It should ensure 'common and equal right' to river water, says Rajendra Singh

Magsaysay award-winning water conservationist Rajendra Singh, said on Sunday that the Ministry of Environment and Forests had become “pollutant protection ministry.”

He was talking to The Hindu from Pune on the need for a national policy for sustainable use of river water.

“The work of the MoEF should be the protection and conservation of forests and the environment. Instead, it has become pollutant protection ministry. There is continuous corruption and violence against our rivers. To stop it, we need a policy that will protect the river flood plane and river land. We also need to establish the principles of river and sewer separation,” he said.

“Clearly, the present programmes such as the National River Conservation Plan and the Ganga Action Plan are short-sighted and inadequate. We urgently need a national river policy drafted on the basis of the ‘common and equal right to river water' principle. We have already submitted a draft policy to the MoEF and the Ministry of Water Resources. Both the ministers have assured us of positive action,” Mr. Singh said.

He said the draft was prepared by key members of more than 300 non-governmental organisations in the beginning of March this year. Some of the participants were Ekta Parishad; Sarvoday Mandal; Sarv Seva Sangh; Tarun Bharat Sangh; Jal Biradari; the National Alliance for People's Movement; and South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

“We defined river and prepared the draft. We handed over a copy to [Minister for Environment and Forests] Jairam Ramesh. He was very positive. He told us that the Ministry was in the process of forming a committee for [drafting] the river zone control Act, and it would work in the light of the draft.”

Mr. Singh said Union Water Resources Minister Salman Khurshid gave a positive response to the draft. “None of them has given a time-bound commitment though.”

“It needs to be reinforced that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a nation is calculated without taking into account the economic value loss due to the destruction of flowing rivers, floods, resource contamination, encroachment and unscientific exploitation of rivers. In this context, formulation of a national river policy is the need of the day — a need which can neither be delayed nor ignored further,” the draft national river policy document notes.

Mr. Singh said the draft was sent to nearly 3,000 organisations and individuals. “Nearly 900 organisations and individuals have responded. It is really good. Even politicians and bureaucrats have responded to our draft. The Principal Secretary of Sikkim has emphasised the need for community education programmes for successful implementation of such a policy.”

According to the draft, the data on water availability indicates that India is the richest country in the world. “It has been estimated that out of the total precipitation of around 400 million hectare metre (mhm), the approximate surface run-off flowing through Indian rivers every year is nearly 195.3 million hectare meters and the utilisable run-off through dams is about 69.0 mhm. Nearly 126.3 mhm is going waste every year,” it says, calling for curbing wastage.

It further says: “The depth of yearly flow in Indian rivers is 51 centimetre. It is 17 cm in Asia, 26 cm in Europe, 31 cm in North America, 8 cm in Australia, 20 cm in Africa and 45 cm in South America. Our groundwater reserves are around 43.2 mhm. The average groundwater depth for the country is 11 cm.”

“The goal or vision of the river policy is to enable rivers to be rejuvenated to sustain their minimum environmental flow, perform uninterrupted natural function and ensure benevolent services to all living organisms in a meaningful and sustainable manner. The goal is proposed to be achieved through a well-conceived infrastructure, demand-based program and purpose-based long-term support of the empowered community,” the document says.

“The draft talks of a decentralised model of water management. We believe that the community should be made stakeholders in the conservation of river. We envisage a three-tier structure, wherein the Central government will formulate a vision document giving broad guidelines, and the State governments will formulate their own need-specific policies. The policy envisages delegation of management powers to the empowered community,” Mr. Singh said.

The hallmark of the draft policy is transparency and community participation. The draft proposes, among others, 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies working for the conservation of river eco-system and continuous research by government and non-government organisations in optimal management of river water resources in the light of climate change.

One of the most important challenges is creation of awareness and consciousness.

The draft document says there is a lack of relevant data and research to make the policy work.

“The run-off data or water availability for major river basins is readily available...but the data for a unit area (small watersheds between 5,000 hectares and 10,000 hectares) on the relationship between monthly non-monsoon flow and corresponding groundwater reserve depletion is completely missing,” it notes.

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