As a finite, life-giving resource, access to water must remain a fundamental right. The state, as custodian under the public trust doctrine, should uphold the right of the citizen to clean, safe drinking water. It is such a strong, rights-based approach that should underpin official policy on water in India. Many areas in the country are water-stressed, and there are simmering inter-State disputes on sharing river waters. The National Water Policy 2012, now published in draft for public comments, should ultimately take a holistic view of the issue. The draft text makes some references to the importance of water for people and Nature, but is disproportionately focussed on treating water as an economic good. Such an approach predicated on realising the costs that go into the supply of water can only distort access and prices in the long run, affecting less affluent citizens. To suggest, for instance, that the state should exit the service-provider role and become a regulator is only a step away from abandoning the equity objective. Private sector water services have clearly failed in many countries, including those in the global North, and local governments have taken over again. In the current year, for-profit private water companies in England are raising tariffs, while the publicly-owned service in Scotland is not. Just over a decade ago, water wars in Bolivia reversed privatisation moves. Evidently, private partnership imposes the burden of extra costs.
Few will argue that there is no case for reforms in the way water is managed as a resource in India. In urban and semi-urban areas, the lack of adequate public investments has weakened municipal systems. This has led to commodification and unsustainable extraction from aquifers for rising rates of profit. In this context, the proposal to separate groundwater rights from land title by amending the Indian Easements Act, 1882 merits serious consideration. Coming up with an alternative framework acceptable to all stakeholders, however, is a big challenge. Moreover, an assessment of the national water balance at the basin level is essential for amending the law. This the Centre should pursue, as the Planning Commission has suggested, during the 12 Plan. Such data can persuade the States to support comprehensive legislation to address inter-State riparian issues. Again, if there is any one factor that renders much of India's water unusable, it is industrial pollution. This issue calls for urgent action, and the policy can cover major ground if it lays greater emphasis on making the ‘polluter pays' principle work. A clean-up can make a lot more of India's water bodies and groundwater available for use by people.