CGWB · CWC - Central Water Commission

Can Outdated Water Institutes steer India out of dire crisis?

As even NITI Aayog report acknowledged in June 2018[i], there is consensus that India is facing dire water crisis, which will only get worse. This was also predicted by the World Bank way back in their 2006 report called “India’s Turbulent Water Future”. But do we have the institutions that are capable of taking us out of this crisis? Remember the current institutes are at the root of our water crisis.

Imagine you have to forecast flood using a mathematical model run on a Pentium processor; or manage your office with typewriters instead of a desktop! How frustrating isn’t it, to manage an office with the near obsolete typewriter or run a flood forecasting model using outdated Pentium processor?

The government and the NITI Aayog, in the June 2018 report, by not pointing the finger at our water institutes as the root of our crisis, seem happy to manage our water resources with organizations that were created in British era and still seem to have the 19th century mindset?

Central Water Commission (CWC)[ii], the premier technical water organization at the union government, was created in British era i.e. 1945 (the name then was different, but the institute was essentially the same)2, and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the premier technical body in ground water resources was established in 1970[iii]. And the Central Water Engineering Service (CWES) of the union government, the only organized water resources cadre in India, was created in 1960s[iv].

Almost all the water resources organizations under the state or union government are either created at the time of independence or an extension of the format with same big project centric mindset, top down approach and hierarchy with master-slave relationship widely prevalent during British era.

It was an era when India was riddled with prospects of famine, hunger, food insecurity, malnourishment and poverty. Agriculture yields and Irrigation development was low. Dams were less than 350 in 1945 in comparison to over 5700 today. Groundwater use was not that widespread. So, building dams with canal irrigation was seen as a necessity, then.

Environment governance was not so developed, the awareness about impacts and need for environment flows were much lower. No conjunctive use of surface and ground water and finally no climate change discourse. The objectives and goals of water resources development were different 7 decades ago, though there were protests against dams right from the beginning of 20th Century, for example, the Mulshi Satyagraha or letters written by Miraben against Bhakra dam to the then Prime Minister Nehru.

But, everything changed over time. Life styles changed, the demand for water rose, as net sown area expanded to 141 million hectares. Water conflicts between competing users and due to dam based development increased. And water quality declined across India’s rivers and aquifers and continued to decline post passage of Water Pollution Act of 1974 and setting up of Central and State Pollution Control Boards, which are also essentially modeled on centralised, non-participatory CWC.

Technology kept changing with times; so were water users, beneficiaries and stakeholders changed with times. But the British era CWC or CGWB with 20th century format did not change. Being premier water technical organizations at the union government, both should have led from the front in bringing institutional reforms so as to usher similar reforms at the level of the state and local governments.

The civil engineers dominating CWC refused to change and in fact they opposed institutional reforms to CWC, so much that even the relatively milder reforms suggested by Mihir Shah Committee were rejected by CWC[v]. The scientists at CGWB, even after the Supreme Court order of Dec 1996 asking for setting up of Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) to regulate groundwater, made it a licensing body, resulting in the creation of an institutional vacuum in managing the multi-disciplinary challenges of water sector of the 21st century.

Poor functioning of water organizations The mission statement available on the website of CWC reads: To promote integrated and sustainable development and management of India’s water resources by using state-of-the-art technology and competency and by coordinating all stakeholders. The vision of CGWB states: Sustainable development and management of ground water resources of the country.

The three National Water Policies – 1987, 2002 and 2012 devised by CWC in association with CGWB declare that there should be an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to planning and formulation of projects; planning, development and management of water resources based on hydrological unit, integrating water resources institutions at various levels…etc. We see little of this in functioning of CWC and CGWB.

In contrast, the manner in which civil engineers are inducted into Central Water Engineering Service is flawed and runs contrary to all that is stated in water policies and mission statements.

The common engineering service exam is not water specific[vi]. Most of the time, aspirants of railways or roads or buildings end up in water sector, leading to a frequent situation of “rejects” ending up managing water organizations.

How can CWC in the current format with such CWES candidates, most of whose priority is something else promote integration, sustainable development and management of India’s water resources? Particularly when they have no background of such integration, sustainable development and management of water resources never learnt by civil engineers or taught in any of the civil engineering course even in institutes like IITs and NITs?

How can the non-passionate civil engineers understand that the water is embedded in the ecosystem and promote integration and sustainable development of water resources? How can they practice democratic governance when they have been unable to create even credible water information system like what Andhra Pradesh has demonstrated through APWRIMS[vii]?

Aren’t today’s civil engineers and ground water scientists obsolete like the erstwhile typewriter or Pentium processor and therefore woefully incapable of managing the mounting challenges of water sector in 21st century? So, how can such premier water organizations of union government inspire water sector institutional reforms across the country? And since they are the leaders and role models for states, where is the hope for innovation at state levels too?

Central Water Commission – an expert technical organization?

In the 1940s and 1950s, dam building was the pinnacle of advanced technology. It was then somewhat like today’s AI, robotics and machine language. But as time progressed, technology changed.  Most of the technologies of 1950s have now become obsolete.

Even as challenges and understanding of water sector changed, Central Water Commission failed to catch-up or change its dealing with water management, and failed to develop any management paradigm or water governance paradigm in the last 70 years; rather a series of management failures or lack of leadership or lack of innovation has been evident in the form of mounting water scarcity, water conflicts, crisis, failure of disaster management and deteriorating water quality in 21st century India.

Today, even dam building skills of CWC is available to many others, due to which its claim to technical superiority even in dams and canal engineering has long been lost.

Today India possess over 5700 large dams, many of which are deteriorating. Dams are no longer the main stay of even irrigation as their live storage continues to decline due to siltation, 60 % – 65 % of Indian agriculture is dependent on groundwater, and large dams are no longer viable for even hydropower. We need a different set of skills for dam decommissioning and managing water resources as ecosystems. The CWC and its civil engineers have been incapable of addressing these challenges. So, why are we persisting with obsolete institutions and propelling the country further into dire water crisis in 21st century?

CWC an advisory body for states?

A look at the transparency levels in governance of Central Water Commission, leave aside question of participatory management or accountability, should be eye opener. For example, CWC, so far, has hesitated to put the criteria of arriving at the “benefit-cost ratio” of thousands of dam projects and their methodologies and assessments in public domain. (Benefit-cost ratio of the various water resources projects is the crucial parameter based on which large dams and canals have been approved across India).

The assessment of social and environment costs remain absent without which the assessment is unscientific and arbitrary, rivers in fact have zero value in the CWC scheme of things. The mistrust and water conflicts arise between stakeholders due to the lack of transparency and outdated colonial formats and governance that doesn’t help address challenges of water sector. This has exacerbated the water crisis across India.

The state and local government often look forward to centre for the role of leadership for better water management in their respective regions. Instead of providing leadership, the civil engineers of Central Water Commission, quite often duck behind the excuse of the constitutional position of “Water” being state subject or stating Central Water Commission is only advisory body!

Why does this country need such an advisory body that has no capacity to learn or innovate and has such flawed governance and also recruitment system, hiding behind excuses and presenting such a poor example of water governance and leadership to states, local governments and society in general?

To illustrate, when mismanagement of dams exacerbated the flood disasters in several cases including in Kerala in 2018, CWC in fact rushed to protect the dam operators by stating that dams had minor role in the floods[viii] without revealing the nature of application of rule curves by dam operators, without explaining why there was no initiative of flood and inflow forecasting in Kerala even after 7 decades.

When Bihar requested assessment of silt and role of Farakka in the flood disaster that it repeatedly faces, CWC appointees in the committee failed to disclose in public domain, the scientific assessment of basin-wide silt deposited in Ganga basin including tributaries of Ganga, the plan form dynamics, the avulsion threshold of Ganga river and its tributaries and their channel migration, the type of hydro-dynamic model such as 1D, 2D etc., and the model limitations.[ix]

The Dam Safety Bill introduced in the Parliament in Dec 2018, 32 years after CWC first noted the need for such a bill proposes a close club of people to remain in dam safety mechanisms that actually requires independent people. While CWC saw conflict of interest in state government being on regulatory mechanism like dam safety[x], it did not see the conflict of interest in CWC itself being in charge of the Dam Safety authority. The bill itself lapsed without passage and dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.

What India needs India with its diverse and dire water challenges needs fresh institutions infused with a new multi-disciplinary paradigm in order to avert cataclysmic consequences due to mismanagement, inability to deal with ecosystem functions of water resources, dealing with water scarcity, water conflicts, floods and droughts and failure of water governance. Today there is an institutional vacuum in water sector of India to overcome these 21st century water challenges.

This is because water organizations across union, state and local governments are obsolete as dams and canal engineering alone cannot solve the complex water challenges of 21st century. And the governance, within these water organizations, is outdated due to the widely prevalent master-slave relationships that persecute the feedback and criticism within the organizations (a contradiction to participatory management professed in water policies and mission statements) and not allowing any place for independent thinking in functioning of CWC, thus destroying the merit, capacity to learn and innovation vital for water governance. Therefore, the water organizations with 20th century technology and management need to be urgently dissolved and entirely a new set of water organizations should be created in their place.

In this regard, the union government has to take a lead by replacing the outdated uni-disciplinary civil engineering dominated Central Water Commission and scientist dominated Central Ground Water Board as these organizations have now transformed into stumbling block for efficient water management. One of the many steps required is that the civil engineers of Central Water Commission should be urgently replaced with a multi-disciplinary work force recruited through a separate water specific UPSC exam.

Himanshu Thakkar (SANDRP, Harsha (Director, Central Water Commission,

Note 1. Views expressed are personal.

  1. An edited version of this was published in ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, Vol. 54, Issue No. 9, 02 Mar, 2019, see:


[i] NITI Aayog. (2018). Composite Water Management Index – A national tool for water measurement, management and improvement. Government of India: New Delhi

[ii] Central Water Commission website

[iii] Central Ground Water Board website

[iv] Ministry of Water Resources. (2011). Restructuring of Central Water Commission. Volume-II. Government of India: New Delhi

[v] Parsai, G. 2016. Central Water Commission Up in Arms Over Report Calling for its Restructuring. The Wire.

[vi] Union Public Service Commission. (2017). Examination Notice. No-1/2018-Engg. New Delhi


[viii] Central Water Commission. (2018). Kerala Floods of August 2018 – Study Report.  Government of India: New Delhi

[ix] Khan. M.I. (2018). Expert Committee sheds light on Bihar’s mounting silt crisis. Down to Earth.

[x] See CWC member saying exactly that in a Rajyasabha TV program at 09.35 minutes:

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