Water management solutions where users have a say
Private provision of water services is most successful where the operation and maintenance contracts are offered by the local water users.
17 Apr 2019
Canal irrigation has led to altered crop choice, organisation and techniques of production. (Image: India Water Portal)

India has, over the last 50 years, spent approximately $50 billion on developing water resources and another estimated $7.5 billion on drinking water, with little to show for the money (Devraj 2002). Apart from big dams and irrigation systems, the government has encouraged the digging of millions of tube wells and borewells energised by electric and diesel-driven pumps that now provide half of the country’s irrigation. Still, around 120 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water, and about 21 percent of all communicable disease in this country are water related.

Doomsday scenarios that give the impression that there is too little water and that demand will rise exponentially in the future are far from the truth. India is one of the wettest countries of the world, receiving about 4000 billion cubic metres (BCM) of rainfall every year. India, currently, uses barely a third of potentially available water supplies (FAO 2002), though among all resources, water is the greatest open-access commons.

Historically, access to a common resource was controlled by norms and customs, either articulate or inarticulate. The ever-increasing demand for these resources due to a growing population, economic development and improving technologies began to put pressure on the informal norms and customs that controlled the use of these resources. The process of state control began under the British but continued unabated even after Independence. So, what could be a probable solution? The solution is to put these resources back in the hands of the people and convert informal arrangements that had worked before into formal and legally enforceable rules and contracts. The single change of legal ownership and genuine participation of people would address many of anomalies of the current state management. Ownership brings responsibility.

The Government of India’s National Water Policy 2002, acknowledges the changed realities and emphasises a new institutional set-up for managing water resources. The basic principles of this policy are: 1) water should be treated as an economic good instead of a free service 2) the approach should be demand driven and not supply driven 3) the government should function as a facilitator and not service provider 4) users should be fully responsible for the operation and maintenance of services. These policy directives are a right step, but only the first step.

In India, a mixture of state monopoly and a “free for all” situation exists. In recent years, many countries across the world such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey have initiated programmes to transfer some or all responsibilities for management of irrigation and related water services to local organisations of farmers. In fact, farmer-owned and managed irrigation systems were in existence for several hundred to 2000 years in Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and also in the form of tank irrigation in south India. They served over 70 percent of irrigated land in Nepal, still dominate in Bali, and before independence, served the most land area in south India and Sri Lanka.

All these schemes across different cultures and nations share and exhibit a consistent and common set of institutional principles basic to sustainable, fair and affordable use. They provide a crucial lesson for evaluation of the ongoing transfer programmes. Water rights of farmers in sub-areas receiving water under the schemes and between different schemes on the same stream is established by priorities and are honored by farmers.

The success of any programme aimed at transferring control of water to user communities is dependent on the establishment of well-defined, proportional property rights. In India, authorities of water projects generally enter into long-term contracts with municipal corporations and other government agencies for the supply of fixed quantities of water for various purposes. The categories of these projects based on use are rural (domestic use and irrigation) and urban (domestic use and industrial use). Thus, if the currently used system of public allocations is firmed up and formalised, it can serve as a system of property rights over surface and ground waters. These quantitative allocations will ultimately need to be converted into proportional allocations of water rights for irrigation, domestic (rural and urban) or industrial use.

Also, a framework is required where the rights can be traded among various user groups as their needs change over time. Introducing a system of tradable water rights allows a price and an opportunity cost to be assigned to the value of the water right. Open market forces will lead to the most efficient allocation of these water rights.

Once the project allocations are decided, Water User Associations should be given the responsibility of operating and managing the delivery systems, either on their own or by hiring a private agency. Implementing this should not pose much of a problem since the physical delivery infrastructure (i.e. pipelines, treatment facilities etc.) is already in place in most areas.

While there are many success stories of rural communities, actively participating in the operation and management of water delivery services, the same cannot be said of the urban areas in India. Many of the urban water privatisation cases in the rest of the world have been synonymous with steep rate increases, health crises, water riots, and general social turmoil. Actually, water users, not the government, should be able to decide who will operate and manage their supply systems. Also, long-term contracts result in the monopoly, with the community not having the option of opting out in favour of better offers. Selling an entire water utility to a private company may result in the loss of local control, however, community control could increase in the case of short-term operation and management contracts.

Private provision of water services is most successful where the operation and maintenance contracts are not offered by the central authority but by the local water users, thus encouraging competition, which is what is also needed. Besides this, domestic and industrial water users could form Water Users Associations at the ward or constituency level. In addition, various types of contracts are possible, depending on the degree of private sector participation, ranging from Divestiture/Build Own Operate contracts to service or management contracts.

Getting the right amount of water to the right place, at the right time, requires localised solutions that put control over water resources in the hands of those who use them. The principles recommended here are old wisdom: user rights, user ownership and responsibility for managing collective services and common resources.

Parth J. Shah is the director of the Indian School of Public Policy and the founder of the Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.


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