The way water as a resource has been viewed in the policies of India has evolved significantly over the years. Reduction in per capita availability over the years (5177 to 1463 cubic metres between 1950-2015) has forced every new policy to change the way it has approached its management. It was considered an economic commodity in the second National Water Policy (NWP) drafted in 2002. Finally in 2012, the third NWP recognized the importance of managing water as a “common-pool resource”. In spite of its evolving nature, successive NWPs have not been able to realise some of its important recommendations into action on the ground.
Water is a state subject, which adds another layer of complexity in its management. Central and state programs on water continue to be structured to fit existing administrative boundaries (state, district, block, gram panchayat) with little consideration to resource, basin and watershed boundaries. NWPs have tried to reflect ground realities and propose strategies for efficient management including formation of river-basin authorities, but sadly have not been able to create mechanisms for their implementation. For instance, NWP 2012 included progressive ideas based on the emerging focus areas, best practices from the field, and brought in the much required reforms in the domain of water resources management on paper, but couldn’t bridge the gap between policy and practice.
NWP 2020, the fourth one in the series, is being drafted this year. It needs to be inclusive and build on the reforms carried out in the last decade, while also addressing context specificity, inadequacy of resources, clear pathways for implementation and accountability, and thereby enabling mechanisms for equitable resource allocation.
Going the extra mile
As issues of scarcity, access, depletion, contamination, equity, and climate change continue to plague the water sector constantly, the government and other agencies have also increased their investments in the sector. In the last decade itself, several state governments launched flagship programs on water to address one or more of these issues.
A study of some of these programs in the last two decades shows low investment in creating sustainable institutions to make the program impacts last and also a limited role of communities in managing the programs and their outcomes. Especially in the context of groundwater, which provides for 90% of rural India’s drinking water, 75% of irrigation water, and 50% of the water for urban supply - having communities involved in managing the common-pool resource is of utmost importance.
Programs cannot create sustainable impacts without meaningful participation of users who are located closest to the resource. To do this at scale, the policy needs to first create a framework for programs to work in. Appropriate institutions, especially at the “first-mile” or close to communities, need to be created to institutionalize social protocols.
A cadre of trained para-hydrogeologists with clear responsibilities and accountabilities need to be created to work across programs and schemes. These water workers should facilitate water balance and budgeting exercises in their respective villages for identification of problems and raising demand for solutions to the gram panchayat based on what they find.
Creating reusable public assets
Each time a new program is launched, it starts from scratch - creating institutions, training people, collecting data, and drafting new templates. NWP 2020 should lay down guidelines for creation of reusable and shareable public assets including people (trained and discoverable human resources), data, content, planning templates (such as detailed project reports, water budgeting), and physical infrastructure. These must be reusable within and beyond the program, geographies and timeframes.
Focussing on capacity building as an area for long term investment
Capacity building forms the core of most public water security programmes as it is necessary to build skills of communities and local resource persons who can manage water resources locally to enable community-based management of common pool resources. The design of most large scale programmes looks at building capacities as a one time training activity, mostly during the planning phase. This is inadequate in building the self efficacy of the workers who have to perform tasks much after they have received the training. In most cases, there is no support during the implementation and operation & maintenance stages. The policy should guide programs to reimagine capacity building within the constraints of available resources.
It would help the frontline workers to have access to task-oriented content on their phones when possible, so that they can refresh their knowledge whenever needed. It saves time and enhances accuracy, if the trainees could interact with experts frequently to resolve their doubts and issues faced in the field. As training sessions and content provided in large scale programs are standardized, such interactions can provide knowledge on issues which are context-specific and not covered in training.
On similar lines to what ECHO has done in the field of health with guided practice, even in the water sector, there is a need to move knowledge to communities, while obviating the need to move experts, who are already stretched. Such many-to-many interactions can facilitate peer-based learning and enable communities of practice to be created. The policy should also ensure creation of registries of people trained, assets created, knowledge products developed, and data generated by any program, so that it makes take-off of future programs at an advanced level - faster, easier, and cheaper. Any data collected should adhere to national privacy or other relevant laws.
Data, data everywhere but where exactly?
Data is crucial to decision making at all levels - whether it is a functionary of the Ministry of Jal Shakti designing a nation-wide program or a community water worker helping gram panchayats decide the best way to allocate water for multiple uses. There is no dearth of data in the water sector; multiple agencies and institutions have collected data over many years and continue to do so, however easily aggregating at spatial and temporal levels is difficult even now. This data is not available in ways and formats required to enable multiple stakeholders to act jointly, decisively and to facilitate water security. When researchers and program designers find it difficult to interpret and analyse the data, how can communities - the end users- make meaningful decisions using them? Ensuring availability of “their data” in easily consumable formats can empower communities to take ownership and action for “their water”.
Additionally, the community's involvement and role in the data process needs to evolve from being passive receivers of information to being active participants in the way data is generated and consumed. Democratising data collection and its usage can unleash a lot of energy, for collaboration as well as governance. Declaring or making standards transparent and putting mechanisms to ensure trust in the data, can allow for broader participation of various actors.
The clock is ticking
India’s water woes are not receding. Every day, more sources are getting contaminated, more regions are seeing droughts, children are dying from water-borne diseases, farmers are seeing crop failures with no water for protective irrigation, and women’s drudgery to transport water from far-off sources continues to affect their health and livelihoods. It is time to take some drastic policy measures and do things differently.
While the challenges are greater than ever before, so are the advancements on the solution side. The water sector is now equipped with better technology than ever before, innovative solutions to address most problems are being designed, highly trained human resources are available, and with mobile penetration bridging access to the remote areas, reaching out to communities in smallest pockets is easier than ever before - all of this NWP 2020 must leverage. Building on its previous versions, National Water Policy 2020 must aim to reflect the needs and realities of the 21st century.