The Prime Minister’s announcement that water would be the focus area for NDA II, like sanitation was in NDA I, does not seem to have reflected in the Budget presented by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

This Prime Minister’s announcement assumed importance in the light of NITI Aayog’s grim recognition that currently 600 million people — half of Indian population — face high to extreme water stress. NITI Aayog’s report also mentions that water shortage would result in about 6 per cent reduction in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Economic Survey 2019 also recognised that water crisis is gripping large parts of the country. It rightly emphasised that the need to improve water use efficiency, especially in the agriculture sector, should be a national priority. One of the first decisions of the NDA II government was the creation of the Jal Shakti Ministry that brings together all water related departments and programmes. There was a general expectation that this heightened attention to water would result in substantial increase in budgetary provisions. This is not so. It does not live up to the pre-Budget expectations.

Budgetary provisions

The present budgetary provisions follow the earlier Budgets by providing the allocations under five different line items related to water: Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojna, National Rural Drinking Water Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission, National River Conservation Programme, and National Ganga Plan and Ghat Works.

The total budget for all the above five programmes — all expected to be handled by the Jal Shakti Ministry — is ₹34,297 crore for the year 2019-20. The 2018-19 revised budget for all these five programmes together was ₹33,099 crore. In absolute terms, without factoring in inflation, the increase is only ₹1,198 crore over the previous one. And the provision for water as a proportion to the total budget is only 1.23 per cent. It was 1.34 per cent last year.

The allocations across the different programmes vary as compared to last year. The provision for National River Conservation Programme has decreased from ₹1,620 crore to ₹1,220 crore, a reduction of 24.69 per cent. Provision for Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchan Yojana and National Rural Drinking Water Mission has increased by 17.34 per cent and 81.83 per cent respectively.

The Swachh Bharat Mission shows a decrease of 24.46 per cent. The provision for National Ganga Plan and Ghat Works remains the same at ₹750 crore.

Beyond the numbers

Water management and clean rivers is one of the 10 points vision for the country for the next decade. Important provisions for the water sector include: (i) Har Ghar Jal (piped water supply) to all rural households by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission with a “focus on integrated demand and supply side management of water at the local level, including creation of local infrastructure for source sustainability like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture”;

(ii) Jal Shakti Abhiyan to integrate five intervention areas of water conservation and rainwater harvesting, renovation of traditional and other water bodies/tanks, reuse and borewell recharge structures, watershed development and intensive afforestation. It would be taken up in the critical and over exploited 1,592 blocks spread across 256 districts;

(iii) Swachh Bharat Abhiyan would continue with the aim to make India completely open defecation free by October 2, 2019. The Swachh Bharat Mission would be expanded “to undertake sustainable solid waste management in every village”;

(iv) there is a renewed commitment to continue with ‘the Jal Marg Vikas project for capacity augmentation of navigation on National Waterways to smoothen internal trade carried through inland water transport’.

Like the commissioned multi-nodal terminal at Varanasi, “two more such terminals at Sahibganj and Haldia and a navigational lock at Farakka would be completed in 2019-20”; and water grid would be very much part of the government’s slogan of ‘One nation, One grid’.

The fault lines

One, there is a clear case for a much larger budgetary allocation for translating the rhetoric of ‘water security of all’ into a reality.

Two, what is going to be the water footprint of making India a $5-trillion economy by 2024 with an annual growth rate of 8 per cent? The Jal Shakti Ministry needs to come up with some numbers and also show where the water is going to come from. According to official data, the total estimated utilisable water in India is about 1,122 billion cubic meter (BCM). This is a contested figure as some of the water experts put the figure at 654 BCM, nearly half of the official figures.

Also, the official estimation does not seem to take into account the environmental flow requirements. The reported water use in 2000 was 634 BCM. The projected water use for a high growth scenario for 2050 is around 1,180 BCM.

So, there is a real issue of where the water is going to come from. The high growth rate would be possible only through the industrial route. The required water would be taken out of agriculture. Already, in many parts of India water from agriculture is being diverted for industries.

The proposed Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari inter-linking project in Maharashtra would transfer 202 mm3 (million cubic meter) water from the tribal Palghar district to Sinnar taluka in upper Godavari is a pointer of things to come. Of this 202 mm3 of water, nearly 60 per cent of the water is meant for the Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor and the other industries in the area.

This may be one of the reasons why the Economic Survey 2019 suggests “a shift in focus from land productivity to irrigation water productivity”.

Third, the Jal Shakti Ministry is tasked with the unenviable job of transforming the water sector. Change in the nomenclature of the Ministry alone is not going to work. The Ministry needs to develop an integrated approach. It also needs to bring in institutional integration.

One way to do this is to re-engage with the three important documents — Draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016; Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater, 2016; and A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reform — lying with the government, all prepared by committees set up by the government itself.

The Jal Shakti Ministry could take the initiative to put these three documents for public discussion, make necessary changes and come up with a new legal and institutional framework to usher in a ‘paradigm shift’ in water governance.

The writer is with the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, Pune.