Water: Towards a paradigm shift in the Twelfth Plan - A paper by Mihir Shah in the EPW
In this paper Dr Mihir Shah speaks on the need for this change, the process followed, the main features of this proposed change and the way forward from here.
22 Jan 2013

A fundamental change in the principles, approach and strategies of water management in India has been proposed in the Twelfth Plan

Why is this paradigm shift needed ?

India’s water crisis

The paper begins with an introduction to the water crisis faced by the country. This has been aggravated due to the compounded effect of falling water tables, contamination of groundwater, rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and the fresh challenge of climate change. All these are contributing factors to the spiralling water conflicts seen both at state and local levels.

Eighty per cent of India’s water is used for irrigation from two main sources -canals and groundwater. Unfortunately both these sources are now beginning to hit an upper limit with the escalating demand for more and more water.

Limits to large dams

Studies suggest that existing reservoirs have reached their upper storage limit. The new proposed dams face the grim prospects of displacing more populace, difficulty in location of storage places and aggravating the already fragile ecosystems of these areas. The north east, while being a bio diversity hotspot, is more earthquakes prone.

The ambitious scheme for interlinking of rivers also presents major problems of surplus water, which affects the natural supply of nutrients and the monsoon system, and thus will have a serious long term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent.

The crisis of groundwater

Exploitation of groundwater beyond sustainable levels has led to serious over-extraction and quality deterioration. The decline in the water table has been to the extent of 3-5 cm per annum in the country.

What is the way out of emerging crisis ? How can this paradigm shift be brought about ?

Given this apparent emergence of limits to further development of water resources, a workable consensus on each issue was arrived at by the working group. The main features of this change are outlined below:

Large irrigation reforms

  • To increase water use efficiency by 20% for irrigation projects
  •  To create a substantial National Irrigation Management Fund (NIMF) to incentivise states
  • To broaden the human resource profile of existing irrigation departments to include disciplines such as social mobilisation, management, agronomy, etc
  • To reorient capacities of civil engineers to move them towards management roles
  • To include command area development (CAD)works in all irrigation project proposals from the very beginning as an integral part of the project

Participatory aquifer management

  • Adoption of a participatory approach to sustainable management of groundwater based on aquifer mapping that takes into account the common pool resource(CPR) nature of groundwater
  • To encourage the interface of civil society and research institutes with government, across all aspects of the programme
  • Special focus to be on:
    • Relationship between surface hydrologic units and hydro geological units
    • Lithological set-up constituting the aquifer with some idea about the geometry of the aquifer – extent and thickness
    • Identification of groundwater recharge areas
    • Groundwater balance and crop-water budgeting at the scale of a village or watershed
    • Groundwater assessment at the level of each individual aquifer
    • Regulatory options at community level, including drilling depth ,distances between wells, cropping pattern that ensures sustainability of the resource (aquifer) and not just the source (well/tubewell)
    • Comprehensive plan for participatory groundwater management based on aquifer understanding, bearing in mind principles of equitable distribution of groundwater across all stakeholders

Breaking the groundwater-energy nexus

  • To provide major investments to improve and sustain a better way of delivering power subsidies that cut energy losses and stabilise the water table at the same time
  • A possible effective solution found by states has been allowing rationed supply of power to agriculture, which can be at off-peak hours

Watershed restoration and groundwater recharge

  • Transforming Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) into the largest watershed programme
  • Launching a completely revamped programme on Repair, Renovation and Restoration (RRR) of Water Bodies

A new approach to rural drinking water and sanitation

  • Adoption of a new approach based on the principle of subsidiarity that seeks solutions to problems of water quality, lack of ownership, social exclusion etc.
  • Villages covered with piped water supply to get open defecation free (ODF) status on priority and vice versa
  • Waste water treatment and recycling to be an integral part of every water supply plan or project
  • Management of liquid and solid waste to be promoted together with recycling and reuse of grey water for agriculture and groundwater recharge and pollution control
  • APL-BPL distinction and the focus on individual toilets to be replaced by a habitation-saturation approach
  • Toilet designs to be fine-tuned in accordance with local social and ecological considerations
  • Programme to be taken up in a phased manner progressively leading to Nirmal blocks, Nirmal districts and eventually Nirmal states

Conjoint water and wastewater management in urban India

  • Focus on the need to invest in water and waste management in human settlements based on a strategy that is both affordable and sustainable
  • Steps defined towards sustainable solutions
    • Investments in water supply to focus on demand management
    • Reducing intra-city inequity and on quality of water supplied
    • Each city to consider, as first source of supply its local water bodies
    • Cities to get funds for water projects, when they have accounted for the water supply from local water bodies and have protected local water bodies and their catchments
    • No water scheme to be sanctioned without a sewage component.
    • Cities to plan for reuse and recycling of waste at the very beginning of their water and waste plan

Industrial water

  • Industry to adopt best international practices to improve water use efficiency 
  • To make comprehensive water audits a recurring feature of industrial activity
  • To make it mandatory for companies to include details of their yearly water footprint in their annual report
  • To examine the measures to levy charges for water use and incentivise water conservation
  • To publicly validate the water audit of industries so that this builds experience and confidence on the best practices.
  • To develop a forum which would
    • provide information on industry-specific good practices in wise water use
    • undertake to develop expertise in water audits and water use advisory services
    • to provide details of “exemplar” case studies
    • provide a “gateway” for accessing information about water saving and water efficiency technologies in rain-water harvesting, recycling and reuse, water conserving devices and support to helping behaviour change

Renewed focus on non-structural mechanisms for flood management

  • To tackle floods by placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation of traditional, natural drainage systems, leveraging the funds available under MGNREGA
  • To convert adversity into opportunity as detailed below
    • Part of the waterlogged area could be used for construction of small multi-purpose farm ponds
    • Mud of ponds would be raised on the side as embankments on which crops like banana, papaya, mango, pigeon pea and cashew nut can be grown
    • Pond water to be used to irrigate non-waterlogged, upland area
  • Priority to be given to non-structural measures such as the efficient management of flood plains, flood plain zoning, disaster preparedness and response planning
  • Improve methods of flood forecasting and warning, along with disaster relief
  • Upgrade flood fighting including public health measures and flood insurance

What are the initiatives taken up to support this shift ?

The two major initiatives being taken in the Twelfth Plan, in order to support the manifold paradigm shift in water management are as follows:

Water database development and management

The working group highlighted serious gaps and inadequacies in the scope, coverage and quality of data currently used. It came up with a concrete programme to improve existing scenario to generate a more comprehensive, detailed and reliable data and outlined changes needed in institutional arrangements.

Suggestions made to central government are summarised below:

  • To work out the strategy, modalities and funding for building a comprehensive, technical and scientific data base on potential and utilisable water from different sources
  • To detail the scope, content, methodology and mechanisms of the surveys to assess performance and impact of programmes through sample surveys of users and specific projects
  • To design an integrated and digitised National Water Resources Information System

New institutional and legal framework

  • State-level regulators
    • Model bill for state water regulatory system has been drafted
    • It incorporates the principle of subsidiarity by laying out water governance at four levels: (i) state, (ii) river basin, (iii) sub-basin, and (iv) local
    • Bill builds in enough flexibility in its design to take care of differences across states through a modular structure
  • New groundwater law
    • A new model bill for the protection, conservation, management and regulation of groundwater has been proposed
    • Overall objectives of the model bill are to
      • regulate iniquitous groundwater use and distribution
      •  regulate over-extraction of groundwater
      •  promote and protect community-based, participatory mechanisms of groundwater management that are adapted to specific locations
      •  prevent and mitigate contamination of groundwater resources
      •  promote and protect good conservation, recharge and management practices
      • protect areas of land that are crucial for sustainable management of groundwater and ensure that high groundwater consuming activities are not located in areas unable to support them
  • National water framework law
    • To draft a National Water Framework Law (NWFL) that states that while under the Indian Constitution water is primarily a state subject, it is an increasingly important national concern in certain contexts
    • Clarification of the nature and scope of this law is given
    • For a national water framework law to be legislated , two or more state assemblies need to pass resolutions in support of Parliament enacting such a law

The way forward


This multifaceted paradigm shift in the Twelfth Plan has initiated a complete change in the principles and approaches animating water management in India. It is a move away from a narrow engineering -construction perspective towards a more multidisciplinary understanding of water. This shift in perspective is backed by a completely new and vastly enlarged package of incentives and financial and technical support.

What lies ahead is the difficult task of implementing this new approach. Dr Shah strongly feels that the same preparedness of civil society, academia and government of closely working together that transformed the Twelfth Plan agenda will now be required in its implementation, with close involvement of local communities, if success is to be achieved on this path.

For more information on Dr Mihir Shah, please click here

For the Twelfth Five Year Plan 2012-17 documents click here

The complete paper can be downloaded here

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