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Thu24Jul2014

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Water: Economic good or right to life?

The Draft Water Policy 2012 makes all the right noises about keeping livelihood and ecosystem needs as the first priority, but contradicts this by insisting that water must be seen as an ‘economic good’, says Ranjan K Panda

resettlement in Delhi

A farmer in Uttarakhand, who I recently met on my way from Ranikhet to Paksa, poses a challenge to the Draft National Water Policy, 2012 even though he does not know anything about it or the fact that the draft is up for comment on the Union government’s Ministry of Water Resources website. The draft policy, in line with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank formula of water management, reiterates the need to consider water as an ‘economic good’ and says there is still lack of awareness among the people of this nation about effective use of the resource.

Did this farmer treat water as an economic good, or as an essential he couldn’t afford not to have?

The economy is linked to profit. If that is so, this subsistence farmer should profit from the water he is entitled to by way of government provisioning or through his own effort. Ironically though, he is a lossmaker in the business of collecting a lifesaving resource that is supposedly guaranteed to him by the nation as a ‘right to life’.

When cash or paying capacity is the only deciding factor in gaining access to a resource like water, the poor will certainly enjoy no rights and will be further excluded.

It was January 31, 2012, a day after polling for the state assembly ended. Everywhere, people were talking politics. My ‘happy’ villager was boasting how the MLA candidate of ‘his’ party, an ex-professor from Delhi University who owned factories near Delhi, had negotiated votes from his village at Rs 1,000 each. The ‘other’ party had offered Rs 500. Buying votes is easy these days!

Fetching water is not so simple. In these hilly parts water is scarce despite thousands of springs and streams feeding the gadheras (rivulets) and rivers. The worst stretch is from mid-February till about June, when they have to climb 2 km down a steep slope to fetch water from the gadhera. Water for the village comes from a spring on the upper slopes of the hills; they pay Rs 35 a month for two hours of water supply. The taps run dry March onwards, until the monsoon.

The village’s drinking water supply project involved people’s contribution at about 20% in the form of labour. From what I could gather, for a project that cost around Rs 8 lakh, 40 families contributed around Rs 160,000 through their labour. That’s roughly Rs 4,000 per family. Each family has to pay an additional Rs 420 per year to get water for their domestic needs, that too only for eight months.

The farmer told me he had 50 nali of land (about 1 hectare). All of it is rain-fed, enough to produce wheat, rice and millets for his family of seven. In good years, when he has some produce to sell, he gets a cash income of around Rs 2,000-3,000. Over the last 15 years, he has had only three such ‘good’ years. Cash for medical attention, education, clothing etc is met by earning a daily wage working on someone else’s field, plantation, or on roads and other projects including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Calculated over 15 years, the water tax that the farmer paid per year was 70% of his income!

Can we discount the role of the state in providing adequate and good quality water to people? Or should we hand the job over to private suppliers who will distribute the natural resource to whoever they want, and profit from it? Whose resource is it and who profits from it? The draft policy does not answer any of these questions.

In its February 2 verdict against the corrupt allocation of 2G spectrum, the Supreme Court stated: “Natural resources are vested with the government as a matter of trust in the name of the people of India… It is the solemn duty of the state to protect the national interest, and natural resources must always be used in the interests of the country and not private interests.”

But those who use water for profit and luxury are being favoured in this country over those who use water for survival. In Orissa in November 2011, Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO), a civil society network, revealed that the water bureaucracy in the state was turning a blind eye to illegal exploitation of groundwater by Vedanta Alumina Ltd’s Jharsuguda plant. Despite the government having stated that the company was drawing groundwater without permission and that it had not paid taxes and fines for water it was drawing from the Hirakud reservoir and Bheden river for over five years, the executive engineer of the main dam division recommended a waiver of taxes to the water resources department, stating that the company was a regular taxpayer and that instructions for not collecting tax from the company had been received ‘telephonically’ from an additional secretary with the department. This was happening in connivance with the water bureaucracy until the matter was exposed and opposition political parties rocked the assembly in a recently concluded session. This, in a state whose effective irrigation coverage is a mere 20% and which is struggling to provide the promised 35% irrigation to all blocks. Indeed, it has been alleged that various corporate houses and commercial establishments owe water taxes to the tune of Rs 3,000 crore, only from water they have taken from the Hirakud reservoir. The money has been outstanding for decades!

The Hirakud dam, one of independent India’s first examples of colonisation of water resources, is now the focus of a vibrant movement by farmers against the diversion of water from irrigation to industry. While thousands of people displaced by the dam more than half-a-century ago are still to be compensated for the loss of their land (most have settled around the reservoir), they have been fighting an endless battle to get assured irrigation. A rise in the number of farmer suicides around the Hirakud reservoir in recent years is just the latest shameful manifestation of the water resource management practices being promoted in this country with the focus on large, centralised reservoirs.

The Rs 3,000 crore that corporations owe the state in the form of water tax and fines would fund at least 600 minor irrigation projects, saving 12,000 farm families from drought and related drudgery.

The draft policy in its current form, propagating privatisation of water resources, will only strengthen those forms of water governance in which the poor subsidise the rich even as the rich continue their water theft. All this in the name of ‘effective management’!

The draft mentions that access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation must be regarded as a right to life, essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights. But, in a highly inequitable society where the rich and corporations have all the power to decide, and with no clear-cut ‘right to water’ guaranteed by the rule of law and backed by a solid people-oriented democratic institutional mechanism, it will only serve to increase the prevailing water inequality.

Water democracy, not water bureaucracy

The draft water policy promotes a Water Regulatory Authority. This is another form of centralisation of power with the democratically elected government playing a lesser role. The same bureaucratic structures that have led to the scarcity we see today, and which force us to regulate our water use, will become more powerful. What people need is greater community control over water resources. Panchayats, assemblies and parliament should all play a vibrant role in managing water resources. Leaving it solely to a bureaucrat-controlled regulatory authority will only fuel more conflict.

Finally, the culture of public consultations that has arisen in India whilst deciding on important policy matters that have a bearing on the life and livelihoods of people and other life forms must be reviewed. Governments, both at the centre and the states, are now comfortable seeking public opinion on policies via the Internet. Only a few people and organisations get a chance to participate in such virtual consultations.

2002 to 2012: Change for the worse?

The National Water Policy, 2002 also treated water as an economic good and talked about regulations and systematic planning, cost recovery, etc. However, we lost more water than we had in this one decade, water conflicts grew, and the bias towards corporations and the rich deepened.

While the Draft Water Policy, 2012 accords basic livelihood and ecosystem needs first priority, its prescription for turning water into an ‘economic good’ after these needs are met makes it an easy tool to exploit water for profit. No lessons appear to have been learnt. Further, without a proper account of current needs, use and exploitation integrated with population increases, growing demand, and stresses arising out of climate change, it’s almost impossible to monitor such a vague and unclear ‘prioritisation’.

That the country still doesn’t have an updated database on the state of its water resources is clear from the draft policy which fails to come up with any concrete data on most issues it deals with. The existing policy expressed concern about adequate and accurate data; the proposed draft repeats this concern. All plans and policies related to water use and management are destined to fail in the absence of data, transparency and accessibility. It’s perhaps because of this inadequacy of data and assessment that the policy fails to quantify that ‘minimum’ of basic need beyond which it suggests water be treated as an ‘economic good’.

Maintaining ecological flow, a major concern across the globe, has not been accorded due seriousness in the draft policy. Like the 2002 policy, the draft proposes to set aside a portion of river flow to meet ecological needs. Considering the extent of degradation of India’s rivers and the pace of industrialisation and urbanisation, with scant control over the use and abuse of rivers by these sectors, ensuring the minimum ecological flow of rivers will be difficult. Indeed here water as a survival need and as an economic good contradict one another. The draft policy puts the onus of local-level awareness, maintenance etc on local communities but fails to recognise that most river basins are polluted and stressed by industry and urban settlement. While the latter need water for survival and basic livelihoods, the former has historically been an abuser. Further, whilst basic users cannot pay for the use in ‘cash’, commercial and luxury users can use ‘cash payment’ to justify their abuse of the resource.

None of these problems have been addressed by the 2002 policy; the current draft does nothing further than advocating age-old and unviable transfer of water from open to closed basins and the formulation of regulatory authorities.

What we should do, according to veteran water expert Ramaswamy Iyer, is to try and reverse our thinking. “The ecology cannot be asked to accommodate development needs. Our visions of development must spring from an understanding of ecological limits,” he asserts. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People finds a way out in the South African Water Act: “When the South African Water Act was passed in 1997, based on the White Paper on South African Water and Sanitation Policy, 1994, the policy took a detailed look at defining water for basic human needs, its quality, quantity, access, distance etc, as well as various issues related to water and environment. It was only with this background that South Africa could take the revolutionary step of securing water for basic human needs and ecological reserves first. It went through a rigorous, extensive process of consultations with communities and other stakeholders (which still continues) to actually calculate the reserve, implement it and monitor it.”

As against the 2002 policy, the 2012 policy considers climate change a major factor. This is understandable as debates and discussions around climate change increased substantially after the formation of the National Climate Change Action Plan, which is also said to have mandated the need for a new water policy. However, when it comes to mitigation and adaptation, the draft discounts the culprits and asks communities to take action, become sensitised and be resilient. It is now well established that rural communities -- a majority of the country’s population -- are excellent at adapting to climate change.

It is urban society, large, centralised and heavy investment development models, and industry that are the real culprits. The policy should therefore make it mandatory for these sectors also to be climate sensitive and use water more rationally. This can be done through water rationing for these segments. Putting a price on water and leaving its management in the hands of the private sector will only increase the access of richer sections to this resource. India’s National Water Policy must recognise this reality.

Guiding principles

The National Water Policy should be based on the following guiding principles:

  • Water is a finite natural resource over which all human beings and other species have equal rights.
  • Centralised authoritarian structures of water governance and regulation should be done away with.
  • Water for life and livelihoods (communities/people who are directly dependent on water for their livelihood, for example, fisherfolk) should be provided free of cost as part of the state’s responsibility under the principle of ‘rights’ of these communities over the resource.
  • Industry and corporate houses that use water as a ‘commercial good’ for production and profit must not be considered ‘decision-making’ stakeholders and hence must never be allowed to sit on any decision-making bodies related to water management and governance.
  • Water allocation should be based on the carrying capacity of the ecology, considering present and future use, demand, recharging and threat perspectives, where ‘future’ should not be limited to a few decades only.
  • If there has to be any bias towards a section in water allocation then it should be towards the poor, farmers, fisherfolk and other sections of society whose lives and livelihood are directly related to water. And, of course, towards other life forms on earth.

(Ranjan Panda, Convenor, Water Initiatives Odisha, is a leading water researcher and activist. He is also a senior freelance journalist)

Infochange News & Features, February 2012