Challenges galore for Jal Shakti, the newest ministry set up by Modi govt

Representative image. Photo: Bloomberg
Keeping its promise made in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has set up Jal Shakti, a new ministry for water resources and related issues, and given its charge to Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. In the recently concluded general elections, Shekhawat had defeated the Congress party’s Vaibhav Gehlot, son of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, in Jodhpur.

The ministry has been created by reorganising the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, which Nitin Gadkari headed in the previous term of the government. The Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is also part of the new ministry.

Under the Jal Shakti section of its 2019 manifesto, the BJP had said it would form a "new ministry of water", unifying the water management functions to "approach the issue of water management holistically and ensure better coordination of efforts". The manifesto had also said that the ministry would "expeditedly take forward" the programme for linking rivers from different parts of the country, conceptualised under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and ensure a solution to the problems of drinking water and irrigation.   

However, it is not going to be easy for the new ministry. A 2018 NITI Aayog report has warned that India is suffering from "the worst water crisis in its history", placing millions of lives and livelihoods under threat. According to data from independent agencies cited by the report, about 600 million people in the country face high to extreme water stress at present; 200,000 die every year because of inadequate access to safe water.

The report also said that 75 per cent of the country's households didn't have access to drinking water on premise, and 84 per cent rural households didn't get piped water. Even more alarming, it said that 70 per cent of the country's water was contaminated.

This shows a measure of the ground the new ministry would have to cover. In its 2019 manifesto, the BJP had also promised that it would launch the 'Jal Jivan Mission', under which its government, if formed, would introduce a special programme, called 'Nal se Jal', to ensure piped water for every household by 2024. The manifesto had added that the government would ensure "sustainability of water supply through a special focus on conservation of rural water bodies and ground water recharge".

The immediate challenge for the ministry, as the NITI Aayog report points out, is that 21 cities, including New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, are set to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting an estimated 100 million people. It also warned that groundwater resources, which constitute 40 per cent of India's water supply, were being depleted at unsustainable rates.

During an election rally in Tamil Nadu last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised that his government, if voted back to power, would ensure the establishment of a separate Jal Shakti ministry. "The NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government had devoted a lot of attention to water resources. There will be a separate ministry for Jal Shakti to ensure clean water and top-class irrigation facilities for farmers," Modi had said, according to agency reports.

Availability of water for agriculture would be another challenge. According to the State of Indian Agriculture (2015-16) report, which the NITI Aayog cited in its report, about 53 per cent of agriculture in the country is rain-fed. India's rain-dependent farmers are often forced to fend for themselves in the face of repeated droughts.

Earlier this month, the Centre had issued a drought advisory, asking the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, to use water judiciously. Such an advisory is issued to states if the water level in reservoirs drops to 20 per cent less than the average of live water storage in the past decade.

Further, as Business Standard reported recently, the pre-monsoon rains between March and May have been deficient by 23 per cent across the country. About two-thirds of the country's area, the report added, has recorded either deficient or highly deficient rains. The country is reportedly facing the most serious failure of pre-monsoon rains in six years.

Growing water demand for irrigation would also need to be addressed. According to the Central Statistics Office's 'EnviStats-India 2018: Supplement on Environmental Accounts' report, water demand for irrigation in 2010 stood at 688 billion cubic meters (BCM). And this is projected to rise by about 32.27 per cent to 910 BCM in 2025. 

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