Mihir Shah Committee report: How to solve water crisis

Water governance for future water security. (Source: IWP via Flickr photos)
Water governance for future water security. (Source: IWP via Flickr photos)

The country’s water sector is going through a rough patch. From polluted water resources to increasing demand for water due to rising population and frequent droughts, there are many problems that plague the sector. The worst sufferers are farmers and this is evident from increasing farmer suicides. To overcome the challenges of the water sector and for water security, a paradigm shift is needed in water management. This is possible only by moving from the supply-centric approach to a people-centric one.

At present, water is being managed under two separate heads--surface water and groundwater. Surface water is managed by the Central Water Commission or CWC and the groundwater is managed by the Central Groundwater Board or CGWB. From a hydrological standpoint, however, the two disciplines are not separate from each other and are interconnected. Therefore, a major shift is needed in the institutional framework of the CWC and the CGWB to make water management more holistic and multidisciplinary. In this context, Mihir Shah Committee, a seven-member committee headed by Dr Mihir Shah, has proposed in its report on India’s water reforms in 2016 to restructure the CWC and the CGWB into a National Water Commission that aims to bring both the CWC and the CWGB in its ambit and also fill the various gaps left unaddressed by the two agencies. 

Role of the Central Water Commission

The Central Water Commission was formed in 1945 as Central Waterways, Irrigation and Navigation Commission. The water wing, however, got separated in the year 1974 and the CWC became an individual entity which continues till date. At present, the CWC functions as the main technical arm of the Ministry of Water Resources and handles matters pertaining to irrigation, flood control and multipurpose projects. The overall planning, development and management of surface water resources of the country come within the CWC’s scope of work. 

Inadequacies of the commission

The responsibilities and activities of the commission are restricted to surface water resources resulting in a total disregard of other components of water resources in the hydrological cycle, especially the groundwater. Due to the interconnectedness of water with other sectors, there is a need for coordination among different agencies. For example, the river water quality monitoring function overlaps and to some extent duplicates the work of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the hydro-meteorological data collection overlaps the function of India Meteorological Department or IMD while the hydrological studies lie within the mandate of the National Institute of Hydrology or NIH, Roorkee.  

Moreover, the CWC does not have an expertise on issues concerning the environment and the socio-economic aspects of water. Apart from this, it also lacks knowledge of efficient irrigation management and water utilisation. Other than its functions in the river morphology and irrigation projects, another important responsibility of the CWC is to impart training to in-service engineers from the central and the state organisations in various aspects of water resource development. But the CWC looks inadequate in this area at present as it only caters to the engineering side of water projects while ignoring the holistic aspect of water management. 

To sum up, the current functions of the CWC address only a fraction of water management issues. Several major components of the hydrological cycle and its processes remain untouched. Also, the current focus of the commission is entirely upon the supply-side management which involves the storage and diversion of river flows as it is exclusively staffed with engineers. It lacks the knowledge of any other discipline that interfaces with water resource management.

Role of Central Groundwater Board 

The CGWB came into existence in 1950 and since then it has taken up the responsibility of exploring and developing the groundwater resources in the country. In the initial stages, it was part of the agriculture division but in 1971 it became a separate entity under the Ministry of Water Resources. The CGWB grew out of a small organisation with a narrow, specific purpose of drilling exploration wells to assess groundwater resources and then provide guidance on where and how to harness the resource through drilling. Progressively, the CGWB took on the function of monitoring the resources and eventually became the apex national organisation that deals with groundwater resources in the country. 

Inadequacies of the board

The strength of the CGWB is its exhaustive groundwater data generated through decades of field studies. Its work, however, is limited due to decentralised human resources. Moreover, the organisation which is already understaffed is not being able to attract young talent due to the lack of career prospects as compared to other similar organisations. There is a lack of institutional coordination among the central and the state level organisations which limits the scope of the work on groundwater. The potential of the CGWB is further curbed by the deployment of outdated equipment in the field. 

At present, the major concern within the organisation is the implementation of the concept of aquifer-based participatory groundwater management. Like surface water management, groundwater management is also bent towards a supply-side approach; there is a need to transform it to adopt a community-based approach. This will empower communities to take informed decisions on the use of groundwater and also to possibly stimulate and initiate collective action regarding the conservation, augmentation, usage and overall management of groundwater. 

Need for the National Water Commission

The CWC and the CGWB were created at a different time, with a mandate appropriate for that time. Now the challenges have changed and so is the mandate. To plug the gap between the job responsibilities envisaged for these agencies when they were created and the responsibilities required of them with the changing time, the Mihir Shah Committee has proposed to constitute the National Water Commission. 

With the help of technology, the assessment, monitoring and planning capabilities of infrastructure projects related to water resources should be enhanced and the projects need to be effectively deployed through a demand-based exercise done through a partnership between the central and state governments. In the new water resource governance scenario facing the country, there is a need to envisage a high-level central organisation that is forward looking, strategic, agile and transdisciplinary in its skill set. The organisation needs to be an action-oriented one and not merely an assessment and monitoring organisation, although these too will remain parts of its mandate. 

It has been proposed to establish a National Water Commission (NWC) that will replace the CWC and the CGWB and become the apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance. 

The Mihir Shah Committee has proposed the following structure for the NWC:

  • The NWC should be an adjunct office of the Ministry of Water Resources, functioning with both full autonomy and requisite accountability.
  • The NWC should be headed by a chief national water commissioner, a senior administrator with a stable tenure and a strong background in the public and development administration, and should have full-time commissioners representing hydrology (present chair, the CWC), hydrogeology (present chair, the CGWB), hydrometeorology, river ecology, ecological economics, agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and participatory resource planning & management.
  • The NWC should have a strong regional presence in all the major river basins of India.
  • The NWC should build, institutionalise and appropriately manage an architecture of partnerships with knowledge institutions and practitioners in the water space, in areas where inhouse expertise may be lacking.

Responsibilities of the NWC

The key mandate and functions that the National Water Commission will have to carry forward will be divided into several divisions for their effective implementation. The different responsibilities that the NWC is expected to take up are given below:  

1. Irrigation reform

Enable and incentivise state governments to implement all irrigation projects in reform mode with an overarching goal of har khet ko paani. This includes the most immediate task of completing the 99 ongoing projects under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP). Along with this, the NWC will work on improved water resource management and water use efficiency, not just construction of large-scale reservoirs, as the main objective.

2. River rejuvenation

Develop a nation-wide, location-specific programme for rejuvenation of country’s rivers to effectively implement the triple mandate of nirmal dhara, aviral dhara, swachh kinara. Create an effective promotional and regulatory mechanism that finds the right balance between the needs of development and environment, protecting ecological integrity of the nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers, as well as coastal systems. Also, the NWC will be responsible for understanding and conserving river morphology, river flows, ecology, bank erosion, floods, assessment and management of environmental flows and will work in close association with the groundwater management division so as to understand the surface-groundwater interaction. 

3. Aquifer mapping and participatory groundwater management

The NWC will lead the national aquifer mapping and groundwater management programme and work closely at the village and watershed levels, given the highly decentralised nature of groundwater usage in all the river basins. 

4. Water security

Insulate the agrarian economy and livelihood system from pernicious impacts of drought, flood and climate change and device policies and programmes for tackling these challenges. Along with this, the NWC will provide flood-forecasting services to all major flood prone interstate river basins of India and closely coordinate with the activities of the National Water Mission related to the impacts of climate change to achieve sustainable water security.

5. Urban and industrial water management

Promote cost effective programmes for appropriate treatment, recycling and reuse of urban and industrial wastewater. Also, the NWC will work closely with the Aquifer Mapping and Groundwater Management Division to map the aquifers of urban India and devise effective strategies for sustainable and equitable groundwater management in the country’s towns and cities. 

6. Water quality

Develop and implement practical programmes for controlling point and nonpoint pollution of water bodies, the wetlands and aquifer systems. Under this mandate, the NWC will work in close coordination with all other divisions and also with the CPCB to address the water quality issues.

7. Data management and transparency

Create a transparent, accessible and user-friendly system of data management on water that citizens can fruitfully use while devising solutions to their water problems.

8. Knowledge management and capacity building

Operate as a world class knowledge institution available (on demand) for advice to the state governments and other stakeholders, including appraisal of projects, dam safety, interstate and international issues relating to water. Create world class institutions for a wider capacity building of water professionals and knowledge management in water.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of the water sector, the NWC will build strong partnerships with a wide range of organisations across the country in the water sector, unlike its predecessors. 

The full report is attached below.

Also, read what another water expert has to say about the report and Mihir Shah's response to the criticisms of the report here.