In place of the current slogan of Integrated Water Resource Management, we should look at Responsible, Harmonious, Just and Wise Use of Water.
The Union Ministry of Water Resources has undertaken a review and revision of the National Water Policy (NWP) 2002. The present article is intended as a contribution to that process. It will not offer a detailed critique of the Ministry's discussion paper, but will outline an approach for its consideration.
Need for radical overhaul
Ideally, a review at this stage should take climate change into account, but while we know that climate change may mean increased precipitation in some areas, increased drought in some others, and increased variability of precipitation, we do not yet know in detail precisely what will happen, when and where. Studies on these matters are still going on. A policy response will have to wait for some reasonably definitive findings on them.
However, an overhaul of the NWP is necessary even without reference to the issue of climate change. The reason for saying so is that there has been a gross mismanagement of water, as evidenced by the following selective list:
• intermittent, unreliable, unsafe and inequitable water supply in urban areas;
• rivers turned into sewers or poison, and aquifers contaminated;
• intractable water-related conflicts between uses, sectors, areas, States;
• major and medium irrigation systems in disarray, rendering poor and unreliable service, and characterised by inequities of various kinds;
• alarming depletion of aquifers in many parts of the country;
• inefficiency and waste in every kind of water-use;
• the environmental/ecological impacts of big water-resource projects, poor EIAs, the displacement of people by such projects and the general failure to resettle and rehabilitate project-affected persons; and so on.
The need for a radical reform of water policy is evident.
Not revision but new start
If so, the kind of transformation that is needed will not be achieved by incremental changes in the NWP 2002. If we start from NWP 2002, our thinking will quickly fall into well-worn grooves, and getting out of them will be difficult. It is necessary to put aside the NWP 2002, and start from scratch.
Reversals of past approaches
Such an exercise will involve many reversals of past approaches. For instance, reversing the usual approach of projecting a future demand and bringing about a supply-side response to meet that demand, we must start from the fact that the availability of fresh water in nature is finite, and learn to manage our water needs within that availability. This will mean a stringent restraint on the growth of ‘demand' for water (other than basic needs) which will be difficult and will involve painful adjustments; but the effort is inescapable.
A second reversal will have to be on the supply side. Primacy will have to shift from large, centralised, capital-intensive ‘water resource development' (WRD) projects with big dams and reservoirs and canal systems, to small, decentralised, local, community-led, water-harvesting and watershed-development programmes, with the big projects being regarded as projects of the last resort; and the exploitation of groundwater will have to be severely restrained in the interest of resource-conservation as well as equity.
A third reversal will have to be in relation to rivers, from massive interventions in flows and maximal abstraction of waters to letting the rivers flow and keeping interventions to the minimum. Instead of killing rivers and then trying to revive them, we must learn to keep rivers alive, flowing and healthy. A fourth reversal will have to be in the relative roles of the state and the community (from ‘eminent domain' or sovereign powers of the state to the state as trustee holding natural resources in public trust for the community). There may have to be other reversals. The intention is not to discuss these matters in detail but to indicate the kind of changes that will be needed.
The changes cannot be piecemeal and fragmented. They need to be integral parts of a holistic vision. One difficulty in this regard is the multiplicity of perspectives on water that need to be taken into account. For instance, consider the following:
• the rights perspective, focussing on the fundamental or human right to water, traditional rights of access of communities (tribal or other) to rivers, lakes, forests, and other sources of sustenance and livelihoods, and so on;
• the social justice/ equity perspective, concerned with issues of inequity in urban and rural water and sanitation services, injustices to the poor and to the Scheduled Castes or Tribes, forced displacement by major projects and deficiencies or failures in resettlement /rehabilitation, inequities in access to irrigation water in the command areas of projects, etc;
• the women's perspective stressing the burden on women of fetching water from long distances as well as managing water in the home, with no voice in water-planning or water-management institutions;
• the community perspective urging the right relationship between state and civil society, the empowerment of people vis-à-vis the state (or the corporates), the community management of common pool resources, mobilisation of people for local water augmentation and management, social control of water use and sanctions against misuse, voice in water policy formulation and water management, etc;
• the state perspective, concerned with legislation, policy formulation, planning, administration, ‘governance' at all three levels, ensuring/enforcing rights, providing or facilitating or regulating water supply and sanitation services, preventing or resolving or adjudicating inter-state/inter-sector/inter-use/inter-area water disputes, prescribing and enforcing quality standards, managing water relations with other countries, ensuring compliance with international law, and so on;
• the engineering perspective (which needs no explanation);
• the water quality perspective concerned with the enforcement of water quality standards, and the prevention and control of pollution and contamination of water;
• the citizen/ water-user perspectives tending to assert requirements for various uses (drinking, domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc) quite strongly, but showing poor recognition of the obligations of economical and efficient use, avoidance of waste and conflict, conservation of the resource, and protection of the environment;
• the economic perspective that sees water as economic good subject to market forces, and argues for water markets, the full economic pricing of water, the privatisation of water services, private sector participation in water resource projects, etc;
• the ‘growth' perspective focussing on economic growth at a certain desired rate, and tending to be impatient with social, community, rights, equity, environmental or other perspectives;
• the business perspective, concerned with a supply response to demand, the objective being profits, professing ‘corporate social responsibility' but tending to subordinate it to the imperative of profits;
• the legal perspective, which is not really a separate perspective, as legal issues arise in all perspectives; but specifically concerned among other things with the constitutional division of legislative powers, Centre-State and inter-State relations on water, inter-State river-water disputes, riparian law, international water law, questions of ownership and/or control of water, etc. (all these being not merely legal but also socio-political questions); and
• the environmental/ecological perspective, concerned with the protection of the environmental/ecological system from the impacts of ‘developmental' activity, and the prescription/monitoring of remedial measures.
The foregoing enumeration of perspectives will immediately show that a multiplicity of disciplines is involved. The formulation of a national water policy must necessarily be an inter-disciplinary exercise.
If these perspectives are to be integrated and harmonised into a coherent whole, some will have to be regarded as the overarching, governing perspectives, and all others subsumed under them. In the author's view, the ecological and social justice perspectives will have to be the overarching perspectives, and all other perspectives subordinated to them. In particular, engineering and economics, which have so far been the dominant disciplines, must be firmly kept under check by ecology and by the idea of social justice.
Keeping in mind Gandhiji's firm conviction that rights flow from responsibilities, we can consider combining the ecological and social justice perspectives into a moral responsibility perspective or, in other words, an ethical or dharma perspective. Let us think in terms of our responsibility or dharma in relation to:
• the poor, deprived, disadvantaged, or disempowered;
• other humans sharing the resource with us, including those in our State or other States, our country or other countries, our generation or future generations;
• other species or forms of life;
• rivers, lakes, aquifers, forests, nature in general, Planet Earth itself.
That is the overarching perspective that this writer would like to propose. In place of the current slogan of Integrated Water Resource Management or IWRM about which he has strong reservations, he would like to offer the alternative formulation of Responsible, Harmonious, Just and Wise Use of Water.
Alas, RHJWUW is not a catchy term like IWRM. The latter term has come to stay, but it should really be understood to mean the former.