Yet another National Water Policy is on the anvil. The Union Water Resources Ministry has finalised a 10-member committee under chairmanship of former member, Planning Commission and water expert Mihir Shah, to draft it and report back within six months. The NWP currently in force was drafted in 2012 and is the third such policy since 1987. Among the major policy innovations in this policy was the concept of an Integrated Water Resources Management approach that took the “river basin/sub-basin” as a unit for planning, development and management of water resources. Obviously, it isn’t enough.
In September, Water Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat announced the Centre was planning to update and make key changes in water governance structure and regulatory framework, keeping in view growing scarcity due to rise in water usage. A National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency was also on the cards.
It also proposed that a portion of river flows ought to be kept aside to meet ecological needs. Such an approach led to the government, in 2018, requiring minimum water levels to be maintained in the Ganga all through the year and hydropower projects, therefore, to refrain from hoarding water beyond a point. Though the last policy had stressed for a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all its citizens be made available within easy reach of households it hasn’t been fulfilled.
“Inter-basin transfers are not merely for increasing production but also for meeting basic human need and achieving equity and social justice. Inter-basin transfers of water should be considered on the basis of merits of each case after evaluating the environmental, economic and social impacts of such transfers,” the policy noted.
When water management has emerged a key issue, not just in India but other parts of the globe, there are demands for making clean water a fundamental right. The per capita availability of water in India has fallen almost 15% —1,816 m3 to 1,544 m3 in a decade, 2001-2011. Almost 22% of the groundwater has either dried up or is in critical category. Moreover, given that just 30.80% of rural households and 70.60% of urban households get tap water supply — which in itself is no guarantee of being potable considering the thriving business of water purifiers — it’s easy to see why the government wants to avoid declaring water a fundamental right de jure. This also makes the government’s stated target of 90% rural households getting a tap water connection by 2022 almost an impossible task in present circumstances.
However, if one refers to certain developments and Supreme Court judgments, the demand has justification. In 2010, India was among the 122 signatory countries of the UN, which recognised “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.” Not just that, it called on India, as also other countries, “to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water” for its population.
Moreover, the Supreme Court, through various judgments clarified that the Right to Life, as enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, includes the right to clean drinking water. For instance, in the case involving Narmada Bachao Aandolan against the Union government, while upholding the government’s decision to construct dams, the apex court said “water…is part of the right to life and human rights as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.”
However, the question is not just declaring water as a fundamental right but providing safe drinking water to millions of citizens. Water contamination and judicious management have been plaguing the country for long, but precious little has done at national level. Evidently, on an average, 7 persons died due to shortage or polluted water in 2018. In fact, between 2014 and 2018, almost 12,000 people have died due to just four water borne diseases–cholera, acute diarrhoeal diseases (ADD), typhoid and viral hepatitis.
Contamination of water, whether of arsenic, fluoride or mercury, is a cause of concern. Added to this is the pollution of rivers, lakes, canals from where people in rural areas take water for drinking purposes. And it is tragic that due to sheer lack of awareness there are lakes and ponds in backward districts from where people use water both for bathing and drinking. According to the Ministry, ‘River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation’ 2017, six million tonnes of chemical fertilizers and 9000 tonnes of pesticides applied to the Ganga basin’s agricultural fields as also 260 million litres of untreated industrial wastewater add to pollution. All these make the Ganga at Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi the world’s most polluted river. Similarly, the Composite Water Management Index developed by NITI Aayog shows that 70% of water resources are polluted due to dumping of untreated waste water and sewage in rivers.
One cannot term India as water-deficient but most villages and/or hamlets do not have clean ponds and environmentally-safe water storage facilities. Moreover, the annual precipitation (rain and snowfall) is close to 1200 mm, much higher than global average of 1000-odd mm. Thus, in view of basic hydrological, agro-climatic conditions, a scientific approach to harness and harvest the abundant endowment of water into an utilisable resource is critical.
Rainwater harvesting, which is in place, needs to spread across the country as a community-based participatory plan as this will possibly be the key to solve not only water, food and energy problems but ensure sustainable agricultural growth.
However, what is equally important is to ensure efficiency of water use in the agriculture sector where (as per Economic Survey 2018-19) consumption is 89%. Debates are ongoing about increasing efficiency in irrigation to enable more water availability to farmers. In fact, as per reports, the gap between the irrigation ‘created’ and ‘utilised’ is widening. Farmers should be encouraged to shift from paddy and wheat production, which requires huge water, to other crops like maize, corn, ethanol etc. Even growing pulses, which is a little deficient, would help greatly as consumption is rising rapidly.
The new policy should outline ways to reduce water use in agriculture sector through a systematic plan. There has to be a thrust on value-added crops that require less water so that water consumption can come down by say 8 to 9% within 3-4 years. Also segregation of ponds, one for bathing and cleaning and another for drinking purposes should be earmarked by immediately instructing both panchayats and block officials.
Finally, it is an accepted fact that big dams haven’t been of much use and the dictum of small being beautiful and useful is relevant in the case of water. Though hydrologists may refer to Raymond Nace about his rejection of bigness in solving water problems, our great leader, Mahatma Gandhi too had spoken of viable small units and making each village self-sufficient. Thus, the committee’s recommendation should concentrate on district-wise approach for ensuring water availability to all. Then only will it become a true fundamental right.