The Karnataka State Water Policy 2019

The water crisis in Karnataka has not only led to severe agrarian distress in the eastern plains region but also created an acute shortage of domestic water, in both rural and urban areas. The 21st century has seen significant changes in demography, economy and agriculture, increasing the demand for water in the state. Expanding irrigation and urbanisation, possibly have also had a negative impact on river basins and water conflicts are seeing a rise in the state. All these developments have substantially complicated and aggravated the water challenges in Karnataka.

In view of this crisis, the Karnataka Jnana Aayoga (KJA) set up a Task Group to draft a new water policy for the state in in December 2017. The Task Group submitted a comprehensive report to the Government of Karnataka, including a new draft Water Policy for the state and a detailed rationale to back up its recommendations. The Task Group’s report was led by Prof Mihir Shah, Shri S V Ranganath and Dr. Sharachchandra Lele.

Dr Sharachandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE), who was the Member-Secretary of this Task Group, speaks to the India Water Portal on the rationale behind the new water policy and shares his insights on the current water situation in Karnataka and what can be done at the policy level to resolve the crisis.

What is the background or rationale behind the need for a new water policy in Karnataka? What conceptual/paradigm shift does the report recommend in the current water policy?

The previous water policy in Karnataka was adopted in 2002. Since then, the water crisis has aggravated - summer flows in rivers have disappeared, groundwater tables have declined sharply with 58 talukas in the ‘over-exploited’ or ‘critical’ category, and pollution has increased in many locations. Geogenic pollution is reported from many locations. And all this is happening in the context of an increased frequency of droughts—12 in 16 years since 2002. Moreover, the distribution of access to water—for life or livelihoods—is highly skewed. Clearly, business-as-usual is not working and a fresh approach is called for. This is the rationale for the setting up of the Task Group.

The Task Group has called for a paradigm shift in multiple dimensions from supply-side thinking to demand-side management—from fragmented to integrated management of surface, ground and wastewater; shift from exclusively engineering thinking to a holistic ecosystem perspective; a move away from treating surface water as a state resource but groundwater as a private resource to all water as a commons, and from top-down to participatory and democratically decentralised governance.

What are the major pointers of the agricultural crisis in Karnataka according to you? What suggestions does the report make in resolving this crisis?

Increasing farmer suicides are a tragic extreme indicator of the deepening agrarian crisis. Stagnating returns in irrigated agriculture and declining groundwater levels are part of the problem. But majority of the farmers are still in rainfed agriculture, which is increasingly unremunerative, leading to outmigration. Simultaneously, agriculture accounts for an estimated 85 percent of water withdrawals, limiting the amount that can be spared for an increasingly urbanising population and expanding industry.

To tackle this complex problem, the report recommends a six-pronged strategy:

  • Reducing water demand while maintaining agricultural profitability and sustainability by shifting from chemical-intensive to low-input sustainable agriculture
  • Encouraging a major shift away from water-intensive paddy and sugarcane cultivation towards millets and pulses by providing minimum support prices and procurement policies for the latter
  • Improving crop water-use efficiencies by changing irrigation practices
  • Improving distribution of surface irrigation water and utilising the potential created by strengthening participatory irrigation management
  • Integrating watershed development and tank management with participatory groundwater management outside canal command areas, and
  • Breaking the groundwater-electricity nexus.

Excessive expansion of sugarcane and paddy cultivation has been the bane of Karnataka agriculture from a water consumption perspective. Millets are an integral part of the traditional diet in most of eastern Karnataka.

Incentivising the shift in cropping patterns by procuring and supplying millets through the PDS, the mid-day meal scheme and other programmes is one of the radical measures this report recommends. Equally crucial is the shift recommended in groundwater governance, as that is the only way to make the use of this precious resource sustainable and equitably accessible.

Poor rural water coverage, dependence on groundwater for fulfilling drinking water needs and water contamination continue to plague rural areas of Karnataka. What are the reasons for this and what solutions do you suggest in the report to resolve rural water issues in the state?

Karnataka has made significant progress in extending domestic water access in rural areas, through various schemes. But it has largely been a case of playing catch up, as groundwater levels drop due to over-pumping for irrigation, geogenic contamination increases and rivers dry up. Habitations that have been ‘covered’ under schemes then ‘slipback’ in a few years. Two additional complications, the side-effects of well-meaning policies, are the poor disposal of ‘reject’ water from RO (reverse-osmosis) plants and the contamination of groundwater due to the non-integration of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan with drinking water supply schemes. Faltering maintenance is another issue faced by rural drinking water schemes.

The rural drinking water crisis cannot be separated from the groundwater depletion caused by agricultural pumping, and therefore aquifer management plans that prioritise drinking water become part of the rural water missions. Not making RO plants as the only solution and a clear policy for maintaining these plants and managing RO reject water is recommended. Also, paying greater attention to safe distance from wells and containment of sewage is essential in sanitation programmes.

While urbanisation and industrialisation have led to uncontrolled growth of cities in the state, the water resources continue to be inadequate to meet the needs of the urban population. Water markets and water contamination are on the rise, especially in rapidly growing cities such as Bangalore. How does the report propose to meet these challenges in the coming years?

There is no doubt that urban water demand is rising rapidly. But a pure supply-side and surface-water focused approach—diverting water from irrigation projects to towns, building longer pipelines—has ignored the reality of groundwater dependence, the large-scale leakages in surface water distribution, the pollution or destruction of local water bodies and the inequitable distribution across socio-economic classes. 

The Task Group recommends a comprehensive set of strategies for addressing these problems that include maximising use of local water and treated wastewater before increasing water imports; integrating groundwater into urban water supply planning, setting region-specific standards and then encouraging demand-side management through outreach to both domestic and commercial consumers; ensuring equitable access and charging, controlling groundwater use by metering and charging commercial consumers for groundwater use; focusing on community storage and supply for slums with the involvement of women, and using lakes as multi-functional entities for storage, recharge and recreation.

Water quality issues such as fluoride, arsenic, nitrate and biological contamination are emerging as significant challenges in the state. What needs to be done according to you to deal with this issue?

Much of the contamination by fluorides and arsenic has been triggered by deep groundwater pumping. So the long-term solution lies in rejuvenating groundwater by controlling overpumping. For nitrate and biological contamination, the obvious need is to integrate sanitation with groundwater source protection. The issue in larger towns and cities is inadequate sewerage connectivity and sewage treatment capacity, along with poor management of sewage treatment plants. Although this wastewater is rich in nutrients and can be used for agriculture, its contamination with industrial effluents poses a big health hazard. The report recommends a variety of measures for tightening the monitoring and enforcement of water pollution standards, especially for industry but also for domestic sewage.

What are the lacunae in the current water governance mechanisms in the state? How does the new report address these?

The successful implementation of the recommended strategies will depend revamping the institutions of water governance, including the legal, fiscal and administrative dimensions.

The Task Group has recommended a complete overhaul, including passing an overarching water framework law to enshrine the goals of water governance, a revamped groundwater act and irrigation act nested within a law for setting up water regulatory authorities at state, basin and sub-basin level, reshaping water-related agencies to increase citizen voice, transparency and accountability in the governance of the pollution board, the water boards, and city water management as well as radical changes in the staffing and administrative structure of these agencies. This has to be coupled with a new mission for water data collection, analysis, research, dissemination and outreach that provides information at all levels of this nested water governance and to the public, so as to stimulate efficient, sustainable and equitable water management in the state.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from below: