India’s Water Policies: Just Feel Good Documents?

By Chetan Pandit, Asit Biswas 18 April, 2019

Pandit & Biswas don't hold back as they review India's National Water Policies & share thoughts on the future of water in India

After 31 years, successive National Water Policies (NWPs) have had no impact whatsoever on water management; no basin has been developed & there is no inter-state River Basin Organisation
All the versions of NWPs promoted ideas that are un-implementable in the Indian context, consistently contained ideas that were not based on policy research & used lofty language
India’s politicians have managed water mostly for short-term electoral gains & not for long-term benefits of the country; if current trends continue, India's water crisis will only worsen with time

This article was first published by Times of India on March 22, 2019. The original publication can be found here.

March 22 is World Water Day. It is imperative that politicians and general public do some soul searching on the impacts of poor water management for decades on the country’s future social and economic development.

India’s National Water Policy: 31 years on…

Take its National Water Policy (NWP). India was a pioneer in developing NWP in 1987, when such a policy was rather uncommon. Since then the Indian NWP has been revised twice, in 2002 and in 2012. However, more than 30 years after the first NWP, far from helping India in modifying her water management practices to achieve the desired social, economic and environmental outcomes, successive NWPs have had no impact whatsoever on water management.

“…all the versions of NWPs have promoted ideas that are un-implementable in the Indian context.”

Driven by a compulsion to be politically correct, while also being influenced by fashionable ideas paraded in international water seminars, all the versions of NWPs have promoted ideas that are un-implementable in the Indian context.

After three decades of espousing basin as a unit for all planning, no basin is being planned or developed

For example all the NWPs have endorsed basin as a unit for all planning, and have recommended establishment of River Basin Organisations (RBOs) as the platform where all the stakeholders in a basin are represented, and where such basin planning can be done. NWP 2012 went a step further and stated that comprehensive legislation needs to be enacted to establish RBOs. However, after three decades of espousing basin as a unit for all planning, no basin is being planned or developed thus, and there isn’t even one inter-state RBO.

Inter-state river water disputes are resolved by specially constituted Tribunals which allocate water shares to various states, based on juridical principles of riparian rights, prescriptive rights, and equitable distribution. Each of these principles, though a valid legal principle, divides the basin and its water resources in several independent parts, and therefore contradicts the idea of basin planning.

“Integrated Water Resources Management” (IWRM) is another such lofty idea remaining on paper. IWRM has been around as a seductive concept for at least 70 years, but during this period not even one single moderate size river has been planned in an integrated manner anywhere in the world. The entire NWP text is strewn with superfluous words, and suggestions that are sound but not specific and therefore of no real use.

“This lack of commitment is seen even in the style of prose of all the three versions.”

This lack of commitment is seen even in the style of prose of all the three versions. Clause 5.1 of NWP 2012 says, “The availability of water resources and its use by various sectors in various basin and States in the country needs to be assessed scientifically.” Water resources assessment is entirely within the jurisdiction of ministry of water resources (MoWR); an assessment does not need enactment of any legislation, nor any approval from Parliament, or from the states; and mere assessment will not lead to any political fallout. Then who is the intended recipient of the advice that the water resources need to be assessed scientifically? Instead of giving homilies, why doesn’t the MoWR just go ahead and do it?

A policy statement has to emerge out of, and has to be backed by, sound policy research. But the NWPs have consistently contained ideas that were clearly not based on policy research. A glaring example is the support to Public-Private Partnership (PPP) in the water sector. Clause 13 of the NWP of 2002 made a very emphatic statement for the PPP, recommending all models of PPP, for example management, BOT, BOOT. But after 10 years, there wasn’t a single irrigation project in PPP mode.

Civil society organisations had raised some valid concerns, such as how the interests of the poor will be protected; how the private sector operator will be prevented from gaining undue control of water at source; will it become a case of private profits and public risks; who will decide the tariffs, and on what basis. The water bureaucracy had no answers, and the NWP 2012 quietly removed this emphatic support for PPPs.

Next revision of NWP

Despite having a written NWP for more than 30 years all the problems, be it water scarcity, deteriorating quality, aquifers being sucked dry, inter-state disputes and now even intra-state disputes, are only increasing. NWP 2012 is now seven years old. Here are a few practical suggestions for the next revision of NWP, whenever it is taken up.

The next NWP must be based on policy research

All those who are party to formulating the NWP, need to accept that policies are a set of guidelines for decision making, to steer outcomes towards some stipulated objectives. Therefore policies have to be realistic, and not merely a lofty statement of how a nation wishes things to be. Therefore, the next NWP must be based on policy research. The language should be more assertive. It should clearly stipulate what is necessary, how it will be achieved, who exactly will do what, within what time frame, and what preceding actions are a prerequisite to do it.

“If the current trends continue, India’s water crisis will only worsen with time.”

India’s water management has been on an unsustainable path for decades. Its politicians have managed water mostly for short-term electoral gains and not for long-term benefits of the country. It is now facing a water crisis in terms of quantity, quality, magnitude and severity which no earlier generation ever had to face. Sadly, there are no signs that India’s politicians have realised the severity of the situation the country is facing and are willing to take some hard decisions. If the current trends continue, India’s water crisis will only worsen with time.

Further Reading

  • 3°C Transition Risks: It’s H2O, Not Just CO2 – 3°C is happening. This means we need to invest so we are ready for longer droughts, more intense & frequent floods, more damaging typhoons, as well as changing monsoon patterns and river flows. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan warns.
  • Are Asia’s Savings Exposed To Water & Climate Risks? – Asian asset owners have portfolios skewed towards domestic markets that will bear the brunt of climate change. Find out about these risks and what to do as our Dharisha Mirando shares key takeaways from the new report China Water Risk co-authored with Manulife Asset Management & the Asia Investor Group on Climate Change
  • More From Less: Building Water Resilience – Water and climate are really two sides of the same coin so what are the holistic solutions that can build resilience? Bluetech’s Paul O’Callaghan sat down with Ecolab & Aquatech experts to explore these and more
  • Confronting Storms & Climate Risk In HK – Typhoons Hato and Mangkhut have wreaked havoc in the Greater Bay Area but Dr. Faith Chan from the University of Nottingham Ningbo believes these climate risks can be confronted, with Hong Kong leading the way
  • Modern Water Dispensers: Shifting Consumers Off Plastic – With Hong Kong throwing away 5.5 million plastic bottles every day, Urban Spring’s Jennie Wong explains how their network of water refill stations could be the way forward
  • Hindu Kush Himalayas – Why The Third Pole Matters – What is the Hindu-Kush Himalayan (HKH) region and why does this “Third Pole” matter for Asia’s economy? How we can protect the region better? We sat down with Dr David Molden, the Director General of ICIMOD, to find out more
  • Tackling Asia’s Water Challenges – Following China Water Risk’s new report highlighting Asia’s water challenges and the Hindu Kush Himalaya region, Cecilia Tortajada from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy calls for action from the investment community
  • India’s Thermal Power Plants Threatened By Water Shortages – Water shortages are negatively impacting India’s ability to produce power. World Resources Institute’s Tianyi Luo updates us on water stress exposure, risks & opportunities for India’s power sector
  • Ministry Reform: 9 Dragons To 2 – What does China’s long-awaited ministry re-shuffle mean – who manages what and how? China Water Risk’s Woody Chan and Yuanchao Xu review the roles and impacts of the new Ministry of Ecological Environment & Ministry of Natural Resources
Chetan Pandit
Author: Chetan Pandit
Chetan Pandit worked for India’s Central Water Commission, and after 35 years of service retired from # 2 position in the organization, in 2012. A Civil Engineer with post-graduation in Engineering Hydrology, he takes a keen interest in water policy and governance issues. Post retirement, Pandit works as Consultant to state governments in inter-state water disputes
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Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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