Water needs trans-disciplinary governance

It is inadequately recognised that water is India’s most important sector in the infrastructure space. Even less understood is that water is the most unreformed of them all. Absence of reforms could not only jeopardise lives and livelihoods of millions but also seriously undermine India’s growth. Ever since independence, water governance has suffered from hydro-schizophrenia: Where the left hand of drinking water does not know what the right hand of irrigation is doing and the right toe of surface water does not know what the left foot of groundwater is up to!

There are countless instances where a source of drinking water has run dry because farmers started using the same aquifer to irrigate water-intensive crops. Rivers are increasingly drying up because of over-exploitation of groundwater, which supplies inflows into the river after the monsoon is over. River flow and quality also suffer because of destruction of catchment areas. And floods have become more frequent because natural drainage lines for excess water are blocked or encroached upon.

Each of these water challenges can be traced to the way we have divided water into silos and the complete absence of any meaningful dialogue across divisions impacting water. They also arise because we have not understood that water is multi-dimensional and, therefore, demands trans-disciplinarity in governance. The two apex water organisations are the Central Water Commission (CWC), responsible for surface water and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), dealing in groundwater, with analogous arrangements in each state. Not only have these organisations functioned unreformed since inception, they have also worked largely independently of, and often at cross-purposes with, each other. 

Tragically, although groundwater now provides more than two-thirds of India’s water, the more it has grown in significance, the weaker groundwater departments have become at the Centre and in the states. What is worse, surface water is handled mainly by civil engineers and groundwater by hydrogeologists, completely overlooking the fact that effective management of water requires professionals from many other disciplines. Despite India’s avowed commitment to rejuvenating its rivers, revered by the people of this country, we have never had a single river ecologist or ecological economist in any department handling water anywhere in India. Despite the overwhelming fact that agriculture takes up most of India’s water, monopolised by water-guzzling rice, wheat and sugarcane, we have not ever had even one agronomist within the water bureaucracy. While it is abundantly clear that the best work in water has happened wherever communities have been mobilised, whether in groundwater management or command area development, water departments have never included social mobilisers. Nor have governments built institutionalised partnerships with those outside government, who could provide them the necessary intellectual and social capital, be they civil society, academia or corporate India.

It is with these considerations in mind that the Government of India committee for restructuring the CWC and CGWB, which I chaired in 2015-16, suggested a radically new architecture of water governance in India. We proposed that the CWC and CGWB be merged and their capacities greatly expanded to form a brand new National Water Commission (NWC). Such an NWC would enable: One, transcending hydro-schizophrenia; two, bringing trans-disciplinarity into water governance; and three, building a novel architecture of enduring partnerships with key stakeholders outside government, that would withstand the passing whims and fancies of changing bureaucrats and politicians. The report was very well received within government and outside, with the Ministry of Water Resources, Niti Aayog and the Prime Minister’s Office all giving it strong endorsement. India’s leading social science journal Economic & Political Weekly devoted an entire issue to an exhaustive and critical discussion of the report. However, concrete action on the report by government is still awaited.

The formation of the Jal Shakti ministry is an important first step in the direction of overcoming hydro-schizophrenia, bringing together the irrigation and drinking water departments within one ministry. Now the two departments need to work in close co-ordination with each other. The real test will come when the ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission begins to roll out on the ground. The only way the people of India can be assured safe and secure drinking water is if we are able to maintain source sustainability, in terms of both quantity and quality. Most of this water will be supplied from aquifers, which are also used for irrigation. Without the irrigation and drinking water departments working closely together, source sustainability cannot be assured. And without participatory management, these aquifers will simply run out of groundwater, whose quality will also deteriorate. This will require both strengthening of the rapidly evaporating groundwater departments throughout the country and also the closest possible involvement of primary stakeholders in the stewardship of groundwater.

If the Jal Jeevan Mission has to stand any chance of success, governments all over the country will need to build strong partnerships with civil society organisations, as well as the best scientific resources available in universities and academia. The humongous task of aquifer mapping and management, a pre-requisite for the success of the Mission, cannot be accomplished by government alone. Farmers, most critically, will need to be centrally involved. Once they understand the nature of the aquifers underlying their farms, they will be better placed to make informed decisions about their cropping patterns and water use. But the most important change in water governance will need to occur in the crop procurement policies of the Government of India. Unless we provide farmers a steady market for low water-consuming, locally appropriate millets, pulses and oilseeds by including them in the mid-day meal and Anganwadi programmes, the aquifers of the Jal Jeevan Mission will continue to be over-exploited and water security will remain a distant dream for the people of India. This means the Ministries of Agriculture, Food & Public Distribution and Women & Child Development will need to work in close co-ordination with the Jal Shakti Ministry. Both at the Centre and the states. Thus, multi-stakeholder, holistic, trans-disciplinary water governance is a pre-requisite for tackling India’s water crisis.

The writer is distinguished professor, Shiv Nadar University and former member, Planning Commission, Government of India 

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