Mihir Shah speaks during an interview in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, India. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

‘Without De-Bureaucratisation, We Cannot Solve India’s Water Problem’

Among the first changes the new Bharatiya Janata Party government made after winning re-election in May 2019 was to merge the ministries of water resources, drinking water and sanitation. This was a poll promise made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2019 to “ensure clean water and top class irrigation water facilities for the farmers”.

While the initiative is a “positive step forward”, it is “not good enough”, Mihir Shah, economist and former planning commission member, told IndiaSpend. He chaired the committees on the restructuring of the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board, and to draft a national water framework law and a model bill for sustainable management of groundwater.

India needs “de-bureaucratisation of water” to solve its water challenges, which requires partnerships with stakeholders such as universities, research centres, panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies.

India is the world’s largest groundwater extractor--accounting for 12 percent of global extraction. Water management in India suffers due to “hydro-schizophrenia”, Shah says, adding that this can only be changed if organisations such as the CWC and CGWB can be merged to improve water governance. The Shah committee had suggested such a merger to form a National Water Commission to streamline water governance and management.

Shah was the youngest ever member of the Planning Commission, where he served between 2009 and 2014. He is a founder member of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, an organisation focused on water and livelihood security, and was a member of the international steering committee of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research’s research programme on water, land and ecosystems from 2012 to 2018.

In an email interview, Shah highlights the need for a multidisciplinary approach to tackle the multi-dimensional problem of water security, and need to create a water governance architecture that brings the central and state governments together.

Your 2016 committee report recommended “major reforms in the central water commission  and central groundwater board” and the formation of a national water commission. The government has formed the Ministry of Jal Shakti by integrating the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. How do you view this development? Can this move be useful without the restructuring of the CWC and CGWB?

I think the formation of the Jal Shakti ministry is a welcome, positive step forward in ending the hydro-schizophrenia that has characterised water management in India.

Historically, the left hand of drinking water has not known what the right hand of irrigation is doing. As a result, aquifers [the underground layer of water-bearing rock] supplying drinking water have been emptied when farmers have started irrigating water-intensive crops using water from the same aquifer. So bringing irrigation and drinking water within the same ministry is a good move.

But clearly, it is not good enough. Our water use planning must take an integrated view of the water cycle, and this has to happen in every river basin in India. If we fail to do that, conflicts over water, whether across states or [between] people within the same town and village will continue to grow more acute. For example, the Cauvery conflict [between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu] cannot be resolved till water users on either side of the conflict understand that the demands they are placing on the limited water resources have already become totally unsustainable. They have to shift to crops that demand much less water. We cannot hope to solve India’s water problems by trying to endlessly increase supply.

To ingrain this approach across large numbers of primary stakeholders [farmers, industry, community, etc.], the government of India must take the lead, which is why our committee proposed the formation of the national water commission by merging the CWC and CGWB. For too long [both] these institutions have acted in isolation from each other, with the CWC being the dominant partner, handling plum projects and being given pride of place in the hierarchy within the ministry.

What is ironic about this arrangement is that while CWC was calling the shots, people were busy over-exploiting groundwater, thus jeopardising surface water flows to our rivers. Not many people realise that the source of post-monsoon [water] flows in our peninsular rivers is groundwater base-flows [stream flow maintained by groundwater discharge]. Over-exploitation of groundwater dries up these flows. Water starts flowing in the opposite direction, from the river towards the aquifer, leading to rivers drying up.

So, there is another hydro-schizophrenia water management in India suffers from, that between surface and groundwater, which can only be broken through a seamless merger of the CWC and CGWB.

Further, we need to recognise the multi-dimensionality of water, which demands multi-disciplinarity in its management. CWC and CGWB suffer from a lack of professionals from a large number of disciplines. The necessary participatory approaches to managing surface and groundwater require professionals from social sciences and management. If we are to tackle demand-side management issues and implement crop water budgeting and improve water use efficiency, we need professionals from agronomy. We need professionals from ecological economics for an accurate understanding of the value of ecosystem services, and, to rejuvenate our river systems, we need professionals specialising in river ecology.

Finally, all of them have to come together as part of the national water commission, working as multi-disciplinary teams, along with the states in each river basin, so that a truly holistic management of water resources can be created.

One of the functions of the proposed national water commission was to lead the national aquifer mapping and groundwater management programme. The National Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme, initiated during your time at the Planning Commission, was expected to characterise aquifers. But this seems to have stalled. Your comments?

Path-breaking initiatives like NAQUIM require a completely different order of human resources and capacities. Paradoxically, as groundwater has become India’s most important source, groundwater departments, at the Centre and in all states, have only become weaker.

We need to urgently reverse this trend. We must also recognise that aquifer management at this unprecedented scale cannot be left to the government alone. It demands a large network of partnerships with relevant stakeholders like universities, research centres, panchayati raj institutions and urban local bodies, civil society organisations, industry, and the people themselves.

Curating such an architecture of partnerships has proved a challenge for governments at the Centre and the states. But without this kind of de-bureaucratisation of water, we cannot hope to solve India’s water problem.

The 2016 committee report had warned that the growing urban population will pose “unprecedented challenges for water management in urban India.” Cities such as Chennai are currently facing a crisis, and Shimla did last year. The report also recommended the “recycling and reuse of urban and industrial waste water to meet the challenges of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation”. What must be done to tackle this crisis in urban areas? Is rainwater harvesting sufficient and are there other aspects that must be mandated by law to prevent a worsening of the situation?

In many crucial respects I believe the urban water crisis is even more serious than the rural. Rainwater harvesting and legal stipulations only scratch the surface. What we require is to provide a multi-dimensional response, with at least six key elements.

Elements Of A Multi-Dimensional Response

A.
Groundwater remains a major blind spot in urban India. While the exact data are not available, we have estimates that indicate that on average for 71 cities and towns, groundwater constitutes 48 percent of urban water supply. Fifty six percent of metropolitan, class-I and class-II cities are dependent on groundwater either fully or partially. Unaccounted water in urban areas exceeds 50 percent, according to the CGWB’s [2011] report on the groundwater scenario in 28 Indian cities. Privately driven, individualistic pumping of groundwater in large parts of urban India has provided benefits for filling out the gaps in public water-supply schemes. However, it has also led to problems of depletion and contamination of aquifers. The following key steps could form the building blocks of an urban aquifer management programme in India.

  1. Identifying status of existing groundwater resources in cities through participatory mechanisms, involving citizens, educational institutions and urban utilities.
  2. Assessment of groundwater resources through participatory aquifer mapping coupled with systematic studies by institutions with appropriate capacities to identify natural recharge areas, groundwater discharging zones and quantification of aquifer characteristics, namely transmissivities, storativities and groundwater quality.
  3. Profiling stakeholders, including users, tanker operators, drilling agencies and developing mechanisms for registering water sources.
  4. Building hydrogeology into waste-disposal, sewage and sullage management and design of sewerage and sewage-treatment.
  5. Developing a framework of regulatory norms around urban groundwater use and protection of urban aquifers by preserving natural recharge areas.
  6. Understanding changes in river flows and quality and the precise relationship between aquifers, aquifer systems and the river flowing through a town or city.
  7. Finally, developing an institutional structure required for mapping the aquifers, and initiating groundwater management as an integral part of urban governance.

B. Focus on recycling and reuse of wastewater: No Indian city is in a position to boast of a complete sewerage system. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, the country has installed capacity to treat roughly 30 percent of the excreta it generates. Just two cities, Delhi and Mumbai, which generate around 17 percent of the country’s sewage, have nearly 40 percent of the country’s installed capacity. Large parts of cities remain unconnected to the sewage system as they live in unauthorised or illegal areas or slums. Decentralised wastewater management systems can overcome many of these problems by catering to the un-served areas, reducing the cost of treatment and operation and maintenance, adopting site-specific treatment technologies based on the land use and minimising land requirement for treatment.

C. Reduce the industrial water footprint: Indian industry is currently excessively dependent on fresh water and tends to dump its untreated waste into our rivers and groundwater. Overall, the water footprint of Indian industry is too high, which is bringing industry into conflict with other parts of the economy and society. There is huge scope for reducing the industrial water footprint and this can be done through technologies and investments that have a very short payback period of less than three years. We must make comprehensive water audits a recurring feature of industrial activity so that we know what is being used by the industrial sector at present and so that changes can be monitored and the most cost-effective basket of water efficiency technologies and processes designed and implemented to reduce water demand while increasing industrial value-added per unit of water consumed.

D. Protect and prioritise local water bodies: The first priority for cities when planning water supply should be the protection, restoration and recharge of their traditional water bodies. Cities must get funds for water projects only when they have accounted for the water supply from local water bodies. This would reduce costs of supply from a distance and also preserve the ecology of the city. Today, cities have grown over their water bodies and their functional parts--drains and catchments. This has also aggravated the problem of urban flooding because we have blocked the passage of excess water to the river or the sea.

E. Shift focus to management and distribution: The much more acute problem in urban India is not the quantum of water to be supplied but its management and equitable supply to all. In the current water supply system, there are enormous inefficiencies--losses in the distribution system because of leakages and bad management, not to mention the quality of water supplied within and across towns and cities. Water is divided very unequally within cities. As per the National Sample Survey 65th round, only 47 percent of urban households have individual water connections. As a result, the poor often have to spend a great deal of time and money to obtain water since they do not have piped water connections in their homes. Thus, we must shift the exclusive focus on augmentation of water supply to managing the supply for all and managing to supply clean water. This means that we will have to revive local water bodies and recharge groundwater, so that we can source water from as close as possible. We must also cut the costs and transportation of sewage--use decentralised networks and use a variety of technologies to treat sewage as locally as possible.
F. Eco-restorative, low-cost technologies: The 2011 High Powered Expert Committee Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services estimated that water supply and sewerage treatment will cost the nation around Rs 5,60,000 crore [$82 billion] over the next 20 years. Conventional technologies, normally employed to treat the pollution from point sources, are also not that effective against non-point sources of pollution. They also have heavy power requirements. Thus, there is an urgent need to consider alternative technology options, which have now been tested on the ground. Vertical eco-filtration techniques were developed in the 1990s to treat domestic and industrial wastewaters. These innovations helped industry to reduce operational costs substantially by reducing electricity, chemical and human resources requirements. Over time, the vertical eco-filtration technique was converted into horizontal eco-filtration technique or the green bridge system. This has now been successfully tested out at several locations across the country.

The new government has set a target of providing piped water connection to all rural homes by 2024. This means that quantity and quality are priority. But given our present water crisis, can sufficient quantity of water be provided let alone ensure water quality? How must the government prioritise to achieve this target?

I think the scheme is a response to the need of the hour. But it can be a success only if certain preconditions are met. We must have a clear understanding of the aquifer to be used for water supply, user-friendly communication of this information to the primary stakeholders, and ensuring that [usage of] drinking water and irrigation are planned together. An entire water supply system should be operated and managed by local institutions specifically dedicated for this purpose. These should be led by local women who are adequately empowered to do so.

The National Water Framework Bill emphasised river rejuvenation and community participation to ensure aviral dhara (continuous flow of river), nirmal dhara (unpolluted waters) and swachh kinara (clean banks). The previous National Democratic Alliance government also spoke about interlinking of rivers (to balance the availability of water in drought-prone and rain-fed area), which has been criticised by a section of experts. These seem to contradict each other in terms of the impact on communities dependent on rivers. Your comments?

Absolutely, they are. The gigantism involved in the inter-linking of rivers is based on the engineering myth that “river water must not be allowed to flow wastefully into the sea”. But in actual fact, there is no waste in nature. The flow of river water into the sea is absolutely vital to maintain the integrity of the monsoon cycle and thus, life on the sub-continent. The continuous flow of fresh river water into the sea is what helps maintain a low salinity layer of water with low density in the upper layers of the Bay of Bengal.

This is a reason for the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures (greater than 28 degrees Celsius), which creates low-pressure areas and intensifies monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low-salinity water. A disruption in this layer because of massive damming of rivers under the inter-linking project and the resultant reduction in freshwater flows into the sea could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

This copy was published in a special arrangement with IndiaSpend.

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