Drowned in apathy

  • 30/03/1996

THE meeting of the National Water Resources Council (NWRC), convened by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao last month, was a total failure, as no decision was taken on any of the long list of important issues. The meeting of this apex policymaking body was convened at the instance of the Supreme Court after nine years, and is only the third such meeting in the 16 years of its existence. This underscores the sad state of the national water policy after 45 years of water resources planning and development, costing over Rs 50,000 crore. The policy adopted by the NWRC in 1987 has remained a mere document. As Ramaswamy lyer, former secretary, ministry of water resources (mwR) and the initiator and chief draftsperson of the policy says, there has been no action to operationalise the guiding principles described in the policy. Nor is a mechanism in place to ascertain its implementation.

The meeting started and ended with the discussion on inter-state water-sharing guidelines, about which the ministry says that they are not mandatory and the, Planning Commission says they were not necessary! The differences on these guidelines between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu did not allow any other business to be taken up. Significantly, apart from the question of inter-state water-sharing guidelines, the meeting was to deal with issues like a water information bill, a policy note on setting up river basin organisations, a national policy for resettlement and rehabilitation of people affected by reservoir projects, modification of water allocation priorities specified by national water policy, overall policy guidelines for water management and pricing of water for industrial purposes, irrigation management policy, planning conjunctive use of surface and groundwaterin irrigation projects and ways of improving the performance of existing projects. These nine draft proposals were neither discussed at length nor put to vote. The MWR had expected the Council to issue directives emphasising the need for micro-watershed development and insist that the country's future needs can be met only through a judicious mix of small and large storage reservoirs and groundwater development. The meeting failed to recognise. that the tribunal system as a dispute-resolving mechanism had failed, primarily because there is no provision at all for involvement of either the affected people or the people who are, to benefit from the projects under consideration. Without a will to address the problem from this fundamental point of view, the meeting was bound to be a failure.

Other imperative issues which the meeting did not even agendise were the need to take a composite view of land, forests and water, the ecological health of our rivers, pricing of urban, industrial and irrigation water-use, the need to increase crop yields in a sustainable way, the need for regional water policies, providing legal teeth to policy on water rights, and so on. With the progress of the new economic policy and liberalisation, there is going to be a quantum jump in water requirements for the industrial and urban sector from the present 10 per cent to, above 25 per cent, according to mwR data. And yet, we see no planning or clear perspective on where this water is going to come from. in the absence of a well-defined policy, such needs will be fulfilled only at the expense of tribals and the rural people who are directly dependent on natural resouilces. A sign of things to come surfaced from talks of privatisation of water resources development. This would go totally against the fundamental right to life of the people.

Decentralisation has to be a key issue in any water policy agenda, as both ava4lability and use of water resources are decentralised. Left to themselves, people have shown that they can and do develop water management systems according to their own needs and agro-climatic conditions. Such examples are also available in contemporary times as in BaliraJ4 and Ralegaon Sidhi in Maharashtra, and Seed in Rajasthan, The basic principle of all such systems is to harvest water where it falls. The form and structures may change as per local situations. Decentralisation is, thus, necessary even for the efficacy of the system and for effective monitoring and demand-side control of water-needs.

What is required is the commitment to take concrete steps to operationalise the liberalisation of informationand decisionmaking process in planning implementation, operation and maintenance of water resources development.The coming elections will give the people and NGOS the opportunity to question the political parties about their plans on this issue.

Our rulers are now experts in launching. gigantic projects, wasting a lot of scarce resources, and then just forgetting about them. The assumption that government control improves water management has already been falsified. The policy- makers fail to understand that inefficient use, destruction of traditional water management systems under government control, destruction due to polluters, warped priorities of the government in development of water resources and the inability to control wasteful use and cropping pattern has created largescale scarcity. Any future water policy will have to be formulated through consulting the communities and its implementation must be left to the latter's wisdom alone.

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