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Issues in Water Regulation, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry Of Power

R V Shahi's Weekly Column for Infraline - "Issues in Water Regulation" (Article, July 23, 2007)

On July 12 & 13, 2007, PRAYAS, a reputed NGO based in Pune organized a workshop on "National Consultation on Regulation and the Poor" focusing on electricity & water. I participated as a panelist. Mr. Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Former Secretary Water Resources, Govt. Of India, Mr. Prabir Purkayastha, Senior Analyst and Mr. Girish Sant of Prayas Energy Group were also in the panel. Though the issues discussed included electricity and water, in this paper only water is being covered.

Water has emerged as a very important area of concern not only in India but throughout the world. In the last 20 years, water and water related issues - availability, quality, cost and price, damages and devastations caused, - have attracted global attention. Accordingly, several legislative and administrative changes have been conceived and many countries have gone in for initiatives aimed at addressing these issues. In India, as the cities are growing and becoming larger, drinking water problem is being faced in almost all the places. In the recent past there have been agitations, in many cases virtual riots, due to lack of availability of water. Quality of water has become even more serious issue of concern. People's trust on quality of municipal supply has dwindled which is reflected by the overwhelming response for treated bottle water for drinking. Twenty years ago, in none of the cities we were buying water bottles for drinking. At Railway stations tap water at platforms was good enough. In summer, supply of sufficient water poses serious problem in many places. Even for the capital city of Delhi there are inter state issues in supply of water - whether from Haryana or from U.P. or any other source. On supply of water from Bhakra Byas system often there are disputes and sometimes very bitter exchanges among Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. Similar problems are being experienced in all regions of India among the eastern states, the western and among the southern states.

While on the one hand global warming and climate change related issues have assumed such a large proportion that they are occupying substantial space in the summit level meetings of heads of governments to mitigate the problems relating to carbon emissions, on the other a large number of hydro electric projects in India are not able to take off because of inter state disputes on water in various river systems. As the country needs to have a better growth rate in agricultural - in the recent years poor growth rate in agriculture has had its effect on economic growth rate - water for irrigation in itself has a large number of connected issues. Flood control and flood moderation in many parts of the country have evaded any reasonable solution. Devastations caused both to agricultural and human life's on account of our inability on flood control are major issues which have remained unresolved. Whether the projects are large entailing massive capital expenditure or small requiring lesser investments, it is clear beyond doubt that it costs to properly store, preserve and manage water. Dependable availability and also ensuring quality of supply would obviously require investment and hence pay back for the investments. Pricing of water, therefore, brings with it the challenge of changing the mindset of people. Like electricity Demand Side Management and conservation of water assumes a great relevance. While on the one hand most of our cities and large parts of rural agricultural system face the problem of scarcity of water, our technology of conservation and more importantly our habits of consumption result in huge but avoidable wasteful consumption of water. In this aspect both electricity and water face similar problem, of course more in the case of water.

It is in this context that this national consultation on all issues concerning regulation of water, particularly keeping in view the concerns of poor, becomes very relevant. Discussion paper and deliberations by the panel followed by comments and question answers revealed the following:

  • It is strange that while water is such an important energy resource, having huge energy potential of the order of 1,50,000 MW electricity capacity, it is such a vital human need (in comparison electricity stands no where), its quality has such a direct impact on the health of people; there is no central legislation on water. Management of anything and for that matter governance of any issue flows from the country's Constitution at the apex level, followed by legislative instruments accompanied by various policy and administrative initiatives. In most cases our river system covers a number of states from its origin to its end point. It may only be an exception - if there is any example - that a river has its beginning and its end both in the same state. Yet, in our Constitution water is a State subject. In case of electricity also, though not exactly identical, we have had similar problems inasmuch as States always had the most dominant role and occupied most of the space in the electricity sector. However, we had electricity Act 1910, Electricity Supply Act 1948 and only recently we succeeded, after due consultation with various States, on having a Central Legislation namely Electricity Act 2003. And, following this historic legislative initiative a large number of important policies like National Electricity Policy, Electricity Tariff Policy, Rural Electrification Policy having far reaching consequences, have been put in place. In contrast, legislative and policy instruments, covering the whole spectrum and formulated by Central Govt., are conspicuous by their absence in so far as water is concerned though for water it is needed more than for electricity.

Some of the important issues, that came up during the presentations of panelists, comments of participants and through question answer session, are as follows:

  • The issue of water governance means building social support for equitable and sustainable development of the resource, keeping in view the need for comprehensive participative planning. Accordingly, public policies and institutional framework have to be structured in a manner that they are inclusive.

  • An integrated water resource management approach is needed and can be deployed if two conditions are taken into account - (a) this should be seem primarily as a political process in terms of getting policy in place and, (b) the river basin concept should not limit the scope of the integrated water resource management approach.

  • Water Regulatory Authorities have been brought into effect in a number of States. However, in the absence of a clear strategy and policy the concept of water resource management has not been translated into effective practice on the ground.

  • There has been no consistency and organizational coherence in formulating policies, plans and decisions on harnessing of water and on its use among local, State and national level.

  • There is some degree of similarity between water and electricity in regard to their governance. However, the nature of water, as we all know, is different from that of electricity. Societies have survived without electricity but not without water, which is essential for life support. Therefore, policies and regulation for water have to recognize this basic difference.

  • The issue of regulation is not only whether we follow a particular model, infact the issue is whether the regulatory instrument can really take into account all concerns, especially the concerns related to environment and poor, and still retain and sustain its independent character. Democratic governance is expected to take care of involvement of large masses of people. It needs to be seen whether the regulatory framework takes care of these concerns.

Under this background, the issues that need to be focused will have to be analyzed and appropriate model recommended. The issues to be focused would include the following:

  • Resource planning on a national, regional and State level would require collection of all the relevant data and information so that a balanced approach is given to development of an integrated planning.

  • The system of recharging of ground water resources at present is inadequate with practically no regulation on exploitation of ground water.

  • Rain water harvesting can provide a significant source of managing rain water which is wasted. Collection and storage of rain water requires a participative and an integrated approach - techniques, education of people on techniques and practices, conservation and involvement of people at large.

  • The mechanism for maintenance of water resources and water supply system is not only weak but it is disorganized. There is a lack of accountability for maintenance. Perhaps decentralization of maintenance by water users association could be one of the options.

  • Rationalization of water rate is also major area of challenge. At present there is no set policy or rule to appropriately handle this issue.

  • Participation in water management through involvement of beneficiaries requires to be configured and implemented. Establishment of water zones and water shed management needs to be done by properly demarcating the available water to different zones. It would help in framing effective policies on water use.

  • Flood control and management is another important area requiring attention. Integrated irrigation and electric projects can provide a good solution.

  • Management of scarcity area for dry zones where water availability is a serious issue requires a special dispensation.

  • Drinking water and quality control would need special attention. Control of quality of drinking water has assumed a special importance. This problem is being faced almost everywhere.

  • Rising population and massive urbanization are going to place further pressures on availability and quality of water and consequently on issues such as sanitation and health etc.

  • Regulation of water for the purpose of irrigation also needs a more stream lined policy and procedure. The governments have built canals and in many cases due to lack of clarity on equitable distribution of water several disputes erupt.

  • Determination of priority for water allocation, keeping in view the intensity of needs in different geographical areas in terms of drinking water, irrigation, power project etc. is another issue requiring attention.

  • As the challenge is going to be even greater in coming years and the fund requirements are going to be very large, a proper approach to Public Private Partnership needs to be evolved. There is an urgent necessity to sensitise the corporate world to invest on water projects and particularly on water conservation issues.

In the light of these discussions some of the important conclusions which emerge are as follows:

  1. There is a need for an Indian Water Act. This is so important an issue that a proper legislative framework is essential. Obviously this will need extensive consultation with State governments and other stakeholders.

  2. Since the legislation might take somewhat longer time, there is an urgent need for National Water Policy, which will also require to be evolved in consultation with the State governments but could be targeted to be finalized within a short term time duration.

  3. In the absence of a proper water policy, regulatory framework, as such, may not be able to deliver the desired results.

  4. Once the policy is put in place regulatory institution obviously would be expected to take care of interests of all stakeholders. However, a distinction will need to be made in the matter of regulation of water, as compared to that for electricity. Electricity and water for poor is an important issue and regulation will need to recognize this. However, in case of water, this will require even more careful approach.

  5. Sustainability in terms of availability is an important concern. Proper water projects, decentralized approach in rural areas, pricing, and above all massive campaign on conservation are all required to be integrated to address this major challenge.