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75 yrs of water in India: whither decentralised governance to sustain the precious resource?

By Shubhangi Rai, Megha Gupta, Fawzia Tarannum, Mansee Bal Bhargava

Looking into the last century, water resources management have come a long way from the living with water in the villages to the nimbyism and capitalism in the cities to coming full cycle with room for water in the villages. With the climate change induced water crisis, the focus on conservation and management of water resources if furthered in both national and local agenda. The Water management 2021 report by NITI Aayog acknowledges that water and sustainability are of immense importance for the sustenance of life on earth. Water is intricately linked to the health, food security and livelihood. With business as usual, India’s water availability will only be enough to meet 50% of its total demand and 40% of the population in India will have no access to drinking water and sanitation by 2030. Its Composite Water Management Index 2021 states that ‘India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat.’ From a country rich in water wisdom, it is crucial that we reflect upon the journey of water management to find a way forward.
To commemorate the running 75th year of Independence (Azadi ka Amrit Mahosav), Wednesdays.for.Water observed the 73rd Republic Day with a keynote speech titled, ‘75 years of Water in India’ delivered by Shri G Asok Kumar, IAS, Director General, National Mission for Clean Ganga. Dr. Fawzia Tarannum, as the session moderator, laid the context of the session by sharing the rising water crisis in India amidst the abundance of water knowledge from the traditional past to the technological advancements of today. She raised concerns over the disparity in the access to water and sanitation based on the layers of the social-economic-cultural-political settings of the country. She invited the distinguished guest to reflect upon the journey of water in India post-independence and share the wisdom & learning on the state of one of the most precious & pious resources of the country as it stands today.
Starting with expressing appreciation for the initiative instituted by Wednesdays.for.Water, Shri Asok Kumar stated that it is crucial to talk about the very important resource, water, which would probably be the most important limiting factor in building a 5 trillion-dollar economy in India by 2025.

History of Water in India

Asok Kumar stated that it is ironic that even after 75 years of Independence, while we are celebrating Aazadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, we still need to discuss the basic needs of human beings: equitable, democratic access to safe and clean water and sanitation facilities. India or Bharat, as we know, our country is derived from Sindhu (referred to as Indus River) which also means land of sea suggesting an umbilical relationship between water and India. The Indus Valley Civilization known as the world’s oldest civilisation was habitated on the banks of this Indus River. Water had a very prominent place in the Indian Vedas, Upanishads, etc. The traditional water structures like tanks, stepwells, Johads, etc. and the existence of water infrastructure during the pre-historic period in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro point towards an inextricable connection with water in India. The unique thing about water management in the ancient times was that water was considered as the common property resource maintained, managed, shared, and respected by the people. Unfortunately, this important perspective faded away in the course of time.
Stressing upon the Gerrit Hardin’s famous concept, The Tragedy of The Commons, Asok Kumar stated that individuals are neglecting the well-being of the social goods in pursuit of personal gain. It is commonly recognized that one of the primary roles of the government at the local, state, national, and international levels is to define and manage shared resources. Emphasis is needed on developing a more sustainable mindset where one can become better aware of the long-term impact that short-term choices have on the environment.
Historically the water sources of India used to be the rainwater, rivers, lakes, and ponds which have a very significant connection with the people. India has a highly seasonal pattern of rainfall where 50% of precipitation is received in just 15 days. This also results in 90% of river flows occurring in just four months. This pattern prompted the riparian civilizations in the ancient times to forge community-level approach of water management. With floods and droughts as regular occurrences, every region developed their own traditional water harvesting techniques that reflected the geographical peculiarities and cultural uniqueness of the region. All these traditional systems were designed on an underlying concept of harvesting rainwater whenever and wherever it fell.
Archaeological evidence reveals the practice of water conservation being deep-rooted in the science of ancient India. The existence of rainwater harvesting (RWH) techniques can be seen in the form of wells and drainage channels present from the Indus civilization to the beautiful stepwells found in the western and southern India. The Chola dynasty in the southern India developed an intensive network of canals besdies designed highly efficient system of water management from the village level upwards. They permitted the construction of temples and village assemblies around these water resources and created village committees to manage the water tank and the garden, thus engaging the community to work towards its sustainability. It is often seen that the religious texts and traditional customs of India have all the elements of water in them, and the sacredness associated with water. There were numerous hymns and prayers for the water. People worship/ed Varuna as the God of water and Indra for rain.
Figure 1: Drainage channels of Lothal & Chand Baori Stepwells of Rajasthan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Water during the British rule

During the British rule in India, water started being treated as an important commodity/resource because of its use in revenue generation from products that served as raw goods and farm products from the land. The maintenance and upkeep of the water resources gradually shifted from the hands of the people to the government because of the revenue collection. The approach began to be more top-down, centralised and the investment shifted to building large water infrastructures like dams and canal systems. The government levied taxes from people and used them to maintain and manage the water infrastructure.
Local people who were earlier the custodians of water became consumers and gradually distanced themselves from the water resources management. When India got independence, India and Pakistan together had one of the best and largest irrigation canal systems in the world including the Indus canal system and Ganga canal system. A bureaucratic system with money collection for the maintenance of these irrigation canal structures and supervision fees were set up which continued for some time. One can find a detailed account of this in the book Oriental Despotism by Karl Wittfogel, where he describes how the hydraulic societies, their systems in India and China were meant to maintain these irrigation facilities and to see that water reaches the people on time. The proper maintenance and supply of water helped in extracting revenue from the people as without irrigation collecting land revenue from agriculture would be difficult.
India post-independence
It was around the 1950s the bureaucracy was strong to maintain these structures as a result the canals were properly maintained. However, post-independence with the significant need to jumpstart scientific and industrial progress, the construction of five dams were undertaken as a vision of the development of modern India by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru referred to the dam being equal to a modern ‘temple, mosque or gurudwara’, which are necessary for the nation's economic progress. The admiration projects like Bhakra Nangal, Ramanand Sagar, etc. evoked had a strong message to store water and provide irrigation facilities to the last mile.
Post-Independence, on the one hand, water was more readily available and on the other hand, the rate of population growth continued to accelerate reaching approximately 2% per year after 1951. This rise in population added pressure on agriculture to produce more and after facing an agrarian crisis, the Green Revolution came which increased agricultural and food production. Water was being used more for irrigation and to produce more food which increased the pressure on water resources and distribution. Both quantity as well as the quality of water resources in the country, have been seriously impacted as a result of the Green Revolution.
The Dynamic Ground Water resource assessment as of March 2017 carried out jointly by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and State Groundwater Departments provides a basic database for groundwater management in the country. The exercise categorizes assessment units into ‘safe’, ‘semi critical’, ‘critical’ and ‘over-exploited’ blocks depending on stage of groundwater extraction. According to CGWB by 2020, about 89% of the country’s ground water draft is used for irrigation. This in turn has led to a situation where over 35% of the groundwater assessment units in the country have groundwater use substantially greater than the rate of recharge which attributes heavily to depletion of the groundwater table and the linked scarcity of water for drinking and other needs in the affected areas.
Figure 2: Categorization of assessment units from 2004 to 2020. Source: National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, MoJS (2017)

Water Pollution

The depleting water tables were also increasing the concentration of natural contaminants like arsenic and fluoride in the groundwater. India’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers were/are getting more polluted than the waters of any other major nation. Further, the practice of flood irrigation or precipitation runoff from agricultural fields sown with High Yielding Variety (HYV) seeds being rich in fertilizers and pesticides contaminated both groundwater and surface water making them unsafe for human consumption besides negatively impacting the water ecosystem. A latest assessment by the Niti Ayog, nearly 70% of all of the country’s freshwater (in the ground or on the surface) is contaminated. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2018 identified 351 polluted river stretches in India which are attributed to the growth in population and lack of proper sanitation treatment capacity. Poor wastewater management of the cities have led to sewage water being affluenced into all kinds of water bodies including the sea. Hence, the quantity and quality of water is badly influenced. Then, the encroachment of the waterbodies by all kinds of construction activities have reduced the the storage capacity of waterbodies.

Reasons to the Aftermath

During 1945 and 1960 when the country was developing with high economic turnover projects, the bureaucracy that maintained irrigation were neglected to maintain the big system of the organization. As a result, without any direction, the maintenance and financial distribution to the irrigation canal systems declined. With lesser and lesser financial aid and the poor maintenance of the structures, the surface water irrigation model started dying slow death. The people’s participation and contribution for the maintenance of the irrigation systems were already abandoned during the British rule when community water management was replaced with bureaucracy which also made people willing to pay and getting the work done. This distorted the feeling of responsibility towards the water resources. On the one hand, the government felt obliged to provide service to the people as user; on the other hand, people started (to this date) expecting the government to provide services. With the government struggling due to insufficient funds, the governing structures and mechanisms started buckling and bending.
Simultaneously, due to the need for development and increasing demand to support the growing urbanisation, engineers continued enduring construction of more dams. In this process, it is observed that the gap between the Irrigation Potential Created (IPC) and the Irrigation Potential Utilised (IPU) widened heavily unlike earlier when they used to be hand in hand. This was happening because more dams were built with a propagated belief that the agricultural area would increase. Over time, the IPC became extremely high whereas the IPU became far lesser. Among the key reasons for widening of gap is the poor maintenance and development of the water structures, branch canals and the sub-structures that were supposed to distribute the water.
Figure 3: Gap between Irrigation Potential Created and Utilised. Source: Gulati, Ashok & Banerjee, Pritha. (2018)
In the past few decades, it is also observed that due to the large-scale deforestation around the big dams, the tree cover has reduced significantly which in turn has increased the run-off leading to silting of the basins. The actual siltation rate of the dams is often found to be higher than what is estimated in the proposals. Since the siltation rate determine the costs and benefits of a dam, often the cost is underestimated while overestimating the benefits in order to push for sanctions. The dams built in the 1950s are getting silted which is affecting the safety of dams and reducing the energy production, storage, discharge capacity and flood attenuation capabilities. Because of these reasons, exploiting the surface irrigation has started being to meet the agricultural requirements. A major drawback of the canal network was its reach to the remote places. With the increase in the agricultural area, it was observed that a larger canal network was required for remote area distribution, which was difficult to build most of the time.
The depletion of groundwater also brought changes in the availability of water in canals. The water started getting regulated to be made available only at certain time of the day. This caused further inconvenience in the farming. It was during this time in the mid 1960s, the boom in private tube well ownership took place. Later large-scale public tube well irrigation was pioneered in the interwar period with the United Provinces State Tube Well Irrigation Scheme using power from the Upper Ganges Canal Rural Electrification Scheme. The tube well technology was initially not very popular but with better availability of water, it started appealing to the farmers. The tubewells/borewells soon became a boon as farmers were not required to be located near the canal or negotiate for maintaining the flow of water besides did not face any difficulty in fetching water as it was available now through groundwater. This was the also the beginning of the exploitation of the hidden water reserve and at the core of the water crisis faced today.
India is now the largest user of groundwater in the world. It uses an estimated 230 cubic kilometres of groundwater per year - over a quarter of the global total. This has serious implications to the sustainability of agriculture, long-term food security, livelihoods, and economic growth. It is estimated that over a quarter of the country’s harvest will be at risk. The extraction of groundwater does not only create the problem of more towing of water but also exerts pressure on our energy resources as it requires a lot of electricity or fuel to pump out water from the ground. The overexploitation of the water resource is one major problem that we have gotten into post independence.

Who takes responsibility?

In the Constitution of India, water is a matter included in the Entry 17 of List-II i.e., State List. The rivers being Inter-State, the regulations and development of these rivers are a source of inter-state disputes. The Central Government exercises its powers to regulate and develop Inter-State rivers under the Entry 56 of List I of Seventh Schedule to the extent declared by the Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest. It also has the power to make laws for the adjudication of any dispute relating to waters of Inter-State River or river valley under Article 262 of the Constitution.
Though the responsibility is under the State government, it is observed that while more dams are being built, the maintenance of the existing dams or canals are not given much priority. Many states persist with the wicked incentives of subsidies in electricity towards the farming. For instance, Punjab’s farming electricity subsidy is close to Rs 8000 crore per year, almost 160% of the entire water budget allocation of the State. The character of the water resource management approach by the states is marked by their continued preference for capital expenditure works. The capital expenditure for building dams etc. was there but very poor money was available for the maintenance of the castles created.

Organisational history of Water Resource Management

Before the independence, the Department of Works was assigned the work related to Irrigation and Power. After the independence, in the new constituency, a separate Ministry of Irrigation and Power was set up in 1952 to look after the subject of irrigation. In 1969, an Irrigation Commission was set up to go into the matter of future irrigation development programmes in the country in a comprehensive manner. It helped in ensuring unified and coordinated programme for the speedy implementation of Irrigation and Command Area Development Projects as well as for providing other inputs for maximizing agricultural produce. A separate Department of Irrigation was set up in November 1974 under the reconstituted Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, resulting in the bifurcation of erstwhile Ministry of Irrigation and Power.
In 1980, the Department of Irrigation came under the new Ministry of Energy and Irrigation and later same year, the Ministry was bifurcated, and the erstwhile eepartment was raised to the level of Ministry of Irrigation with a view to having a coordinated and comprehensive view of the entire irrigation sector. In addition to small and medium irrigation, major irrigation sector, both surface and ground, as Command Area Development Programme were brought within the purview of the Ministry. In 1985, the Ministry of Irrigation and the Ministry of Power was again combined but only to bifurcate again out of which the Department of Irrigation was re-constituted as the Ministry of Water Resources. The recognition of the need for planning the development of the country’s water resources in a coordinated manner resulted in the change in character of the Ministry as a nodal agency pertaining to all matters concerning the country’s water resources.
The Ministry then formulated the National Water Policy in 1987 to govern the planning and development of water resources for efficient utilization. Following this, the National Water Resources Council was devised in 1987 and a National Water Board was constituted in 1990. The National Water Board was led by the Secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources as Chairman and subordinated by the Chief Secretaries of all the States and UTs. The Secretaries of concerned Union Ministries and Chairman of Central Water Commission joined the board as Members, in order to review the progress of implementation and stipulations of the National Water Policy for reporting to the Council and to initiate effective measures for systematic development of the country’s water resources.
In 2014, the Ministry was renamed as, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, adding the matter of conservation, development, management and abatement of pollution in river Ganga and its tributaries. In 2019, the Ministry was further renamed as what we know today as, Ministry of Jal Shakti, constituted of two Departments, first, the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, and second, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. This way, the water matters that were divided among various ministries were all brought under one ministry to facilitate and coordinate better decision makings and more actions. Asok Kumar concludes his speech here.

Discussion

The discussion began with Mansee Bal Bhargava expressing concern over the groundwater extraction and weak vertical coordination amidst the policycentric water governance. She also requested Asok Kumar for better opportunities for the youth who are actively practising community water management to engage and get support, recognition, and encouragement from the government. Asok Kumar agreed and mentioned about the water talks initiated as part of the National Water Mission, the success of which led to organising Water Tech Talks and Water Business Talks to provide new innovative technologies, bring more business opportunities to the water enthusiasts especially youth.
Such events have also been inspiring as they provide opportunities to bridge the communication gap between the people and the government. People are empowered and they know what is happening in various parts of the country. To continue the active participation of people, Jal Shakti Kendras are coming up at grassroots levels to provide a platform for water enthusiasts to collaborate and work. These centres are also meant to train people at the local level for a better understanding of approaches dependent on the climatic conditions and soil structure.
In response to a question by Bibhu P Nayak about the government’s plans for other rivers apart from Ganga, Asok kumar pointed out about the programs going on for the cleaning of other rivers and water bodies under the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP). The Ganga cleaning project was an umbrella project under the NRCP which was expanded in 2009 and thus the National Ganga River Basin Action Plan eventually gave rise to the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG). The NRCP still in existence is trying to implement the learning of the NMCG into the other rivers. The idea is that the learnings of various strategies like the Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM) or the One City One Operator Concept which were advised by the Ganga Committee will be taken into consideration by the ministry to implement for the cleaning of other rivers in the country.
Ganesh Shankar puts forth his thought and question on whether transparent and clear quality of water could be applied to the datum of water management. Further, wether having all data of water at all levels can be made easily accessible with clear and simple designed mechanism for common people to understand which may help aid in the solution to water scarcity. Asok Kumar acknowledges that one of the major problems or issues of water is poor data as also acknowledged in the Composite Water Index by the Niti Ayog. The problem is much more complex and with various political patronages it is challenging to meter the water which is being extracted from the ground at plot level and at aggregate at the State level. The ministry is working towards a proposal to establish a universal system of metering water which will give a better understanding of the usage of the resource. Since to design, manage and maintain any resource it’s important for it to be monitored and data is taken as feedback in designing the system. The initial objective of the National Water Mission is also to have a common database for water and make it public. A national water information system is also there now and in the last two three months focused efforts have been to improve the interoperability and common database system.
Arun Kansal acknowledged that in the early civilisations water was managed by people which disappeared during the British rule. The present direction in governance is advocating for the decentralised systems for people’s participation and people managed systems to return. For example, under the Jal Jeevan Mission, the panchayats are asked to come up with their own schemes for piped-water supply at home. The concern is over this transition where we have advanced in technology and the present generation is unequipped to implement, operate and maintain the older system. In such circumstances, how fast we can empower and train the people especially the youth to understand the scientific and technical aspects of water. Asok Kumar reiterates the concerns but believes that technology can act as a boon for the present generation for better water management. Some of the advanced technology has in fact helped the ministry in the Ganga Action Plan to improve the functioning of the project. It is important to build the capacity of the people who are managing the sector.
This discussion end with enlightening all of us with an overview of the journey of water in India in the last 75+ years. This comprehensive summary will help us understand the today’s water problems more objectively. The key takeways remain emphasis on people's participation, people-centric policies, and the need for a decentralised governance approach to sustain the precious water resources.
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Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdoms with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to engage with policy makers, practitioner, researchers, academicians besides the youth, our future generation to explore the multi-dimensional issues associated with water problems and solutions. The other Team members are, Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), and counting. The WforW Foundation is reachable at wednesday.for.water@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. Click Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to reach the social media

Comments

Unknown said…
Very nicely done. Keep up the good work.
Kudos and Congrats..
Suhas Kolhekar said…
Very well presented the vast canvas of Water related issues.With the climate crisis leading to heat waves Water availability may turn out to be the critical determinant of Health.Large unorganised sector workers are going to be at the worst risk.I hope this aspect is also discussed on this Important platform

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