Insights into Editorial: Comment on the Proposed National Water Commission
India faces unprecedented challenges of water management in the 21st century. As the water crisis deepens by the day, the old 20th century solutions appear to be distinctly running out of steam. These solutions were devised in an era when India had yet to create its irrigation potential. While big dams played a big role in creating a huge irrigation potential, today the challenge is to effectively utilise this potential, as the water that lies stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. At the same time, groundwater, which truly powered the Green Revolution, faces a crisis of sustainability.
- In this regard, the government of India had set up several special groups to come up with a paradigm shift in water management in the last few years. A committee headed by Mihir Shah was one such committee. The Committee, called Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), headed by Shah was set up to come up with concrete proposals to address the water problems.
- It submitted its report titled, “A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Resources,” to the central government in July 2016. Among others, the committee recommended the creation of a new National Water Commission (NWC) as the nation’s apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance.
The commission report recommended that NWC be headed by a chief national water commissioner and should have full time commissioners representing hydrology, hydrogeology, hydrometeorology, river ecology, ecological economics, agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and participatory resource planning and management.
- It will be an autonomous body & will to have a countrywide base and mandate, and greater human-power.
- It will subsume Central Water Commission & the Central Ground Water Board.
- The commission aims at reducing inter-state water disputes, bring greater efficiency, better planning and increased emphasis on conservation of water.
- It also ensures that all water resources in the country are managed in a holistic manner and not separately as surface water, groundwater or river water.
Why this is necessary?
- To optimally develop water resources in India so that all river basins and resources can be managed keeping in mind the increasing unpredictability of the monsoon and other climate factors.
- Decreasing per capita availability of water and the huge projected demand of this natural resources by 2050 may also be the triggers for such a move.
- Besides, the present mandate of Central Water Commission (CWC) belongs to an old era when dam construction and tube well drilling was the prime need of the hour. The CWC now lacks expertise in water utilisation, environmental and socio-economic issues and in efficient irrigation management to deal with present-day challenges of droughts, floods, climate change and food and water security.
- Also, at present, the CWC, which develops surface water projects, and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), which monitors ground water use and contamination, carry out functions independent of each other. For integrated water management, development, planning, water-use efficiency and for budgeting the adoption of a river basin approach, restructuring or a single commission is necessary.
Challenges before NWC:
- A burning issue the NWC has to deal with is how to provide water security to India’s 2,50,000-odd villages that are now fully at the mercy of vagrant monsoons.
- Effective human resource management will be a major challenge for the NWC. The manpower requirements of the NWC seem huge. It is supposed to catalyse participatory institutions in rural areas. It would require an army of change agents with the requisite skills and commitment to cover the length and breadth of the country. Besides this, a great variety of professional experts are to be hired to fulfil the NWC’s various missions.
- Also, it will need to estimate the costs of its operations, and develop a funding strategy—how much from the centre, how much from the states, how much from international bodies such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, and how much from the corporate, public and private sectors?
How to make NWC more efficient?
- They can rope in a number of high-quality non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are already in the rural water management business. They have vast experience of ground realities, and know how to help set up effective people’s participatory bodies to create and manage groundwater resources in such villages.
- Given the political scenario in India and growing conflicts over water, however expert and world-class the NWC becomes, it would not be able to fulfil its mandate unless it has teeth—the power to approve, decide, and give orders in areas where it has implementation responsibilities. One possible way could be that no water-related scheme exceeding a certain threshold, say ₹100 crore, can be undertaken by any state or by the centre without its approval.
- Also, the approval should be granted only after the required criteria for effective water utilisation are incorporated in the scheme, and the NWC should monitor the progress of the scheme and levy stringent penalties if there is default.
- As of now, the report recommends NWC to be autonomous, but under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation—that is, under bureaucratic control. This has created some confusion. Therefore, it is necessary to safeguard its autonomy. If it must report to the ministry, then a way of safeguarding its operating autonomy could be a memorandum of understanding (MoU) under which the mandate, accountability for performance, and the autonomy of the NWC are spelt out.
Mere technically elegant solutions for designing the NWC will not suffice. Bureaucratic or merely technocratic administration could kill it. The NWC will need to be designed and managed professionally, and in such a way that it does not go the way of many government bodies, including the CWC and CGWB, that are run by technocrats without management expertise, or by bureaucrats without domain expertise and with uncertain tenures.