India Water Challenges in the context of 2019 elections

SYNOPSIS: Everyone concerned agrees that India is facing unprecedented and worsening water crisis. Some of the key aspects of water sector challenges include: Lack of reliable water information, need for restructuring of institutions, groundwater lifeline in distress, politicians and institutions pushing more large dams when evidence shows they do not work, the need for attention to maintenance of massive water infrastructure, the increasing footprint of Urban water sector, State of our rivers in general and Ganga in particular, water management for agriculture, governance and changing climate, among others. Unfortunately, these challenges do not seem to get reflected as electoral issues and all parties are equally to be blamed for this. The current Union government has very poor report card on almost every one of the water sector challenges, and its seems like a series of missed opportunities.

It’s a strange situation. Every human being, every living being, everyday needs water for various activities. And everyone, including official agencies like the NITI Ayog accepts India is facing unprecedented, never before kind of water crisis. On top of it, a large part of western and Southern India is facing drought now. When general elections get conducted in this back drop, one would naturally accept that water scarcity, water management, water challenges would be some of the major elections issues.

Wrong, right? Don’t ask why. Because there are no easy answers.

But let us first try to paint contours of the water challenges India faces, may be that will provide some answers.

The first challenge is credible Water Information, a key ingredient that would help us know where we stand & help take right decisions. As Mihir Shah Committee Report[i] and even NITI Ayog report[ii] of June 2018 titled “Composite Water Management Index: A tool for Water Management” accepted, we are farthest from that goal. NITI Ayog report, for example said: “Data systems related to water in the country are limited in their coverage, robustness, and efficiency. First, data is often not available at the adequate level of detail. For example, water use data for domestic and industrial sectors is available at only the aggregate level, and thus provides very little information to relevant policymakers and suppliers. Second, where data is available, it is often unreliable due to the use of outdated collection techniques and methodologies.”

NITI Ayog report though did not dare to mention the main culprit here. So who is it?

That in fact takes us to the second big challenge we face in water sector: Water Institutions, whose restructuring was the subject of focus of the Mihir Shah Committee, led by Central Water Commission (CWC), Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) & Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) & Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), among others. These institutes may have slightly deferring evolution trajectory, but they show a typical top down, bureaucratic, unaccountable, non transparent and non participatory mindset.  CWC is the chief among them, is an outdated mega institution with conflict of interest among its various functions and suffering from poor credibility and outdated ideology.

As Mihir Shah Committee said in the preface of the report “A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms” dated July 2016, “Today there is an urgent need to strengthen, restructure and redesign these institutions so that the kind of leadership India’s water sector requires can be provided.” Unfortunately, the restructuring opportunity that came forward in the form of Mihir Shah Committee was lost due to many reasons, but chief being complete lack of interest, leave aside a will among the political masters.

Groundwater: India’s Water lifeline That connects with India’s next big water challenge: Groundwater. Mihir Shah Committee rightly said: “groundwater, which truly powered the Green Revolution, faces a crisis of sustainability.” In fact, groundwater is India’s water lifeline, and is going to remain for a long time to come as it already has been for decades now. But neither national policy nor national or state water resources establishment acknowledge that reality. We urgently need to acknowledge that reality, which in turn would imply that our plans, projects and programs would basically be tailored keeping that reality in mind and work to protect groundwater recharge, enhance recharge where possible and most importantly, regulate the use of groundwater.

Big Irrigation Projects But our political establishment is lured to big projects, that not only mean spending big money on such projects, but also big power and showing to people during elections that they are doing big things. Besides, as Maharashtra Irrigation Scam in 2013-15 and numerous CAG reports have shown[iii], corruption and kick backs in big irrigation projects are open secrets. That the politicians know this reality is clear when PM Modi recently asked an interesting question: Are Dams ATMs for politicians? He asked this in the context of Polavaram dam and Andhra Pradesh, but the question is equally valid for all dams. Including Sardar Sarovar Dam as the Andhra Water Resources Minister asked by way of counter to PM.[iv]

We need this debate, but this election, we wont have that honest debate, since both the initiator and responder are not particularly serious about it. Nor the media seems to have the stomach for such a debate. When will we have an honest debate that will answer this question: Are Big Dams ATM Machines for politicians?

Union Ministry of Agriculture data has also shown that the Net Area irrigation by Major and Medium Irrigation Projects (all irrigation large dams broadly come under these projects) at all India level had reached a peak of 17.7 million ha in 1990-91, and never again achieved that in over 25 years since then. In fact, the trend line is slopping down, with reduction in recent years being over 1.5 m ha from the peak[v].

Similarly, even Union Power Minister has repeatedly acknowledged on the floor of the Parliament as has almost all the power sector private companies, that big hydropower projects are no longer viable. In fact, in a rare instance where a water sector related issue becomes election issue, in General elections 2014, no less a person than Mr Modi repeatedly told the people of North East India that if they do not want big hydropower projects, his government will not build them. This issue became politically important due to the prolonged mass based struggle in Assam against the 2000 MW Lower Subansiri Hydropower project, that led to stoppage of the work on the project since December 2011. The project remains stalled till date. However, the Prime Minister during his election campaign this year retracted, saying “the northeast has the power to become new India’s energy hub and the government is working hard to develop the region to realise this dream”.[vi]

However, on the eve of the general elections, the government declared a slew of incentives for these projects[vii], while the industry lobby promptly came out with more demands, clearly showing that the package was far from sufficient to make the hydropower projects viable.[viii]

The one other instance when water related issue became an election issue happened in Maharashtra in 2015 state assembly elections. Here the Rs 70 000 crores Maharashtra irrigation scam[ix] was a major reason for the BJP-Shiv Sena victory, though it is another matter that the Devendra Fadnavis government that came to power after the elections is pushing for the same scam tainted projects[x] and have not taken any effective steps against those involved in the scam. In fact, the way the Fadnavis govt framed the issue when they cancelled the contract for the infamous Balganga project in Konkan was so erroneous that the HC appointed arbitration tribunal has set aside a notice of termination for the Balganga irrigation project in Raigad district, Maharashtra and asked the Kokan Irrigation Development Corporation to pay almost Rs 287 crore to the contractor, FA Enterprises. The amount is to be paid within 60 days. In addition, KIDC and Cidco have been directed to pay Rs 15 lakh each to F A Enterprises towards the cost of tribunal proceedings. The whole episode smells of a fixed match.[xi]

And yet the big irrigation projects, big dams, big hydropower projects, multi purpose projects and also river linking projects get pushed and not groundwater sustainability schemes. In fact, if groundwater sustainability is the officially acknowledged objective under National Water Policy, there may not be any case for big dam projects, which both directly and indirectly adversely affect the groundwater recharge and sustainability.

India has the world’s largest water infrastructure, and they are our next big challenge. As the World Bank’s 2006 report[xii] on India’s Water crisis, aptly titled, “Water: Bracing for a Turbulent Future” said, India’s water infrastructure is performing far below its optimum, since India is not allocating even a fraction of the required annual maintenance budget of USD 4 billion that it needs. We are facing all kind of Dam safety issues now, as we saw in Kerala floods in Aug 2018[xiii], among others. And the World Bank, as ever, is ready to fund more billions for the Dam Safety now, but without making the governance of the water sector democratic, more crores of rupees or even billions of dollars is not going to help. India has third largest number of big dams in the world, with increasing age of the dams, the issues of construction and operational safety are becoming more and more urgent, but India still does not have a Dam Safety Act.

Water Storage Options One of the key justifications put forward for pushing more dams in India has been the storage advocacy. There is no doubt that the water that is available mostly during the 4-month monsoon needs to be stored to make it available across the year. But big dams are not the only water storage option India has. The water storage option also includes the local water systems, the wetlands, the soil moisture and the most benign option of them, the groundwater aquifers.[xiv]

However, whenever there is push for big dams for water storage, there is no discussion on other storage options. In fact, this unjustified advocacy is one of the causes for the water crisis and farmer distress in India. This advocacy has meant complete neglect of local water systems, rivers, wetlands, forests, soil moisture and groundwater aquifers and their sustained effectiveness.

Soil Moisture thus represents another major challenge of India’s water sector. For the farmers, faced by increasingly irregular rains in changing climate, the increased capacity of soil to hold moisture is hugely useful, as also are the local water storage and sustained or enhanced groundwater levels. The capacity of the soil to store water increases when there is more carbon in the soil, and this can be achieved with use of greater organic inputs. More carbon in the soil is also great news for mitigating the climate change inducing emissions. But we have no serious schemes for achieving that from the government or any of the political parties, all swearing in the name of farmers and reducing their distress.

RIVERS No less than the current Prime Minister has acknowledged that Rivers are India’s major challenge in water sector. He promised to rejuvenate Ganga in his pre election and post election speeches. Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation Nitin Gadkari has been making rather slippery promises about the improvement in state of Ganga Pollution. During the recently concluded Ardh Kumbh mela at Prayagraj, as is the usual practice, there was improvement in Ganga water, thanks to number of temporary measures including extra water releases from the Tehri dam, stoppage of polluting industries, functioning of sewage treatment plants and even bio remediation of some of the streams. However, when the mela ended, promptly, the river was again as polluted as ever.

In fact, the state of the rivers in general and Ganga in particular represents the most spectacular failure of Modi government. The death of Prof GD Agarwal, someone who was part of the BJP fraternity and who was on fast unto death for the cause of the Ganga, without any credible response from the Modi government is another sign of their failure. The fast unto death for the cause of Ganga continues with now Swami Atmabodhanand ji on fast undo death since Oct 2018.

The Oct 2016 Ganga notification of the NDA government was indeed a positive move, which provided a possibility of a bottom up governance of the river, but the notification has never been implemented with any seriousness. Most shockingly, the apex body provided in the notification, the National Ganga Council, headed by the Prime Minister, never met. Most disturbingly, this notification in fact replaced the National Ganga River Basin Authority of 2009, which had some really independent members. The new bill had no provision of such independent minded persons.

The Ganga failure shows the complete failure of spending Rs 20 000 crores to achieve effective rejuvenating the Ganga. At the same time the government has taken up numerous massive projects that are known to harm the river, including waterways, dredging, river front development, Char Dham Highway, big hydropower projects and even interlinking of rivers like the Ken Betwa link. Most of these major interventions have been taken up without so much as any credible impact assessments, public consultations or even appraisal or statutory clearances. It possibly shows complete lack of serious intent at addressing the issues plaguing rivers in India.

There are a large number of sub issues that would need to be addressed if rivers, including Ganga is to be rejuvenated, as is indeed required. Such issues include tackling water quality, environment flow, sustainable biodiversity in the rivers, achieving sustainable sand mining, credible reservoir and flood management, among others. Its not clear if the proposed Ganga bill will address these issues, but the issues faced by Ganga are faced by almost every other river of the country. The promised Ganga Bill of course was not passed by the Parliament.

What about water smart cities? Even on an issue like Smart Cities, where the NDA government claimed a lot, we have not even heard a phrase or definition for a water smart city. The Urban water footprint is going up in leaps and bounds, in multiple ways, but we do not have any policy to guide Urban Water Sector. We urgently need a National Urban Water Policy that will provide such a guidance and also include definition of a water smart city. In recent past we saw the Chief Minister of Maharashtra singing Mumbai River Anthem with his wife, but his government was doing everything to destroy the Mumbai rivers. For example, Mumbai continues to destroy local water bodies and mangroves, not treat its sewage, not do anything seriously to harvest rainwater and in fact straighten and concretise the rivers and encroach on its floodplain. The Sabarmati River Front Development that has been touted as a success story is actually destruction of river as an ecosystem.

Some other key issues As recent CAG report has found[xv], the performance of the National Rural Drinking Water Program has been a disaster. The program spent massive Rs 82000 crores during the five years from 2012 to 2017, but could achieve coverage of additional 5.5% rural habitations. However, even at the end of 2017, 82% of rural population and 83% of rural household did not have access to adequate water supply of 55 lpcd as targeted. At least 15% of the rural schools did not have access to clean drinking water. The Audit showed failure at each stage of the program from planning, implementation, fund management, monitoring and evaluation to grievance redressal.

There are a number of other challenges that India’s water sector faces. As NDA government’s slogan of Har Khet ko pani imply, every farmer would benefit from better water management. Unfortunately, it remained only at slogan level for NDA and they continued to push mega irrigation projects rather than achieve district, block and village level water management that was promised. In this context, key is to achieve appropriate cropping pattern, but there is no move to achieve that objective.

The environmental decision making process that affect the water sector is another major mess that needs urgent attention. These issues include credible environmental and cumulative impact assessments, genuine public consultation process at multiple stages of planning and project implementation, confidence inspiring appraisal, which includes appointment of independent experts rather than yes men and women and most crucially, achieving some real monitoring and compliance. The NDA govt has been consistent in its attempt to dilute the whole process rather than strengthen it.

Climate Scientists have been telling us, “Water and weather, the delicate balance between evaporation and precipitation, is the primary cycle through which climate change is felt. As our climate changes, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, sea-level rise and storms intensify or alter, often with severe consequences.” These impacts are already being felt, most importantly by the farmers, fisher-people, coastal residents, tribals and mountain people, but the government has neither recognised them as climate victims, nor made any provisions for providing justice to them for the impacts they are suffering for no fault of theirs. Less said about our preparedness, the better.

The biggest overarching issue is addressing democratic deficit in our water governance, by making the governance transparent, accountable and participatory. The first step in tackling this would be recognition of this reality as a problem, we have yet to accept that. This would be required in every subsector of the water governance, including in management of rivers, groundwater, floods, environment, biodiversity, among others.

In the end, there is no doubt that the current government has pathetic track record in almost every aspect of water sector. It’s largely been a story of missed opportunities. At best, the government has been expert at name plate changing and event management. Unfortunately, the only defense the govt has when confronted about its pathetic track record is: did Congress do any better? That is clearly not a good enough answer either for India’s water future or for any of the citizens who will go out to vote.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)

NOTE: An edited version of this was published in Economic and Political Weekly dated April 13, 2019, see: https://www.epw.in/journal/2019/15/commentary/challenges-water-governance.html

  1. The Election manifestos of the ruling BJP or the Congress does not reflect the seriousness of the water issue, though unfortunately, BJP continues to push for disastrous River Linking Program, while Congress has said they oppose this. 


[i] http://mowr.gov.in/sites/default/files/Report_on_Restructuring_CWC_CGWB_0.pdf

[ii] http://niti.gov.in/writereaddata/files/document_publication/2018-05-18-Water-Index-Report_vS8-compressed.pdf

[iii] https://sandrp.in/2019/01/28/will-cag-reports-of-irrigation-sector-in-2018-help-improve-performance/

[iv] https://sandrp.in/2019/04/08/drp-news-bulletin-8-april-2019-pm-modi-asks-are-dams-atm-for-politicians/

[v] https://sandrp.in/2018/03/29/aibp-just-a-pack-of-unverifiable-claims-or-worse/

[vi] https://energy.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/oil-and-gas/pm-modi-says-northeast-can-develop-into-new-indias-energy-hub/68652296

[vii] http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=189300

[viii] https://sandrp.in/2019/03/11/drp-news-bulletin-11-march-2019-new-subsidies-wont-help-unviable-big-hydro-timing-shows-big-dams-pushed-for-political-economy/

[ix] The irrigation scam of course has a history. in 1996, BJP Sena state government’s role in Krishna Khore project has to be looked into.

[x] In fact, soon after Nitin Gadkari became India’s Water Resources Minister in early Sept 2017 replacing Sushri Uma Bharti, one of the very first trip of Gadkari was to Mumbai to offer Rs 55000 crore package to Maharashtra for the same scam tainted irrigation projects, see for example: https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/gadkari-s-55-000-crore-irrigation-boost-for-maharashtra/story-CjobINxbYEw1oT8yMHYeHI.html

[xi] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/government-scrapped-dam-project-illegally-tribunal/articleshow/68804854.cms

[xii] http://web.worldbank.org/archive/website01291/WEB/0__CO-64.HTM

[xiii] https://sandrp.in/2018/10/04/role-of-dams-in-keralas-2018-floods/ and https://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2018_53/38/CM_LIII_38_220918_Himanshu_Thakkar.pdf

[xiv] https://sandrp.in/2018/07/13/how-india-measures-water-storages/

[xv] https://sandrp.in/2019/01/29/cag-on-national-rural-water-pgm-poor-results-from-rs-82000-crores-expenditure/

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