Opposition to overarching legal framework of principles on water

A conference of Water Resources and Irrigation Ministers here on Wednesday saw opposition to the Centre’s proposal to evolve an overarching national legal framework of principles on water, to link financial assistance to “aggressive” water sector reforms and to set up a Permanent Forum of Water Resources and Irrigation Ministers to deliberate on issues/disputes.

Some States said the Union government’s tactics were “coercive.” Others like Assam objected to pricing of water for irrigation and on a volumetric basis, while Kerala categorically said it did not support the proposal for an overarching legal framework.

The Forum, chaired by different States by rotation, will attempt at evolving consensus, cooperation and reconciliation among the States, Union Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal told journalists after the day-long conference, out of bounds to the media.

The idea of setting up a Standing Tribunal with three or four Benches was also presented to the States. However, as Mr. Bansal admitted, apprehensions were raised by Haryana and Kerala about infringement on the rights of the States. “But we assured them that we have no such intention,” he said. Punjab, which too had expressed reservations in the past, did not send a representative to the meeting. Haryana Irrigation Minister Harmohinder Singh was explicit.

“Water is a State subject and therefore, the Centre may desist from the national framework of law on a State subject in the true spirit of federalism. Further, every State has its own problems as well as requirements, therefore, bringing an overarching requirement such as the setting up of a Water Regulatory Authority and linking funds to the same are indirect coercion on the States,” he said.

Unsystematic planning

Mr. Singh questioned the establishment of a Permanent Forum of Ministers in a set-up where there were inter-State disputes.

“It will be difficult to choose any representative Irrigation Minister on the Forum. It needs to be made explicit what the agenda of the Forum is.” Transfer of funds to States should not be linked to reforms, he said.

Kerala Minister P.J. Joseph also said: “We do not support the introduction of an overarching national legal framework. It was “not essential” since the Constitution and the existing legal provisions were sufficient to address the issue.

Mr. Bansal described the issues in the water sector as “injudicious inter-sectoral and intra-sectoral distribution among various users, low water use efficiency, unsystematic resources planning and development, poor maintenance of irrigation systems and poor recovery of water charges.”

The National Water Mission has set a target of 20 per cent improvement in water use efficiency.

Draft policy

He said a draft National Water Policy, evolved after extensive consultations, would be deliberated on at a meeting of the National Water Resources Council, scheduled for October 30. The Council has Chief Ministers as members and that will be the last stage for the policy to be approved.

The policy moves in the direction of water sector reforms, water pricing and privatisation of services for better management of resources and institutions.

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