National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by BJP’s Mr. Narendra Modi has been given a mandate to govern India for the next five years. Without going into the political and social facets related to this issue, there are a number of justifiable concerns about this government’s stand on critical issues of water and environment.
While the importance of water and environment sectors for the people, their livelihoods, society and economy is acknowledged, how crucial these sectors are for them is not easily appreciated. For example, environment is important not only for tigers and trees, but also for livelihoods of hundreds of millions of Indians who depend on natural resources. More than 60-65% Indians continue to depend on agriculture and every farm can benefit from better water resource management.
Some of the major challenges plaguing the water and environment sectors in India include: urgent need for an inclusive, democratic and accountable governance, holistic assessment of impacts the very many interventions in the Himalayas (lessons from Uttarakhand flood disaster of June 2013), ecological restoration of Ganga and other rivers, dealing with climate change in a way that protects lives and livelihoods of the vulnerable sections, etc., to name a few.
The leaders of the party forming the new government have already declared their agenda in terms of completion of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on Narmada, pushing interlinking of rivers (ILR), pushing for more dams in the name of irrigation, pushing big hydropower projects in North East India (Mr Modi had said in his campaign that NE is heaven for hydropower projects) and mega industrial initiatives like the Delhi Mumbai Investment Corridor.
This agenda indicates that the importance of water and environment to the vast millions is not understood. Nor is the significance of the challenges to this sector appreciated. Pushing the above agenda is not only fraught with serious risks in terms of social, environmental, economic and interstate issues, but these projects are not likely to deliver the promise of this party at the elections: Better life, more jobs, more development, fulfillment of basic needs of the people who do not have access to these at the moment. Pushing this agenda is not likely to deliver stated promises, however blind push for more and bigger projects will compound strife and conflicts.
Let us look at the issues related to the NDA Agenda. These are not incidental issues, but issues inherent to the nature of these centralized, mega projects themselves.
Does ILR have scientific basis? The basic premise of ILR is that certain basins are water surplus and others are water deficit. It is assumed that occurrence of floods in a basin means there is surplus water in the basin and occurrence of drought or water scarcity in other basin means it is water deficit. This premise itself is not scientifically, ecologically and socially robust.
While this is said, there is no attempt at assessing and exhausting the available water options in any basin in India. Twithout this exercise, there can be no scientific basis for declaring a basin surplus or deficit. The ILR advocates seem to ignore the reality that India’s water lifeline is groundwater and the best way to sustain groundwater is through local water systems and recharge. They also seem to ignore the massive social, environmental impacts and constitutional issues. ILR is basically a collection of large number of major irrigation projects (over 84), but proponents of ILR do not seem to realize that in last two decades, there has been no addition to net irrigated area by these projects, in spite of addition of thousands of new projects.
“Sabarmati Model” holds no water for Ganga or other rivers During the elections in Varanasi constituency that elected Mr Modi, the issue of cleaning of Ganga remained prominent. BJP claimed that they will clean up Ganga at Varanasi the way they cleaned up Sabarmati River that flows through Ahmedabad in Gujarat. The trouble with this claim is that Sabarmati has not been cleaned up at all. The water flowing through Sabarmati as it flows through the city of Ahmedabad is actually the water of Narmada River, diverted into Sabarmati. Ahmedabad has no right over this water which was supposed to be meant for Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. If you go upstream along Sabarmati River from the point where Narmada Main Canal releases water in Sabarmati, you will see the reality of dry Sabarmati River. And if you go down to the Vasna barrage, downstream of Ahmedabad along the Sabarmati, you will see the state of polluted Sabarmati River. This model clearly holds no water either for Ganga or any other river.
River Ministry? There is speculation in media that the new NDA government is going to create a new River Ministry at the centre. The same media report also stated that this ministry will push Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR)! This seems like a proposal for Ministry of River Destruction, since ILR is a recipe for destruction of rivers. If at all the new government is interested in an act of goodwill towards rivers, it needs to start with understanding what is a river and what are its various functions along the various stretches during various periods, including the social, ecological, economic, hydrological, geo morphological, biodiversity related, groundwater related and most importantly, livelihoods related functions. This exercise will mean understanding the roles of various arms of the government which affect the river. Some key ministries which affect river profoundly include: Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ministry of Power, Ministry of Urban Affairs, Ministry of Rural Development, Ministry of Home Affairs (Disaster Management), Ministry of Agriculture, Department of North East Region, Ministry of Non Conventional Sources of Energy, to name only a few. How is this new proposed Ministry of River Going to coordinate with these ministries? Moreover, according to India’s constitution, Rivers are essentially state subjects and no state is likely to welcome such infringement of centre into what the states see as their domain of responsibility.
Ganga a National Project? There are statements from Mr Amit Shah, that the new government will give National status to the Ganga Project. It is not clear what is meant by this. Ganga is already under the Prime-Minister headed National Ganga River Basin Authority, but the Authority, five years after its constitution, has failed to change a single attribute affecting the Ganga. Similarly, Ganga River Basin Management Plan that IIT consortium is working on is already known to be pathetic in its understanding of the river, while pushing for privatization. We do not need another project in the name of Ganga, national or local. If the aim of declaring Ganga as a National Project is to wrest its control from the state, as the media suggests, then it is going to raise a lot of hackles.
What we need is a new approach to river governance, which is based on ecological, and not engineering principles, which is participatory, and not exclusive and which is democratic and not autocratic.
Himalayas & Hydro-onslaught Irrefutable evidence shows that building large number of major hydropower projects in Himalayas is having unprecedented impacts, some are known, many are unknown. The flawed environmental governance around these projects is well known in terms of dishonest EIAs, flawed and compromised appraisals, ineffective (these are consultations just in the namesake, in reality there is no basis for informed participation) public hearing and non-existent compliance, both at project and cumulative level. One implication of this was felt in terms of the role of such projects in the Uttarakhand flood disaster of June 2013, after which, no political leader from any party spoke about this. It was left to the Supreme Court to order and enquiry into this. The report of this investigation clearly indicates the role of hydropower projects in increasing the proportions of the disaster, and more work on this issue remains to be done. In North East itself, India’s biggest mass based public agitation against dams & hydropower projects has been going on. The anger of people has led to stoppage of the work on 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydropower project (largest capacity hydropower project under implementation in India) for 30 months now, after over Rs 5000 crores were irresponsibly spent by NHPC without completing even basic studies. Mindless pushing of more such projects in the region is clearly not a prudent move.
BJP manifesto’s promise of expeditious and single window environment clearances is clearly dangerous in this context. What India needs is stronger and not weaker environmental governance. The advocacy to “reduce time and transaction costs for the industry” under the circumstances seems inappropriate particularly from an organisation which was possibly the only environmental organisation represented on the completely flawed EIA registration process at Quality Council of India. The QCI process failed to achieve any improvement in the quality of EIA in almost 4 years of its existence
Sardar Sarovar Dam The new government wants to take the SSP Dam from its current height of 121.92 m to its final design height of 138.68 m. Firstly, there are serious doubts if this height increase is required since it can be shown that Gujarat and Rajasthan can get their share of water from Narmada without this increase in height. Secondly, Gujarat is not even in a position to use more than 20% of the water it already gets from the river at current height of the dam for the purposes for which the project was designed: providing water for the drought affected regions in Kutch, Saurashtra & North Gujarat. On the other hand, urban centres, industrials areas, SEZs, cosmetic river beautification schemes have appropriated a large chunk of SSP waters without legal, democratic sanction or justification. Gujarat really does not have a case for increasing the height of SSP Dam.
Moreover, this will also entail such massive additional submergence, displacement and disruption of lives of tribals and farmers that it is sure to create huge opposition. The just rehabilitation of already affected people is far from complete, in fact, most of the affected population has not been given minimum 2 ha of land required under the Narmada Tribunal award and subsequent accepted policies.
Mr Modi during his tenure of 13 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat failed to complete the canal network of SSP in the drought prone areas in whose name the project has always been justified. It needs to be noted that the agitation against SSP did not stop Gujarat government from going ahead with construction of canal network. It was not for lack of finances that SSP could not complete the canal network. SSP has been getting largest quantum of money from the Government of India’s Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme ever since the AIBP scheme started in 1996. This support to SSP from AIBP was clearly wrong since SSP was never the last mile project for which AIBP was meant, but the big dam lobby in Union Water Resources ministry and Gujarat government were hand in glove in this misallocation of AIBP money for SSP. In fact, Mr Modi arm-twisted the Planning Commission in 2011-12 to sanction the escalated costs for SSP even when the issues raised by Planning Commission officers remained unanswered.
It is the ineptitude of Gujarat Government under Mr Modi that is on show in why it could not complete the canal network on drought prone areas in Gujarat. Mr Modi would do well to remember the reasons for that failure before he considers the mega projects agenda as Prime Minister.
Moreover, on SSP, the issues of completing repairs of the damages the Sardar Sarovar dam structure suffered four years ago & related issue of safety of the dam are yet to be resolved and Gujarat has embarked on building another Garudeshwar Dam in immediate downstream without any impact assessments, participatory democratic process or required sanctions. The legality of the Garudeshwar Dam work stands challenged in the National Green Tribunal by the affected tribals.
MAJOR RISKS FOR NEW GOVERNMENT Some major risks for the new government include: the track record of Gujarat government that Mr Modi headed for the last 13 years; no checks from coalition of parties; poor image, strength, morale and track record of Congress as the chief opposition party; large sections of almost completely subservient media and BJP’s problematic manifesto.
Why UPA faced people’s anger The new government also needs to remember why the outgoing ruling coalition of UPA (United Progressive Alliance) lost so badly in spite of some unprecedentedly remarkable, and pro people steps taken by it. Absence of accountable and participatory governance (which also manifested in terms numerous scams) was one of the major reasons as to why there was huge anger in people’s mind about the UPA regime. Another aspect of corruption and high-handedness was apparent in the scandalous way UPA dealt with governance of environmental issues: blatantly changing its environment ministers from bad to worse.
Even if we leave aside the Rajas and Balus of UPA I, the UPA II began on a positive note with appointment of Mr Jairam Ramesh as environment minister. While we had our share of criticism of functioning of Mr Ramesh as environment minister, he was possibly the best environment minister India have had.
But under pressure from misguided and misinformed corporate vested interests, Mr Ramesh was removed (kicked upstairs) and Mrs Jayanthi Natarajan was brought in. She did not really help the cause of environment as is apparent, for example, from her answers to the two debates on Ganga river in Parliament (these debates were unprecedented in their own right) as also sanctioning projects rejected by statutory bodies like Forest Advisory Committee.
Strangely, she too was removed to bring in disastrously, Mr Veerappa Moily, who also held the Oil and Petroleum ministry. Mr Moily then went about the designated task of green lighting everything, not bothering about governance issues, people’s concerns or environmental consequences. This led to massive anger anger against Moily as well as UPA.
Such arrogant handling of governance of environmental issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of most vulnerable sections of people was bound to be punished. This is clearly another reason behind the anger of people that UPA government faced in the elections.
Playing favorites UPA is also guilty of playing favorites when it came to appointing non governmental persons in environmental decision making. In almost every committee on environmental decision making, including Prime Ministers’ Council on Climate Change, National Tiger Task Force, Coastal Zone Management Committee, National Ganga Authority, Inter Ministerial Group on Ganga, Western Ghats Task Force, QCI process on registration of EIA consultants, 12th Plan working Groups to name only a few, everywhere one could find representatives of only particular organisation. Leaving aside the issue of effectiveness of the role played by representatives from this organisation, such tendencies of playing favorites is bound to raise serious questions. While many people at grassroots may not be aware of this inappropriate action by UPA government, the resultant outcomes of these committee invited various reactions ranging from disbelief, anger and even an uproar, as it happened in case of Kasturirangan Committee on Western Ghats.
While the result of anger of the voters could be seen in decimation of the UPA in the elections, the new NDA government will also do well to remember that even the Vajpayee government was voted out in 2004 for similar reasons. The mindless pursuit of agenda of inter linking of rivers and 50000 MW Hydropower initiatives, disregarding all the concerns and protests of the people across the country, along with the rejection of India Shining campaign were some of the causes for the voting out of the previous NDA regime in 2004.
SOME SPECIFIC TASKS In what follows we have given several examples of specific tasks before the new government. This is not an exhaustive, but only an indicative list.
Ganga Action Plan, Rivers Action Plans, NGBRA, CPCB, SPCBs Mr Modi has said that he would like to give priority to cleaning of Ganga River. Any such effort has any chance of success only if there is an attempt at understanding why our efforts at river pollution for the last 40 years have shown no impact:
Þ Water Pollution Control Act, 1974 The Water Pollution Control Act led to setting up a huge and powerful bureaucracy including Central and state pollution control boards. 40 years after setting up of this whole institutional and legal infrastructure, we do not have a single that this establishment can claim to have cleaned up.
Þ Ganga Action Plan, 1986 This plan was launched with much fanfare by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, but without trying to understand why the water pollution bureaucracy failed.
Þ National River Conservation Authority 1994 This authority, the only institution in the name or river conservation in India, had Prime Minister of India, no less, its chairman. In ten years of UPA, the Prime Minister of India did not get time for a single meeting of this authority.
Þ GAP II 2000 The second phase of GAP was launched, again without making any honest attempt at understanding the failure of GAP I.
Þ NGBRA 2009 In Feb 2009, just before the last parliamentary elections, National Ganga River Basin Authority, again under Prime Minister. As noted earlier, this too has failed to make any impact on the state of Ganga.
What all this shows is that we have tried many things, including legal, institutional, financial, and authoritative, with Prime Minister at the helm, but have achieved no success. This is also true of the previous NDA regime during 1998-2006. If we do not make an honest attempt at understanding the reasons for these failures, there is little hope for success in future. The efforts at river cleaning has not suffered due to lack of money (over Rs 20 000 crores have been spent on Ganga alone, as per one estimate), for lack of institutions, for lack of political attention, for lack of media attention, for lack of judicial attention, for lack of infrastructure [where infrastructure exists (e.g. Delhi with the highest Sewage Treatment Capacity], there too there is no change in state of river), or technology. One major reason for the failure was the complete disconnect between the people whose lives depend on the river and those who took the decisions or managed the system. In other words, unless you make the river governance more democratic, there is no hope for Ganga or other rivers.
Some basic steps to make governance of rivers democratic could include: Setting up of management committee (with 50% independent members from outside the government) for management of each Sewage Treatment Plant, each freshwater treatment plant, each tributary, each 10 km stretch of river, each water utility, each city (& sub city level where cities have population above 1 lakh). These committees should be legally empowered and the officials should be made responsible to these committees.
Jayanthi Tax In this regard, it would be useful to remember that during the election campaign, Mr Modi had accused Mrs Jayanthi Natarajan for collecting Jayanthi Tax as environment Minister, allegedly for collecting bribes for environment clearances. This was a very serious charge Mr Modi had leveled. Now that he heads the new government at centre, he must institute a credible enquiry into this charge to prove that he was not making just frivolous statements.
Maharashtra Irrigation Scam One state that has given NDA the highest number of seats after Uttar Pradesh is Maharashtra, the NDA coalition got 42 of 48 seats in this state. One of the major reasons for this debacle of UPA was that the UPA here got a very corrupt image, in spite of its Chief Minister having a relatively clean image. This was largely due to the massive Rs 70 000 crores irrigation scam in that state. The NDA partners in Maharashtra also played a role in exposing this corruption, although the top brass of NDA was also allegedly involved in the scandal. To this corrupt image was added the arrogance shown, for example, by deputy Chief Minister (who resigned on charges of corruption, but came back even without any investigation into the charges) when he first asked how are people expecting him to give water from dams – by urinating in the dams? During elections he actually threatened a village that water will be cut off if they do not vote for his party! This combination of corruption and arrogance was sufficient to enrage the voters.
Here again one expects the NDA government at centre to take decisive credible action in exposing the guilty in Maharashtra irrigation scam and brining to book those who are responsible both among the politicians and bureaucrats-engineers. Here, as BJP spokespersons in Maharashtra have been saying, the Madhav Chitale committee has basically done white washing role and hence we need an independent investigation. We hope NDA government at centre will take this up urgently.
Andhra Pradesh Irrigation Scam Similar action is also required in Andhra Pradesh Irrigation scam exposed by the CAG report.
AIBP As noted above, the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Program has majorly failed in achieving any additional net irrigation area by major projects at national level. The CAG has noted in more than one report the failure of AIBP and so has the Planning Commission. The new NDA government could start with instituting a credible independent enquiry into the reasons for failure of this scheme.
Uttarakhand Disaster and role of hydropower projects Following the worst ever disaster faced by the state of Uttarakhand in June 2013, the role played by indiscriminate construction of hydropower projects and other infrastructure needed to be investigated since prime facie they had played significant role in increasing the proportions of disaster. The UPA government did nothing, and it was left to the Supreme Court to ask MoEF to set up an Expert Body for this. In the meantime, SC ordered stay on any more projects. The MoEF along with Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority and the Congress’s Uttarakhand state government, have been trying to push more projects in stead of honoring the Apex Court orders. In April 2014, the report of Expert Body lead by Dr Ravi Chopra has been submitted. The new Union government, it is hoped, will take credible steps to implement the recommendations of the Expert Body at the earliest date.
Independent National Environment Monitor It is well known that MoEF as an independent environmental regulator is seriously compromised with shoddy EIAs, flawed appraisal and non existent compliance. This situation has remained unchanged for the last decade and more. The Supreme Court of India, seeing this, had in 2011 ordered that an Independent Environment Regulator needs to be set up at National and state level. The outgoing central government had shown reluctance to do anything in this regard, in spite of repeated Supreme Court orders. The new government has a historical opportunity to indeed set up a truly independent & accountable environment regulator, at the same time increasing the transparency and participation of people in the environmental governance through fresh round of democratic reforms.
Cabinet Committee on Investment One of the flawed legacy of the previous UPA government is the Cabinet Committee on Investment, which has been created to bypass the statutory work of the MoEF. The new Union government would do well to disband this extra legal committee.
Polavaram Project Authority Even as elections were underway, in a most inappropriate decision, the outgoing government set up a Polvaram Project Authority, without even consulting affected states of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. In both these states there is either BJP government or BJP led government. There are also cases going on against this project, including civil suits filed by the governments of Chhattisgarh and Orissa. In the interest of these states and affected tribals, the new Union Government should scrap the Polavaram Project Authority.
Mullaperiyar The 119 year old Mullaperiyar dam has already suffered damages in the past and there is no doubt that it has limited life. To overcome the inflexible attitude of Tamil Nadu and respecting the constitutional duty of Kerala government to protect the life and property of people of Kerala, it become the duty of the Union government to initiate process for new a arrangement (e.g. lower the intake level to 50 ft from current 106 ft, as seen promising both by the Empowered Body and Supreme Court in May 2014) and decommissioning of the dam in a time bound manner. The previous Union government completely failed in this and the new government has an opportunity to correct this.
Central Water Commission Central Water Commission is India’s premier technical body on water resources. Water resources development and management has always remained crucial to any country’s water, food, livelihood and environment security. However, for this we need a really independent and credible technical body at the top, on the lines of United States Geological Survey (USGS). USGS, is known to be source of very reliable water resources data world over. However, USGS’s main task is to gather data and put it in public domain. Use of that data for development tasks and such other functions are not the mandate of USGS, there are other bodies for that. Unfortunately in India, CWC tasked with data gathering, sanctioning projects, monitoring and so many other contradictory functions. Moreover, CWC is working more like a big dam lobby, and even the assessment of hydrological data, flood forecasting functioning, water use data and projections, climate change implications, dam safety issues, etc are all getting colored by the lobbying tendency of those who head CWC. This is having a very deleterious effect on the water resources development and management in India.
It is high time that there are reforms in CWC to separate its various contradictory functions and make its functioning transparent, accountable and participatory. The new Union government has a chance to initiate such reforms in CWC and Ministry of Water Resources.
Technical Advisory Committee of CWC The TAC of CWC is a very little known, but powerful body. It sanctions projects worth thousands of crores every year, but its functioning is completely non transparent, unaccountable and it has no independent members. Since the new government has been raising the issue of corruption by UPA during the election campaign, it is hoped that the new government will work to fight corruption and one of the key steps it can do is to make the functioning of TAC transparent, accountable and ensure that at least 50% members of the TAC are non governmental, independent people with track record of having shown independent mind.
Urban Water Sector The social, environmental, economic and carbon footprint of this sector increasing at huge pace, without any success story in sight. The big cities are find it easy to promote construction of big dams rather than go for rain water harvesting, sewage water treatment & recycle, demand side measurement, groundwater recharge, reduction in losses and such other measures. SANDRP report on unjustified dams being pushed in Mumbai highlights this issue. The 12th Plan Working Group report on Urban water issues have several useful recommendations that has remained unimplemented. These need to be urgently implemented.
Climate Change Climate change in the biggest threat that vulnerable sections of Indian people face, as do the vulnerable sections of the rest of the world. This is not only relevant for water and environment sectors that we are discussing here, but for all sectors. As Environmental Groups in Gujarat have noted, people of Gujarat do not have good experience of the Modi regime in the state. The record of the 10 year long UPA government is very poor on this issue. We hope the new Union government will do better and begin with identification of the sections of the people who are vulnerable and start working on action plan to address the concerns of such sections, while also reducing the carbon footprint of India through reduction in consumption patterns of richer sections.
Suggestions for positive actions As analysed by Dr. Ashok Gulati (former chairman of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices) and Dr. Tushar Shah (International Water Management Institute) separately, the relatively high agricultural growth in Gujarat in first decade of current millennium was largely due to local water harvesting work that happened in Gujarat through check dams, groundwater recharge etc, largely in non governmental sector. The new government at centre can bring about changes in policies and programs to learn lessons from such success stories to achieve such results all over India.
- Similarly on the issue or river rejuvenation, management and conservation front as also environmental management front, a decentralized bottom up community driven approach can be taken up.
- It can encourage people led, scientific and ecological river restoration work.
- Promote System of Rice Intensification in a major way, it can not only reduce water use, fertiliser use, use of other chemicals, reduce seed requirement, increase farmers’ income, reduce agriculture sector’s carbon footprint and thus help mitigate and also adaptation to changing climate. This is possible in other crops too, as has been demonstrated at farmer level.
- Encourage measures that can help increase carbon content of the soil, this will also have multiple benefits to farmers, economy and environment.
- It can strengthen implementation of Forest Rights Act which UPA, despite introducing it, failed to do.
- It can protect free flowing rivers for their social, ecological, cultural values.
- It can also engage more effectively with civil society and community groups in a credible manner.
- A recent SANDRP study “Shrinking and Sinking Deltas: Role of Large Dams” has shown that large dams are playing big role in sinking of deltas in India. This is not even properly studied. The new government can initiate a scientific study in this regard and ensure that before taking up any new project, this aspect is studied.
Conclusion I started writing this brief note following questions from several media friends, but it has become much longer! So let us come to the conclusion. I am not even sure if the new government is in any mood to listen to such unsolicited suggestions, but let us put it out and hope for the best! I decided to put this out, even as Mr Modi prepares to take office on May 26.
This article tries to show the risks, challenges and some immediate tasks of the new government at the centre. In sum, the new NDA government would do well not to forget the reasons for rejection of NDA in 2004 and UPA now in 2014. Both were guilty of bull dozing ahead with their agendas without listening to the people. Avoiding that may be the biggest challenge this government faces, besides the specific ones mentioned above.
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
 https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/veerappa-moily-as-environment-minister-has-the-upa-leadership-learnt-no-lessons-from-aap-experience/ and https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/01/03/open-letter-to-upa-leadership-please-remove-mr-moily-from-paryavaran-bhawan/
 For example, Dakshin Kannada and Mangalore saw a huge socio-political movement against Moily and Congress due to his politically motivated support to Yettinahole Diversion Project.
 https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/why-sit-under-dr-chitale-should-be-taken-seriously/ and https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/vijay-pandhares-letter-to-dr-chitale-please-fix-responsibility-of-the-irregularities/
 The numerous suggestions given by Ms Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP are gratefully acknowledged.