Tuesday, May 22, 2012

India’s Tectonic Shift in Water Policy

India needs a completely new approach to managing its water resources. Planning Commission member Mihir Shah shares his blueprint for success.

India is set to adopt a radical new water resources strategy based on management solutions rather than engineering-based solutions, according to Dr Mihir Shah, who leads the water resources, rural development and decentralised governance portfolios at India’s Planning Commission.

Speaking at the Global Water Summit in Rome on 30 April, he described the strategy as “a complete change in the way that we look at water and the way we manage water”.

The new strategy outlines a series of institutional reforms to help implement the shift, including the establishment of statelevel regulatory authorities responsible for setting tariffs, allocating resources to user groups, resolving conflicts and monitoring water quality; establishing a national water commission based on the Australian model; and introducing ‘rational’ water pricing. To drive forward implementation, the central government will make the availability of irrigation funds conditional on reform.

The strategy is now only contingent on the approval of India’s full 12th Five-Year Plan by the National Development Council in July this year – a process that is expected to be straightforward.

Some elements of the plan are already being implemented – some states have set up regulatory authorities for water resources, for example, while some have undertaken major reforms to the structure of the irrigation sector. Shah recognises, however, that progress will be uneven across states, and he believes it may take a decade for the new approach to percolate through the whole of India.

The driver of change is necessity. In recent decades, India has relied on largescale water infrastructure paired with unrestrained groundwater exploitation to increase its water supply. 

This approach is now obsolete, according to Shah. The availability of suitable sites for large dams has been exhausted, and groundwater is being used far more rapidly than the natural recharge rate. “We are facing a man-made crisis,” Shah told summit delegates, referring to the over-abstraction of groundwater in many parts of India.

Although the plan does not specify who will pay for irrigation water – or the unit cost – Shah believes that farmers will be willing to pay for a high-quality water supply service if they are confident that it will be delivered. Whether the private sector can be brought in to provide these services in the agricultural sector will depend critically on whether charging schemes can be made to work.

One of the first concrete steps will be to carry out a national groundwater survey. A budget has already been approved for this, and the study is expected to begin within the next three months, although it may take seven to 10 years to cover the entire country, Shah says.

The strategy ultimately envisages a national water framework law. This would not set targets, as the European framework legislation does, but would define the principles of water resource management and would be legally justiciable.

 The tricky issue in the Indian context is how to pass a national law on what is essentially a state subject. One possibility is to take advantage of Article 252 of India’s constitution, which allows the national parliament to pass a law after two states have passed it in their state assemblies. “We are going to down this route,” Shah told GWI. “This will take time, as even though the chief ministers of a couple of states have verbally agreed, they need to get their own legislatures on board. The next two years will be decisive.”

New Delhi will also be able to make use of centralised funding schemes to exercise leverage over local governments. “Under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, we are making it a conditionality of funding that you have to have sewage treatment going hand in hand with water supply systems,” said Shah. He sees a huge opportunity for the private sector to participate in the expansion of treatment plants and collection networks.

Many outsiders are sceptical of the country’s ability to push through the necessary reforms, drawing attention to India’s sclerotic public policy process and the particular challenges involved in central government trying to tackle a statelevel issue. More than 90% of delegates at the Global Water Summit admitted in a live poll that they think it will take between 10 and a hundred years for India to implement the paradigm shift outlined by Shah.

Shah is much more optimistic. “It’s a new world out there,” he says, “and we welcome you to come and join us.”

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