The draft National Water Framework Bill 2016 was placed in the public domain for comments in end-May by the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation.

Around the same time, the ministry also placed the Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater 2016 for comments in the public domain.

Unfortunately, till now, the Bills have not raised the public debate that they are supposed to evoke, given the fact that there are sufficient elements that deserve to be discussed and debated.

The draft Bills have been placed in the public domain at a time when the world is witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm in water management.

Conceptual disconnect

Policy formulation in South Asia has been largely disconnected from the ongoing conceptual changes in water management. The clear disconnect between holistic science and fragmented policymaking has resulted in the domination of a reductionist engineering paradigm to manage water without regard for ecological concerns.

This disconnect is evident even in the two recent Bills mentioned here. The fact that there is virtually no link between the two Bills gives rise to a sense of unease. As such, groundwater and surface water are integral components of the global eco-hydrological cycle, and need to be seen through a holistic lens of water management and property rights.

While it is appreciated that there needs to be a separate statement on property rights related to aquifers, that statement could well have been a part of the NWFB.

Separate Bills create the impression of a fragmented approach to water management; the interactivity between surface water and groundwater, which is also acknowledged in the water balance equation, seems to have been ignored.

Water in the river

The draft NWFB suggests that environmental flows adequate to preserve and protect a river basin as a hydrological and ecological system shall be maintained.

However, the very science of arriving at a measure of “how much water a river needs” has been challenged globally. It is only in India that there is an over-reliance on a specified quantitative measure of the environmental water needs of a river. This precludes ecological scientific thinking that every flow regime is associated with certain ecosystem services, and merely providing a certain percentage of water to flow naturally amounts to adhering to the same reductionist arithmetic hydrology that has been the root of various problems.

Further , despite the reference to the River Basin Authority (RBA) in the NWFB, the role of the RBA seems to have been confined to creating master-plans for basins.

As a recommended institutional set-up, there is need for a basin-level authority which is democratic in nature, with greater powers, and which can initiate actions to prevent degradation of freshwater ecosystems and can initiate actions against all kinds of stakeholders including State governments for any form of violation.

This implies that the authority should be vested with adequate regulatory powers.

The very statement, “…All decisions and actions on water resources of the River Basin, including implementation of water resources projects, shall progressively conform to the River Basin Master Plan”, remains open-ended.

The moot issue here is the promotion of Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM). While today’s best practices in water resources planning entail integration of water quantity and quality management for both groundwater and surface water, there remains a need for comprehensive understanding of how the natural environment and the resident population of a basin are impacted by various levels of interventions in the rivers or by adoption of new policies.

This is best done in a participative way, involving all the major stakeholder groups.

A balance needs to be achieved between the level of economic development and the consequent impact on the natural resource base of a river basin as agreed upon by the stakeholders. This participatory and comprehensive approach is what is generally referred to as IRBM.

At a watershed/basin level, different water-users co-exist and therefore any decision towards sustainable resource management will need collective action. The NWFB needs to encourage, facilitate and promote multi-stakeholder interaction and collaboration between diverse stakeholders at the watershed, sub-basin and basin levels. This is another missing dimension in the draft.

Cost of water

The other important concern arises is the pricing of water. While the draft makes very important recommendations regarding “differential” and “full cost pricing”, there needs to be a mention that the pricing instrument should be designed to not merely cover O&M costs.

The pricing should reflect the scarcity value of water, not merely of its economic use but also the scarcity value of the ecosystem services.

This implies that users may cover part of the ‘environmental costs’ that their use of water entails.

Further, the composition and role of the statutory Water Regulatory Authority is not clearly defined.

It is not clear how such an authority will operate: Is it under the aegis of the RBA? Or should it exist as a separate structure?

Therefore, there are issues galore. The very erudite drafting committee will surely understand the ecological core of the argument and hopefully address them accordingly in the final version.

The writer is a senior fellow at Observer Research Foundation, and senior economic advisor at World Wide Fund for Nature, India

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