Mihir Shah

The answer to our water crises lies in the democratisation of water resources

By: Staff Reporter
Mihir Shah, economist, water policy expert and member of the erstwhile Planning Commission speaks with G’nY on the need to facilitate community ownership of water and what India needs to do to ensure water security.

G’nY.  Water scarcity across states affects the economy substantially. What measures should be taken at the policy and implementation level to curb the prevailing problems?

Mihir Shah : Water is perhaps India’s single most important and most neglected problem. Nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way we have managed water since independence is required to solve the crisis of water rightly highlighted by NITI Aayog. The findings in the report are quite dire — 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to clean water and it is only going to get worse as 21 cities are likely to run out of groundwater by 2020.

In a 2016 Ministry of Water Resources report, it was found that we have spent 400,000 crores in building large and medium dams across our rivers. Millions of people have been displaced and unimaginable environmental destruction has taken place as a consequence. But has the water stored in these dams actually benefitted the farmers for whom it is meant? This is a question we need to face squarely.

Fortunately, in some command areas of dams in some states, we have clues as to how we can solve this problem. The answer lies in the democratisation of water, based on the principle of subsidiarity. Whenever we have taken care to truly empower water users associations (WUAs) of farmers, we have managed to solve the problem of last-mile connectivity and har khet ko paani (water for every farm) has been achieved. Here farmers have been willing and able to pay an irrigation service fee (ISF) for water, which they have decided upon themselves, once they are convinced that the water is theirs to share. And when they have been allowed to retain the ISF, they have brilliantly managed to operate and maintain the system, in a truly sustainable manner.

The Central Water Commission has recorded that irrigation takes up around 80 per cent of India’s water. It is extremely important to improve water use efficiency in this manner. But even more important is a radical transformation in our cropping pattern, away from water intensive crops like rice, wheat and sugarcane, towards the much more hardy, as also nutritious crops like millets and pulses. To enable this requires a fundamental switch in the structure of incentives in Indian agriculture. Today, the government procures mainly rice and wheat. Thus, the farmers have a guaranteed market for these two crops and tend to focus on them, quite irrespective of water endowments. The government has to move towards procuring millets and pulses on a large-scale too. The question however is what the government will do with these crops even if they are procured? Where is the demand? The answer is simple—introduce these crops in the mid-day meal and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) nutrition programmes, as also the public distribution system (PDS). In this manner, we can solve multiple problems of livelihood security of farmers, water scarcity and healthy food for consumers.

G’nY.  Right to safe drinking water and sanitation is enshrined in our constitution, to be available equally to everyone irrespective of any class or creed. Yet, water is skewed in its availability. What are your views?

Mihir Shah : This is something that cannot be left to the government alone. It needs a massive transformation of the structures of power in Indian society, which have been there for centuries. Power exists along many axes in India—caste, community, gender and class, even within regions, apart from the discrimination tribal regions have suffered. Of course, once again government policy animated by the principle of subsidiarity can and has made a big difference. Drinking water and sanitation has to be in the hands of the gram panchayats and urban local bodies (ULBs) but these bodies of local self-governance have to be empowered and democratised for them to be able to shoulder these responsibilities effectively. Civil society organisations (CSOs) can and have played a critical role here.

G’nY.  Agriculture sector being the largest groundwater user, what alternatives do you recommend for bringing down the rate at which groundwater is extracted in irrigation?

Mihir Shah : The single biggest challenge facing India’s water sector is the sustainable and equitable management of groundwater. India is the largest consumer of groundwater in the world—this has been recorded by the World Bank and reiterated by many others. Groundwater is also the single biggest source of water for irrigation, industry and domestic use. But today we face a serious crisis of falling water tables and deteriorating water quality.

As Member, Planning Commission from 2009 to 2014, I initiated the largest aquifer management programme in the history of mankind. I realised we have no idea about the aquifers within which the groundwater exists. I mean we know their broad features but that knowledge is woefully inadequate when it comes to being able to sustainably and equitably manage groundwater. Since India has over 30 million groundwater structures (wells and tubewells), as has been recorded by the Ministry of Water Resources, there is no way these can be effectively regulated through a command-and-control licensing system, something say California can do, with its small number of large groundwater users.

What we need is once again the democratisation of water, i.e., management of groundwater by those who primarily depend on that specific aquifer. This has to become a large national movement, with government playing the role of facilitator. Our central and state groundwater boards cannot carry out this humongous task by themsleves. It needs a large network of partnerships with academic and research institutions, CSOs and local communities
centrally involved.

G’nY.  A high-powered committee led by you had submitted its report to PMO in 2016 where it recommended a new institutional framework for the water sector. How will it help?

Mihir Shah : India has long suffered from what is described in the scholarly literature on water as “hydro-schizophrenia”, which means that the left hand of groundwater does not know what the right hand of surface water is doing and the left foot of irrigation does not know what the right toe of drinking water is doing. This has given rise to massive unseen problems.

For example, if you examine the annual report of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, it will give you a list of steadily growing habitations covered under safe drinking water. But a few pages on, in the same report, you will find a list of ‘slipped back’ habitations, i.e., places where there was once enough safe drinking water but now there isn’t. The reason—the aquifer providing groundwater meant for drinking got used for irrigation, the much larger consumer. Similarly, we find so many of our rivers drying up. We do not seem to realise that the main reason this is happening is the overextraction of groundwater in the catchment areas of these rivers. Peninsular rivers in India get their flows in the post-monsoon period from the base-flows of groundwater. But with groundwater over-extraction, these flows dry up. Similarly, in the Himalayan regions, the drying up of springs negatively impacts
river flows.

Thus, we need to take a holistic view of water if we are to solve some of our most pressing problems. This is something we have never done. The departments dealing with rivers and building dams on them rarely speak to the groundwater boards. What my committee proposed was that we integrate the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) to create a National Water Commission (NWC), as the nation’s apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance. Headed by a Chief National Water Commissioner, a senior administrator with a stable tenure and with strong background in public and development administration, the NWC should have full time Commissioners representing hydrology (present Chair, CWC), hydrogeology (present Chair, CGWB), hydrometeorology, river ecology, ecological economics, agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and participatory resource planning and management. The NWC should move out of Delhi and have a strong regional presence in all the major river basins of India. What is more, the NWC should build, institutionalise and appropriately manage an architecture of partnerships with knowledge institutions and practitioners in the water space. That will ensure the overarching goal of har khet ko paani along with improved water resource management and water use efficiency, and not just construction of large scale reservoirs.

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