Panchayati raj and water resources management in India - law and policy

The paper reviews the current role of local institutions in water resource governance in light of its historical traditions, and assess its relevance and scope for political and economic development

This paper presented at the workshop on "Policy Futures for Water Resources Management in India: From prescription and impact assessment to strategic analysis," 3-5 October 2002, IWMI/ICRISAT, Patancheru (Hyderabad), A P, India by Development Centre for Alternative Policies,  informs that the consideration of the role of local political institutions in irrigation management in India assumes importance in the light of India’s historical traditions as well as in the interest of current and future governance of water resources in India. Studies show that two characteristics of India’s political and economic history have endured through the millennial changes that have taken place. One is the tradition of localized governance, which could not be erased completely even by colonial rule. The other is the association of local institutions in the functions of creation and management of water technologies to serve agrarian economy.

In the introductory part, the conceptual framework in which the governance of water resources is viewed in the paper is presented, which argues that a decentralized and integrated resource management approach is a necessity for the management of water resources in the country in the context of the specific climatic and physical characteristics of the country. The paper argues that While traditional water technologies indicate that such an approach was followed in the past, these traditions were supplanted by the centralized and divisive approach that was initiated under colonial rule and continued after Independence.

As a result of this, any attempt at local governance of water resources through institutions such as the Panchayats has to confront a formidable framework of laws, institutions and processes engaged in land and water management in a centralised manner.

The next part of the paper assesses the post-Constitutional policy and legal framework on Irrigation Management and Local Government, in terms of its continuity or otherwise, with colonial policies. Here the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act on Panchayat Raj is analysed in detail, to assess the extent to which it represents a watershed in terms of re-enabling local political control over land and water resources.

In this context, the statutory provisions on irrigation and panchayat institutions in selected States in India are reviewed to assess the scope provided to PRIs to control and manage land and water resources in conformity with the spirit of Constitutional provisions. In conjunction, recent policy trends at national and regional levels, engendered by the involvement of multi-national institutions in the water resources and other sectors, are discussed in terms of their impact on local institutional dynamics, on sustainable and equitable natural resource management, and their implications on PRIs.

The paper ends with some suggestions for policy and legal reform critical for a holistic and decentralised approach for sustainable and equitable use and management of water resources for the rural economy.

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