Now India needs a National Water Commission

Mihir Shah, water policy expert, member of the erstwhile Planning Commission and in recent months head of several committees tasked with reforming India’s water laws, says existing institutions are inadequate to address our water needs. Which is why, he says in an e-mail interview, India needs an overarching water commission. Excerpts:

The proposed National Water Commission (NWC) subsumes the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB). How specifically does it improve national water management?

The CWC (set up in 1945) and CGWB (set up in 1971) were created in an era when India faced a very different set of challenges. Then it was crucial to create irrigation capacity to ensure food self-sufficiency. But today the challenge is different. At huge cost (around Rs.400,000 crore) we have created 113 million hectares of irrigation potential. But is this water reaching the farmers? No. As the Chief Minister of Maharashtra has said, the State has 40 per cent of the country’s large dams, “but 82 per cent area of the state is rainfed. Till the time you don’t give water to a farmer’s fields, you can’t save him from suicide. We pushed large dams, not irrigation. But this has to change.” Our report is trying to address this challenge.

We also highlight the fact that groundwater is the main source of water in India. This means we cannot go on endlessly drilling for groundwater through tubewells, which is what CGWB has promoted thus far. This has actually aggravated India’s groundwater crisis, as water tables fall and water quality declines, with arsenic, fluoride and even uranium entering our drinking water.

What are the key shifts in water management your report recommends?

One, we must take a multidisciplinary view of water. We require professionals from disciplines other than just engineering and hydrogeology. Two, we need to adopt the participatory approach to water management that has been successfully tried all over the world, as also in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Three, we must view groundwater and surface water in an integrated, holistic manner. CWC and CGWB cannot continue to work in their current independent, isolated fashion. The one issue that really highlights the need to unify CWC and CGWB is the drying up of India’s peninsular rivers, the single most important cause of which is over-extraction of groundwater.

If river rejuvenation is the key national mandate of the Ministry of Water Resources, then this cannot happen without hydrologists and hydrogeologists working together, along with social scientists, agronomists and other stakeholders. Four, we need to focus on river basins which must form the fundamental units for management of water. We have carefully studied the regional presence (or absence) of the CWC and CGWB and proposed a way forward whereby the NWC is present in all major river basins of India.

The Central Water Commission has opposed the NWC on the grounds that several reform measures are already in place. Are you throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Not at all. We have taken great care to ensure that all existing functions and personnel of the CWC find their appropriate place in the eight divisions of the NWC, which include Irrigation Reform, River Rejuvenation, Participatory Groundwater Management, Urban and Industrial Water, Water Security (including droughts, floods and climate change) and Water Quality.

This isn’t the first time that you have recommended an integrated water commission…

I think this kind of fundamental change takes time to be fully understood and get actualised in policy. In actual fact, professionals involved in CWC and CGWB will get an even better chance to improve their technical capabilities and career prospects within the NWC.

Water is frequently a political issue in several States. Why should States listen to an NWC?

As a Committee, we took great care to get views of States on board. We have suggested that appraisal must become a demand-based exercise, done through a partnership between the Central and State governments, as also institutions of national repute.

This is a key part of the reform we are proposing. We are not for a monolithic NWC. The NWC will be a knowledge institution providing solutions to water problems faced by State governments, farmers and other stakeholders, on demand, in a truly user-friendly manner.

Your report doesn’t encourage interlinking of rivers, one of the most vocal commitments of Water Minister Uma Bharti.

Our report contains a summary of all the scholarly work available on interlinking of rivers (ILR). This work demolishes the engineering myth that water must not be allowed to flow “wastefully” into the sea. Scientists fear that the humongous ILR project could even endanger the integrity of India’s monsoon cycle, which depends crucially on fresh river water flowing into the sea. However, our report is not centrally concerned with this question and is not really into the pro- versus anti-big dam debate. It is much more concerned with the challenge of ensuring that the water stored in dams, present or future, actually reaches the farmers. This is low-hanging fruit that can give us an increase of millions of hectares of irrigated area at much less than the cost of the ILR and in much less time, avoiding all inter-State conflicts, land acquisition problems, as also corruption that has become a big issue in irrigation projects over the years.

Credits The Hindu

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