India's recently announced Water Mission provides a rare opportunity for informed public debate to formulate a national water policy to unify the country in equitable use of the vital resource.

On May 28, 2010 the Prime Minster's Council on Climate Change, with Dr. Manmoan Singh being present, approved a water mission for India. This is an important event. The mission statement is an action plan catalysed by climate change response. Yet, it includes credible goals to meet India's serious water crisis towards a sustainable future. It articulates priorities of specific actions as well as an outline of general principles.

The mission's objective highlights water conservation, minimising wastage and ensuring equitable distribution both across and within States through integrated resource development and management. Notable among the mission's principles are: comprehensive data base in public domain; public participation through promotion of citizen-State interaction; integrated basin-wide management; enactment of State-wide legislation through persuasion; and review and adoption of a National Water Policy by March 2013. Notable among the specific goals are: expanding monitoring network; expeditious formulation of river-interlinking project; and implementing rainwater harvesting and augmentation of artificial recharge in all Blocks by 2017.

The goal of having a revised National Water Policy by 2013 is important because the mission's goals must occur within the framework of such a policy. If so, by what process should the revision be achieved? One perspective would be to recognise that there are multiple uses for water and an integrated approach based on basin development planning needs to be evolved, requiring political leadership at the local body level, state level and civil society organisations needed to be involved in activities of the water mission. This perspective would foresee a policy that enables formulation of statutes, rules and regulations that would authorise various strategies to balance supply and demand. A second perspective would be to recognise that water is a natural phenomenon, vital for the sustenance of all living things, whose renewable availability is finite and vulnerable to depletion and degradation. Each of these approaches will likely endow different flavour to the national water policy.

The ideals of equitable sharing of water, integrated management of surface water, soil water and groundwater, intra-basin and inter-basin water transfer, participation of an enlightened public in decision-making, and welfare of politically weak segments of society raise philosophical questions about how management strategies may relate to societal values. Science and technology will offer a spectrum of strategies for water management, from which choices have to be made, balancing individual rights with communal responsibility. To make these choices even-handedly and uniformly throughout the nation, laws governing water have to be founded on thoughtfully laid out fundamental principles. In this regard, many countries and the European Union have incorporated the doctrine public trust in their Constitution because public trust, rooted in the European cultural tradition, indicates how property owned by the people without formal Title may be governed.

India's Supreme Court has favoured public trust, and has invoked the doctrine as being implicit in Article 21 that assures right to life and personal liberty. At a time when India is embarked on revising its National Water Policy, it seems reasonable assume that India may benefit from an open public debate about defining a set of fundamental principles that will guide critical decisions about water sharing, allocation, distribution, and management in a broad sense. If such fundamental principles, properly articulated, are mandated in India's Constitution, they will provide the necessary legal and moral authority to the executive branch for achieving the goals of the Mission, and provide a clear basis for the judicial branch to exercise judicial review.

Clearly, public debate on such a vital matter requires that the citizens are provided with a basic body of credible information about water as a natural phenomenon, the jurisprudential concepts based on which one may judge what is entailed in adapting to natural availability of water, and how other societies and civilisations have approached the challenging issue of adapting to the natural laws that govern water. The science of water, as it relates to water management, centres around the hydrological cycle, and its connections to nutrient cycles, ecosystems and the environment. Water policy is fundamentally concerned with equitably sharing the resource, given the bounds of the natural attributes of the water cycle, in conformity with the rights and responsibilities that are inherent in democratic self-governance.

To enable the general public to educate itself on these essentials, India's distinguished Academies can help by compiling the best available scientific information on the hydrological cycle as it functions in an interconnected earth, India's natural endowments of water, and the framework within which nations around the world are managing water. Additionally, India's centres of higher learning and philanthropic institutions devoted to bringing together science, society and ethics may significantly contribute by facilitating constructive dialogues at various levels.

Undoubtedly, India's water crisis poses major technical and social challenges. At the same time, India also has an opportunity to provide world leadership in enlightened democratic self-governance of a vital natural resource.

(T. N. Narasimhan is Professor Emeritus, Materials Science and Engineering Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California at Berkeley. Email: tnnarasimhan@LBL.gov)

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