India’s water crisis is clear and present , with implications for the health of the entire population. According to the Composite Water Management Index developed by Niti Aayog, 70% of the water resources are identified as polluted. This is based primarily on data supplied by States for calculating the index. If the water accessible to millions is contaminated, the problem is infinitely worse than that of availability. The system of ratings for States is based on their performance in augmenting water resources and watersheds, investing in infrastructure, providing rural and urban drinking water, and encouraging efficient agricultural use. It presumes that this ‘hall of fame’ approach will foster “competitive and cooperative federalism”. What emerges from the early assessment is that States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Telangana have initiated reforms for judicious water use, while populous ones such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have failed to respond to the challenge. Tamil Nadu, which has a middling score, does well on augmentation of water sources, but is abysmally poor in ensuring sustainable use for farming. The trends that the data reflect of high to extreme stress faced by 600 million people call for speedy reforms.
Two areas that need urgent measures are augmentation of watersheds that can store more good water, for use in agriculture and to serve habitations, and strict pollution control enforcement. In this context, the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board, chaired by Mihir Shah, has called for a user-centric approach to water management, especially in agriculture. It advocates decentralisation of irrigation commands, offering higher financial flows to well-performing States through a National Irrigation Management Fund. Clearly, awarding an index rank should help advance such schemes, making States feel the need to be competitive. Yet, such approaches may not resolve seemingly intractable inter-State river disputes. As the Cauvery issue has demonstrated, State governments would rather seek judicial intervention than be accused of bartering away the rights to a precious resource under a shared, cooperative framework. Groundwater extraction patterns need to be better understood through robust data collection; less than 5% of about 12 million wells are now under study. Steady urbanisation calls for a new management paradigm, augmenting sources of clean drinking water supply and treatment technologies that will encourage reuse. Pollution can be curbed by levying suitable costs. These forward-looking changes would need revamped national and State institutions, and updated laws. A legal mandate will work better than just competition and cooperation; it would make governments accountable.