Rather than be stuck in a debate on ‘privatisation', we should develop community institutions to manage water.

The debate so far on the Draft National Water Policy (DNWP), recently released to the public, seems to be mainly around privatisation. An important highlight of DNWP is its advocacy for a ‘Water Framework Law'. The Government is already moving in that direction. It had set up a group, headed by Professor Ramaswamy Iyer, the former Secretary of Water Resources, Government of India, which has produced a draft.

The DNWP document, with 15 major sections, has all the right words, such as primacy of water for basic needs and ecosystem needs, and setting up a permanent water dispute tribunal at the Centre.

Inter-basin transfer has made a re-entry on the grounds of “meeting basic human needs and achieving equity and social justice” (Clause 5.5). The Water Framework Law might run into some difficulties, as the States might see it as an encroachment into their territory, as water is, primarily, a state subject.

WATER USE PRIORITISATION

The DNWP makes a three-way classification of water uses in a sequential manner — first, access to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all its citizens, available within easy reach of the household; second, a portion of river flows to meet ecological needs; and third, the residual water, after meeting the first two, as an economic good, with higher priority towards basic livelihood support to the poor, and providing national food security (Clauses 3.1, 3.2, 3.3).

In the previous policies, too, domestic water had always been privileged compared with the rest of the uses. Still, millions don't have access to basic water of adequate quantity and quality. Is this because of want of emphasis in the policy? The policy emphasis has never been supported by the necessary legal instruments. The policy very clearly mentions that the role of the state is to regulate and control services, and not provide the services.

The service provision could be entrusted to community and/or private sector with the appropriate “Public Private Partnership” model under the general superintendence of the State or the stakeholders (Clause 13.4). There has been a very sharp reaction to this provision, especially from civil society, equating this to privatisation.

In fact, in many other sectors — health, education, energy, telecommunication, and so on — privatisation has been allowed.

But when it comes to water, civil society seems to be reluctant to even experiment with different modes of service delivery and takes statist positions.

The fact that many States are going for independent water regulators is an indication that private players are going to be there.

Privatisation isn't a silver bullet; nor is increasing government control. The best bet is increasing the role of water users, both in irrigation and domestic spheres, for which there is a provision in the DNWP.

Instead of getting caught in the polarised debate around mode of delivery, one should argue that whatever the mode of provision, there should be certain non-negotiables, such as the legal provision of a certain amount of water, to meet basic needs (including precise details of the conditions of such supply).

CONTROL OF WATER

In India, surface water is owned and regulated by governments.

However, ground water, increasingly becoming the most important source for domestic use and irrigation, is completely owned and controlled by the private sector, mostly small farmers. Both groundwater and surface water are hydrologically linked, but dealt without any connection. Very often, conjunctive use and integration are paid lip service in water policy documents.

While the governments invest in infrastructure to store and deliver water up to the field at subsidised rates and also allocate a budget to maintain the system, those very governments, when it comes to groundwater, seem to be only interested in putting restrictions on the farmers who invest their resources and efforts. DNWP has touched on a critical issue of modifying the Easements Act, 1882, which gives landowners groundwater rights.

Sustainability of groundwater use cannot be provided through restrictive legislations and taking away of right of landowners on ground water alone, but would call for more imaginative ways.

One of the immediate steps the government should take is to bring in parity in cost, of both surface and ground water. Unfortunately, the DNWP doesn't address this issue.

Clause 7.1 of the DNWP says, ‘Besides the pre-emptive uses for sustaining life and ecosystem, water needs to be treated as an economic good and therefore, may be priced to promote efficient use and maximising value from water'.

In the very next sentence, the draft policy has tried to do a balancing act by admitting that the practice of administered prices may have to continue. It only brings to the fore the tension between the two extreme view points — water as a social good and water as an economic good — and the present draft doesn't seem to be bringing something new to the table.

It is possible to use the full cost recovery principle and still protect the poor who are entitled to safe and adequate drinking water, using a graded tariff system.

Water price that isn't for domestic use, but for the remaining uses needs a much wider debate. But not pricing water doesn't necessarily mean that it protects the poor.

WATER CONFLICTS

Absence of a proper policy framework supported by legislation, both at the federal and state level, is leaving a lot of scope for politicians to create water conflicts between the states and within the states.

The DNWP does suggest setting up a permanent Water Disputes Tribunal at the Centre (Clause 13.3) to resolve the disputes expeditiously in an equitable manner. The attempt in DNWP to institutionalise the conflict resolution mechanism is to be welcomed.

However, water conflicts are much more than inter-state conflicts — there are conflicts around equity and allocations and access, water quality, dams and displacement, tail-end issues in irrigation commands, and so on.

So, there is a need to widen the mandate of the institutions for conflict resolution, and they also need to be decentralised, multi-scaled and democratic.

(The authors are with the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India.)

(This article was published on February 27, 2012)
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