An analysis of the National Water Policy, 2012

Before you read this, I suggest you look at the previous post, dealing with a simple background of water issues in India. (Click link here)

The National Water Policy, or NWP, deals with 15 different areas:
1. Broad issues related to water-use
2. Water framework law
3. Uses of water
4. Adaptation to climate change
5. Enhancing water availability (supply-side)
6. Demand management and water efficiency
7. Water pricing
8. Conservation of water bodies and related infrastructure
9. Project planning and execution
10. Management of flood and drought
11. Water supply and sanitation
12. Institutional arrangements
13. Trans-boundary ties and treaties
14. Database and information system
15. Research and training

You can access the original policy document here

The broad issues identified by the government include, importantly, disparity in water accessibility and availability, depending on geography. Effects of climate change and increasing population pressure on water resources have also been considered. A very important problem has been given special attention: the problem of groundwater ownership. Under colonial laws, groundwater is still considered an individual resource which largely limits the scope of community based conservation approaches and mindset. Lack of people's participation, trained personnel and social awareness have also been highlighted. A specific problem recognized has been the gap between irrigation potential created and utilized. A major positive has been the recognition of the importance of demand-side management. This is relevant, because, without increasing end-use efficiency, water conservation can never, in my opinion, be truly achieved. The most relevant point of this section is the prioritization of water use. Water use has been prioritized as below:
1. Drinking
2. Sanitation
3. Other domestic needs (animals etc.)
4. Achieving food security
5. Supporting sustenance agriculture
6. Supporting minimum ecosystem needs
And finally, after all these objectives have been achieved, water can be treated as an economic good "to promote its conservation and efficient use". As I see it, this leads to two very powerful conclusions:

1. Industries should not and will not get water at subsidized rates. In fact, cross-subsidies can be facilitated by charging industries even more for electricity (only that part which is used for water extraction) or water supply. The market effects of such a move would invariably mean cost-push inflation, which would be politically dangerous in the short term, but would be the best way ahead in the long run.
2. Basic minimum water can be provided at subsidized rates to rural and urban individual consumers, beyond which they would have to pay extravagantly for every litre they consume/extract. (However,  apart from political will, this would require a strict wate regulation system and authority in place, which every single city and village in India lacks, as of now.) If implemented, this is truly the way forward to equitable distribution as well as sustainable usage of the resource.

The document, however, has completely failed to take into cognizance a very important aspect of the water problem: water accessibility and gender/caste disparities. In my travels in rural areas, I have seen that it is mostly women/lower castes who end up suffering more, either to ensure water accessibility or due to lack thereof. This issue has been well documented, and relevant literature can be accessed here. It perhaps is a failure of this policy that gender or caste based equations associated with water have not been given due importance. (Why do you think disparity in water accessibility exists in the first place, in rural areas? Geography is not the only responsible factor.)

However, the issue of good governance and its impact on water sector is underlined in the basic guidelines that deal with legal framework relating to water. The policy suggests that in spite of the disparities between region, there should be certain basic principles followed in enacting water-related legislations. Much importance has been given in this section to a holistic - geographically, sector-wise, demographically and hydrologically - approach towards water management and governance. This becomes clear when we think of the recent water-related conflicts, such as the Cauvery water issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In case of groundwater, this argument is even more relevant, as aquifer is always shared by a multitude of farmers, or, in most cases, by a multitude of villages.  

Like I mentioned earlier, the document, in the section dealing with water usage, clearly outlines the need for social awareness and cites it a duty of the Union and State governments to provide a minimum basic amount of water to all citizens. This section, if interpreted in the right spirit, shows the way forward in issues like Cauvery. It clearly lays down the principal of proportionate water flow in low and high seasons in rivers, thus, upper riparian states can, if they want to, solve the problem of water sharing in mutual consultation with lower riparian states. However, considering the politics attached with the issue f inter-state water sharing, this clause is likely to remain more of a "Directive Principle" and "guiding light" than actual basis for inter-state water dispute laws.

Climate change has been given an entire section to itself, highlighting the urgency and gravity of it on water availability. As expected, the policy suggests a participative approach of demand management and water conservation techniques. More efficient irrigation systems and the inclusion of climate-change induced water variability in the planning of artificial reservoirs, dams, etc. has been specifically mentioned.

In enhancing water supply and managing water demand, the use of MGNREGA has been specifically pointed out, underlining the potential of the scheme in ensuring water security for rural areas. The need for aquifer mapping and regular water supply assessment at sources has also been given priority. This becomes even more important when we consider the fact that not even Mumbai has ever mapped its aquifers. (Probably Chennai and Bangalore may have, not sure.) Unless we do not know the capacity and natural recharge rate of aquifers, we cannot enhance the recharge rate or ensure sustainable extraction. This is important, for urban areas as well as groundwater based agrarian economies. In fact, in order to assess the true picture of the economy and food security, aquifer mapping becomes essential. Non-conventional methods like water-footprint calculation, water auditing, recycle and reuse of water (grey-water for flushes etc.), rainwater harvesting have been stressed upon, with keyword being "participatory management of water resources". Urban domestic water supply should, as per the policy, preferably be from surface water bodies. This is appropriate, when we take into account the agricultural needs of surrounding rural areas and hence stress of these areas on shared aquifers with urban areas. More importantly, most urban aquifers of India are either polluted or depleting fast. Plus, considering the recharge rate of these aquifers and increasing urban population/domestic  needs, it is not possible to have sustainable groundwater usage for urban domestic needs. I have proven this in my paper titled "Technical and Regulatory Guidelines for RWH for Mumbai City". (IIT Bombay, 2012)

The section related to water pricing talks of under-priced electricity, which is a major factor towards groundwater depletion, and suggests separate feeders for domestic and agricultural use. The basic philosophy behind this is, that if a farmer knows that he would get 4-5 hours of assured quality power everyday, he would not dig unnecessary extra bore-wells in his farm, thus minimizing groundwater wastage. (It is seen that farmers generally dig several bore-wells because they are not sure of electricity supply. The mindset is, "The electricity may be available for only half an hour. How can I irrigate my entire 5 bigha field with just 1 bore-well in half an hour? I need at least 3 of them.") Currently, in many cities water price is a lump sum, as a certain percentage of property tax. This has been advised to be converted into a volume-based pricing system, with state level Water Regulatory Authorities determining the pricing scheme. Cross subsidies have been retained and it has been suggested that recycle-reuse of water be promoted through appropriate pricing incentives/disincentives. Another approach to promote non-conventional water sources, not discussed in the policy document, can be a limited supply of water to every household based on census data and calculated per-capita requirement. Beyond this amount, the user would be required to meet his/her needs with non-conventional sources and prove so. Water pricing is such a major concern for the government that it has ben included as an agenda point in the functions of the newly constituted 14th Finance Commission under the Chairmanship of Dr. Y. V. Reddy.

The conservation strategy talks about prevention of encroachment and pollution in surface water bodies. It acknowledges the fact that maintaining groundwater quality is more important, because polluted groundwater may end up polluting the entire aquifer. However, it fails, in my opinion, to identify a major cause of groundwater pollution as well as water wastage, that is, leaking pipelines. Just like our electricity T&D system, our water supply T&D system also has losses amounting to 30-40%, and the only feasible solution, apart from periodic renovation of supply pipelines, is constant vigilance on part of local body authorities. Leaking pipelines, as I have mentioned in my earlier post, not only result in water wastage but also pollute groundwater, in case of sewage pipes.

The section on project planning, predictably, talks of time-bound project completion and avoidance of cost-overruns, another negative point this sector shares with the power sector. Sad reality is, there are very few certified professional project managers in India. The section once again mentions participatory governance and management, thereby emphasizing that water is a shared local resource and should be managed thus: locally, and community-wise. Flood and drought section mostly talks about scientific techniques to assess/forecast, prevent and cope with such drought systems. Local participation, though not mentioned here, is considered implied and inherent.

Hydrological data-sharing with riparian neighboring countries has been accepted as a necessity. Intra-national institutional arrangements talk of a permanent water-disputes tribunal at the national level, but as the recent Cauvery conflict has proven, no institution is fail-proof, and even the best of water-sharing plans may not work due to political compulsions.

In the view of participatory governance and climate change, empowering individuals and organizations with information is a necessary step towards ensuring sustainable water management, and to this end, it is proposed that all hydrological information be brought in public domain. (Currently, it is not so.)

Thus the policy document seems to be based on following principles:
1. participatory governance and management, stress on local governance, treating water as a "shared resource"
2. inter-disciplinary and holistic approach of water management
3. incorporating climate change induced effects in water management and governance
4. fair and appropriate water pricing
5. tapping non-conventional water sources and efficient end-use
6. effective information dissemination
7. social and technical awareness, training societies as well as individuals (principle no. 1 is redundant without this)
8. prioritization of supply/sources of water and demand/uses of water

The policy document, thus, encompasses nearly every aspect of water regulation and management. However, the value of a policy document is realized only if there are specific laws and acts supporting it, and it is taken not just as a convenient guidebook, but a set of basic philosophies to be adhered to at all times. It remains to be seen how states, local bodies and individuals respond to the challenge of sustainable water management. Unfortunately, states have already expressed their displeasure not only at the policy document itself, but also at enormously important specific suggestions like declaring groundwater a community resource. The state governments would do well, for once, to start looking beyond their narrow political interests, and see this document not as a violation of states' autonomy (water being a state subject), but as a much-needed framework for the management of a strategically important national resource.

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