Which way will the water flow?

The 12th Five Year Plan recognises that our current methods of water management have led to inequity. It suggests an approach that involves more input from non-government sources.
Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary Water Resources Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary Water Resources

In the 60-odd years since we began managing our own resources, we have managed to throttle and poison all our rivers, suck our groundwater resources nearly dry and shave our forests bald. This is despite a great deal of effort, time, thought and resources that have gone into this 'management'.

So far, the approach has focused on symptom relief. Is the state of the Ganga an international embarrassment? Never mind the other rivers, initiate the Ganga Action Plan. It didn't work? Do it again! Are the residents of Uttarakhand agitating against dams? Build dams in the Northeast instead! This band-aid approach, never satisfactory to begin with, is finally dysfunctional and unable to cope with the situation it has created.

Thankfully, the shortcomings of the present approach are now being recognised. The Planning Commission has taken a  paradigm shift during the formation of the 12th Plan. This shift hinges on two facts- that wisdom does not reside in the government alone, and that the power of partnerships is what we need to put forward. The Commission has built upon the experiences of community organisations focussed on the devolution of water management and has initiated a concerted effort towards sharing water data. This change is best illustrated by the fact that for the first time ever, all the working groups were headed by individuals outside the government.

To achieve this devolution of management, it is necessary for us to use the facilities and information that we do have access to. People clamour for water data, but don't seem to use whatever little data is available. Using these data sets is the only way to exert informed pressure either to overcome our current gendered attitude towards water, ensure an ecological framework for river management, or prevent diseases due to contaminated water.

Our water management also needs to recognise the emergence of new issues. The face of rural life has drastically changed since the 1990s when the Watershed Development Programme was first proposed. It is now time to reassess its goals and interventions. The various water conflicts in the region whether inter-state or international, all deserve to be looked at anew. Peri-urban water security is an accelerating concern; our cities' tendency to look at their surrounding areas as a source for resources as well as a waste dump needs to be checked immediately.

This call for a new and principled approach to dealing with our water issues leads almost inevitably to a discussion of the National Framework Law. The proponents of the Law insist that it would be a non-administrative law, and would not impinge on the rights of the states that presently have control of their water resources. However, the Law also gives valid cause for some concerns. It is only the fact that control of rivers does not lie with the Centre that has prevented the country from going ahead with the disastrous inter-linking project. Even assuming that in its current reincarnation the National Framework Law is benign, it is too much of a risk to take.

Prof. Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary Water Resources (Government of India), Honorary Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, and author of several books on water governance in India has been responsible for shaping the thoughts and sensitivities of a generation of development workers, bureaucrats and politicians. He was felicitated on his 85th birthday at a seminar organised by the Water Conflicts Forum and the Centre for Policy Research. This post reports on some of the key issues debated during the seminar.

You can download the full report and Mr. Iyer's speech below.

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