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21st-century India needs a pragmatic water policy

Last but most important, the success of any policy depends on its implementation phase which again depends on the health of multiple agencies transforming the policy goals into reality.

J Harsha | New Delhi |

India has had three National Water Policies (NWP) so far. The first was framed in 1987, the second in 2002 and the latest one in 2012. Government of India has now constituted a committee for the formulation of the fourth National Water Policy; the process is underway, and the exercise is expected to be completed in a few months. In addition, a number of states have their own water policies applicable within their political boundary. But despite multiple policies, the water crisis is not getting any better.

In the third decade of the 21st century, one might already be witnessing any one of these water crises: failure of borewells; stink emanating from toxic streams in the town; taps running dry; guzzling water tankers and unforeseen floods causing significant loss of life and property, etc. About 600 million in India suffer from severe water crisis; and 40 per cent Indians may not have access to drinking water by 2030 according to Government think tank NITI Aayog. 170 million people live in 66 coastal districts of India spanning 7,500 km. They face the challenge of saline water ingress and contaminated groundwater.

As per Central Water Pollution Board, India’s gap between sewage generation and treatment plant stands at 60 per cent as in 2018. These are the signatures of water policies not making significant impact in India. And that raises an important question: What ails India’s water policies? A water policy can only be termed successful if and only if it achieves all the goals set for itself and attracts no criticism from stakeholders. Looking at the goals envisaged in National Water Policy – 2012, progress has been observed with respect to National Water Informatics Centre, water conservation activities, use of drip-sprinkler irrigation etc..

However, there is not much progress in the case of adaption and accounting of climate change in water crisis, institutional reforms, integrated water resources management, creation of River Basin Organisations, pollution in water bodies, dam-induced water crisis, etc. Given the fact that NITI Aayog, a stakeholder, has outlined a bleak water future for India, the success of NWP-2012 cannot be said to be spectacular. So, how should next national water policy shape up? First and foremost, the formulation of national water policy should synchronize with the state and local water policies in order to achieve the goals or conversely, the state and local water policies should align with the priorities attached with national water policies.

This is because the implementing agencies of water policies largely belong to state and local governments. At present, the link between national water policy and various states and local policies is missing. So how to establish the link between national water policy and state water policies? As water is intricately connected to multiple sectors, multiple and diverse agencies, the right way to link and change the pattern of behavior of any agency so as to align them with national policy goals is through incentivisation and/or accountability. Currently, the system of providing incentives for achievement of policy goals is limited whereas accountability for not implementing the policy goal is absent.

This has to change in next water policy. No matter where the subject of “water” lies in the Constitution of India, the policy goals can only be achieved with collaborative or participatory mode rather than dictating via top-down approach from union to state to local agencies. Second, national water policies should connect stakeholders in diverse agencies vertically and laterally. This is because those professionals, practitioners, scholars and managers who work on the frontlines within and without government are aware of the challenges to the national policy goals. Example: Scientist – B at the ground level is aware of local challenges more than Scientist – G. Similarly, an Executive Engineer in the command area is aware of challenges more than the Chairman of his organization.

Currently, the policy formulation process and the implementation process are disconnected from the inputs of the knowledge and experience of professionals and managers down the hierarchy, be it water supply utilities or pollution control or flood forecasting. Therefore, it is not enough if water policies are formulated with only top echelons of the government agencies. Third, the performance of the policy over time has to be measured. For example, NITI Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index gives an indicator of the status of water management across the states.

Similarly, an index for implementation of water policy goals across states gives a picture of the stage of implementation of policy goals from time to time and helps in course correction. Further, all of India’s three national water policies and various state water policies lack a progresstracking system. If water is “elixir” of life or if water truly matters to India right from economy to environment, then there is need to create a “centralized delivery and tracking unit” that independently tracks and reports the progress of implementation of policy goals to the union government.

Fourth, before embarking upon the new National Water Policy, it is essential to conduct post-implementation reviews of the past water policies, to ascertain the goals envisaged, the policy expectations, the goals realised and missed, and the causes of success and failure in implementation. Such a review is necessary for NWP-2012 before finalisation of NWP-2020. Then, the new water policy should resist the urge to be over-optimistic or underestimate the challenges and formulation without satisfactory evidence. For example, the large dam induced water crisis due to sedimentation and loss of live storage is the new “invisible” crisis of the 21st century that has been severely underestimated in water policies so far.

Last but most important, the success of any policy depends on its implementation phase which again depends on the health of multiple agencies transforming the policy goals into reality. Currently, India’s water organisations being the implementing agencies are the direct descendants of colonial organisational structures be it state WRDs or Pollution Control Boards or central agencies. The command and control style, lack of a multi-disciplinary and water specific cadre, domination of civil engineers with a goal of buildneglect- rebuild and sycophancy run contrary to modern water management practices such as integrated water resources management, multidisciplinary organisations, and hydrological unit-based scientific water management.

The lack of financial and decision- making autonomy, budgetary issues, suppression of expert advice, misuse of colonial-inspired conduct rules destroy the participation of frontline managers and professionals leading to gaps between policy goals and implementation. So, any new national water policy sans reformation of water organisations will resemble a 21st century army equipped with colonial era arms and ammunition (like .303 Lee Enfield rifles). Hence, reformation and realignment of water organisations in line with policy goals and strategies is the key for success of any future national water policy. The coming two decades pose a daunting challenge to water sector in India due to mounting population, urbanization, climate change, pollution and aging large dams. The crisis is set to worsen under a business-asusual scenario. Hence, the next national water policy should be more pragmatic and implementable with targets, strategies and timelines in the best interests of the country.

(The writer is Director, Central Water Commission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal)