversity. Cropping patterns in each area must intimately respect and reflect this diversity. The move towards deep drilling of tubewells in hard rock areas is a consequence of the change in cropping patterns towards highly water-intensive crops and seed varieties. In the vain hope of a Green Revolution in yields. Without any consideration for the critical questions of sustainability.

And questions of sustainability cannot be addressed without recognising the common property resource character of groundwater. Effective regulation of groundwater could emerge as the single most critical issue of rural governance in the 21st century. This entails mobilisation of local communities to check private excesses and to specially protect the interests of the poor, Dalits, Adivasis and women. These efforts need legal and administrative backing from the state. They also require a range of technical inputs to study various aquifers for their transmission and storage characteristics. Such studies would enable communities to collectively plan the sequence and intensity of pumping of their wells.

The central plank of India's national water policy should be that we have enough water resources to meet the needs of drinking water and sustainable agriculture. If we set our priorities right and launch a massive programme for long-term drought-proofing, no Indian needs to suffer shortage of water. Given India's comfortable stock of foodgrains and foreign exchange reserves, there could be no more opportune macro-economic conjuncture for the launch of such a public policy.

Not surprisingly though, the new National Water Policy lays great emphasis instead on encouraging private sector participation in water resource projects. In our recommendations, as the National Consultative Committee on Water, we had suggested adding the following paragraph to Section 13 dealing with the private sector: "Since all water resources have a common property character, private sector participation in planning, development and management of water resource projects, must be subjected to careful social scrutiny, based on well-developed mechanisms of accountability and regulation." Like all our other suggestions, this too was rejected by the Government without assigning any good reason. Unconditional and unchecked exploitation of water resources by the private sector, without a mandatory requirement for community regulation, groundwater recharge or recycling of a public good such as water, could hasten the already rapid depletion in the water table. Water quality is also likely to suffer in the absence of an appropriate and effective regulatory framework for controlling private sector pollution of water resources.

One of the most dangerous and retrogressive clauses in the new national water policy is the one dealing with the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of those affected by large dam projects. Movements of those displaced by these projects have succeeded in the last 15 years in forcing Governments to formulate policies that are more liberal in their provisions, at least on paper. One of the most important achievements has been the principle of "land for land" — loss of land due to submergence would be compensated by other land to be mandatorily made available by the Government. The old practice of bulldozing people out after a mere cash compensation would be stopped. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal has gone further and mandates five acres of land even for the landless. The Narmada Bachao Andolan has returned to the apex court to plead that Governments are violating the "land for land" proviso, which was reiterated by the court in its own judgment.

A new clause, apparently introduced at the very last stage in Section 10 of the new water policy, seeks to loosen these strict provisions by speaking only of what it calls a "skeleton" national policy for R&R. States will be allowed to "evolve their own detailed resettlement and rehabilitation policies taking into account the local conditions". So if "local conditions" include difficulty in the Government finding land, revert back to the bad old days of cash compensation! Not just that, the policy also goes back on the condition reiterated recently by the Supreme Court that R&R must precede dam construction. The policy document merely speaks of ensuring "that construction and rehabilitation activities proceed simultaneously". Of course, considering the present legal position, I am not sure if Section 10 would stand scrutiny by the courts.

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