Democratisation of water management - The experience of Tamil Nadu with governance reforms

The authors argue that the solutions to the global water crisis do not lie in investing more and more money into the water sector or in the introduction of better technology.

Nor is the introduction of the private sector and the reduction in the role of the government going to help. Rather, the time has come to introduce changes at the basic or the fundamental level in the way in which the water sector functions.

There is an urgent need to bring about reforms in governance by moving towards decentralisation and democratisation, leading to  involvement of people from all the sections of the society, who know and understand that they are responsible for the system and its functioning, as well as by introducing principles of equity and social justice. The papers demonstrate the successful implementation of this approach by describing the experience of Tamil Nadu at democratising water management through introduction of reforms at the level of governance, through involvement of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD).

Establishing a paradigm shift in the water sector - The Tamil Nadu experiment with governance reform

This paper prepared for a seminar on ‘Reforming public utilities to meet the water and sanitation Millennium Development Goal’ at the UK’s Department for International Development, 4 July 2006, organised by the World Development Movement and Water Aid, argues that the solution to the global water crisis is not in increasing investment or introducing better technology, but in improving water governance. However, approaches continue to focus more on bringing in the private sector, while at the same time trying to curtail the role of the government.

The addition of newer policy prescriptions, sometimes described as paradigm shifts, do not get much attention. Ideas include greater community participation through an increased sense of ownership and participation by intended beneficiaries or 'consumers'; a shift from supply driven to demand responsive functioning; a shift in the role of government functionaries from being 'providers' to 'facilitators'; and moving towards greater decentralisation in water supply function while acknowledging the necessity of raising investments to ensure water supply.

The need to introduce reforms within existing governmental structures

The paper stresses that the solution to the water crisis can be found only by breaking out of the stereotypical frameworks adopted until now. A much more cost effective, but important solution would be to initiate comprehensive governance reform within the water sector. The paper highlights one such effort to fill this gap in water governance reform, initiated in the rural water supply division of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The paper informs that, at the end of two years since the introduction of a new paradigm or perspective of functioning, much has been achieved, but much more needs to be done. Future interventions seeking to address the water crisis cannot and should not follow the time worn, stereotyped, and jaded way of seeking and pumping in new investments of money and technology while continuing to ignore the more pressing issue of reforming water governance.

However, the paper warns that issue of governance is also political as it concerns dealing with issues of power, authority and money. Greater transparency, openness and democratic functioning can threaten power elites, inside and outside government officials, planners, politicians and consultants.

The need to pressurise governments and pay attention to equity and social justice

However, the paper argues that the work in Tamil Nadu shows that investing in governance reform is hugely cost effective and the training costs are pitifully low compared to the cost of investing in technological options. Thus, when solutions are sought to be found from within, be it within the culture and practice of the water utility, or from within the traditional and cultural practices of communities, new bonds of relating are forged.

The paper ends by reminding that, bonds are based on the intuitive and learned genius of the land and are the only medium through which the change process can get anchored and grow. This then, should be the thrust for international agencies, to persuade, and if persuasion does not work, to pressurise governments to initiate measures to bring about greater attention to the three legs of the new paradigm:

  • Reaching the unreached
  • Equity
  • Sustainability

Democratisation of water management as a way to reclaiming public water

This paper describes the process through which reforms in the governance led to a gradual change in the water situation in the state of Tamil Nadu. The public water utility in the state realised that a growing water crisis had to be addressed very differently from previous reform strategies and that 'democratising’ water management required attitudinal changes by both water engineers and the community. In this change process, public officials and citizens worked as partners and not only succeeded in ensuring equitable water supply for all, but also in conserving natural resources and ensuring sustainable water management.

The Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (popularly referred to as TWAD) is the sole governmental agency with a mandate to supply water to the entire state of Tamil Nadu, barring Chennai city. In early 2004, TWAD had to deal with a severe water shortage that resulted from continuous drought and devastated ground water tables due to years of unregulated ground water extraction and lack of conservation of water sources.

Realisation of the need for change

Water engineers realised that this growing crisis required drastic solutions, starting with themselves and slowly including the community. No change was possible unless there was consensus within TWAD to accept change. There was also a growing realisation that the engineers needed to assess their own role in the water crisis. They needed to assess their strengths and weaknesses and explore what prevented true partnerships from being built with the community. Equally pressing was the importance of working with the community to address attitude and perspective changes within larger civil society so that communities would be able to shoulder greater responsibilities in controlling and managing water systems.

This led to the change process of 'Democratisation of Water Management’ , which aimed at: 

  • Reaching the unreached
  • In a manner ensuring equity (with equitable distribution as an immediate focus)
  • Founded on principles of social justice.

The democratisation process

The democratisation process had three stages: The first covered all the TWAD officials, from the most senior to the latest engineer, who had to undergo training in small batches. In the second stage, water engineers would work to sensitise the community to the importance of finding solutions together for the water crisis including in taking responsibility for safeguarding water.

In the third stage, the water engineers and the community would launch water projects based on principles of:

  • Optimal utilisation
  • While ensuring conservation of natural resources
  • Sustainability of schemes
  • Local self management.

The measures included self regulation of consumption, taking responsibility for managing water schemes, consensus on choice of technology and cost of schemes, recovery of water charges and decision on water charges and other issues based on consensus and democratic participation.

Outcome of the process

The most important outcome of the democratisation experiment was the breaking down of numerous stereotypes and myths about government systems, public officials, politicians and the poor. The most powerful myth that was shattered was that people, especially the poor people, wanted only `free schemes’ and would not take care of their assets and resources.

In numerous villages, it has now been conclusively demonstrated that communities are willing to take charge of their own water schemes and also ensure that there is fair and equitable distribution. The new work ethic, which is slowly being adopted by the water engineers shows the ability of public officials to respond to changed situations by placing a premium on transparency, accountability and responsibility.

Solution for the water crisis – Democratisation, not privatisation -The case of Palangarai village

This paper describes the case of how improvement in governance structures led to a drastic change in the situation of Palangarai village of Avinashi taluka in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu in South India. Palangarai village had continued to face acute water crisis and on the best of days, had a water supply of 10 litres per person per day, which was once in a week during the dry months. Ground water was at a depth of over 1200 feet and there was no water in the wells. Illegal tapping of water by powerful villagers was the norm and arrears in tax payments was the practice.

The grim water situation posed a tough challenge to finding solutions to the water crisis. Water storage had to be augmented to raise water table; vegetation and tree cover needed to be increased to help retain rain water; illegal taps had to be removed; water distribution had to ensure equitable supply to all sections, especially the poorer and traditionally marginalised sections; the community needed to be mobilised to participate and own the changed water system.

Implementation of the democratisation process in the village

In August 2004, the Palangarai villagers decided to launch an ambitious programme aimed at changing the face of the water system in their village. Over a period of a year, they held scores of meetings involving all social sections, from children to youth to the elderly in the village explaining in simple terms the importance of full participation in measures to solve the water problem.

With the help of the water engineers of the state run water agency, Tamil Nadu Water Supplies and Drainage Board (popularly known as TWAD) who provided technical knowhow and knowledge inputs, the villagers created 32 water storage structures by a process of deepening, repairing and constructing new check dams. Over 7,000 tree saplings were planted by children, in their names and in the names of their pets and grand parents, with a survival rate of over 85% at the end of the first year.

Encroachments in water storage areas like water tanks, ponds and channels were removed by forging collective consensus. Illegal tapping of water was stopped. Timely distribution of water, ensuring quality and prompt response to water distribution related complaints generated confidence amongst the populace.

Outcomes of the democratisation process

The well planned efforts bore fruit within a year. By the end of 2006, the monsoon water table had risen by 400 feet, from 1200 feet to 800 feet. Increase in plant and tree cover magically attracted birds resulting in changes in the biological profile. Transparency and improved water distribution improved satisfaction and the village recorded 100 % collection of annual taxes.

Palangarai was one of 153 village Panchayats in 29 of the 30 districts of Tamil Nadu state in south India where a unique process called 'Democratisation of Water Management’ had been launched by the TWAD Board. The TWAD democratisation experiment thus demonstrated that focusing on governance reform, rather than by increasing technology or financial investments could be one of the important solutions to deal with the water challenges in the country.

The three papers can be downloaded from below: