A new water policy for India

Topics BS Opinion | water | Jal shakti

On November 5, 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti set up a committee to draft a new National Water Policy (NWP). The earlier NWPs of 1987, 2002 and 2012 were drafted entirely within the government system. This is the first time that the government decided to set up a committee of independent experts to draft the policy. I had the great honour and privilege of being asked to chair the 2019 committee. The members of the committee included the country’s leading water experts from diverse backgrounds, including those who have held key positions within government in the past, as also profession.....
On November 5, 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti set up a committee to draft a new National Water Policy (NWP). The earlier NWPs of 1987, 2002 and 2012 were drafted entirely within the government system. This is the first time that the government decided to set up a committee of independent experts to draft the policy. I had the great honour and privilege of being asked to chair the 2019 committee. The members of the committee included the country’s leading water experts from diverse backgrounds, including those who have held key positions within government in the past, as also professionals from academia and civil society.

The committee held 16 meetings over the period of one year. It heard and received 124 submissions by experts, academics, practitioners and stakeholders. This included submissions by governments of 21 states and 5 Union Territories and 35 presentations and submissions by departments and ministries of the Government of India. What we found truly remarkable is the striking consensus in perspectives and suggestions across the spectrum, from central and state governments to stakeholders from outside government. There appears to be a clear recognition that the water crisis we face today is truly unprecedented and that we need to rapidly move towards a new paradigm of water management and governance that reflects both the emerging realities on the ground, as also the growing understanding of water in the 21st century.

As a committee we were heartened by a very similar recognition being repeatedly articulated from the highest echelons of government. The president of India, writing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, said: “Respect for nature may be the next lesson intended for us. Faced with an extraordinary crisis, most people tend to be selfish, but this is a crisis that teaches us to think equally of others. Nature is reminding us to acknowledge, with humility, our quintessential equality and inter-dependency.” In a similar vein, the vice president has said: “Let us accord prime importance to protect Mother Nature, re-orient the development models and consumerism-driven lifestyles. We are living in an inter-connected world and cannot continue with business-as-usual approach in the quest for development and modernisation as every action impacts the environment.” 

These statements have immediate and far-reaching implications for water policy. Ever since Independence, our water policy has been dictated by a “command-and-control” approach towards nature. This is inherent in the larger development paradigm that has failed to adequately recognise that the economy is but a small part of the larger ecosystem. What we need to acknowledge is the profound inter-connectedness and inter-dependence that characterises the world we live in and to be humble in our approach to natural systems, showing them the respect they deserve and recognise that prakriti rakshati rakshita (Nature protects those who protect her). The new NWP has also been guided by five key water reforms enunciated by the prime minister: (a) the need to break down the silos into which we have divided water; (b) respect for the immense diversity of India while planning for water; (c) greater focus on management and distribution of water; (d) higher priority to recycling and reuse of water; and (e) raising people’s awareness and people’s participation in management of water.

 
We concurred with the suggestion of the minister for Jal Shakti that unlike the water policies of the past, the new NWP should not end up as just a token statement of pious intentions, looking good on paper but not getting translated into action on the ground. Thus, the new NWP spells out both specific strategies, as also definite time-lines, within which key provisions of the policy would be implemented. In addition to the usual practice of placing the NWP in the public domain to receive feedback from the people, the minister for Jal Shakti has proposed that different aspects of the NWP should also be discussed threadbare in a series of open workshops with stakeholders concerned with those specific aspects of the policy, before the Government of India takes a final view on the NWP drafted by the committee of independent experts. According to established procedure, the final approval of the NWP, of course, rests with the National Water Resources Council, which is chaired by the prime minister and includes all chief ministers as members.

Even as this process unfolds, through a series of weekly articles over the next one month, I will place before the readers, key provisions of the new NWP and the thinking behind including these elements in the policy. I will also try to highlight aspects of the policy that represent a significant departure from the past, why these departures were considered important and how exactly these are proposed to be implemented on the ground. It is my sincere hope that this background will enable stakeholders who participate in the consultations around the policy, to gain a prior and deeper understanding of the approach, principles, thrust areas and direction proposed by the new NWP.

/> The writer is Distinguished Professor, Shiv Nadar University. He chaired the Committee to draft the new National Water Policy set up by the Ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019



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