Institutional reforms: Building a 21st century institutional architecture for water governance

The Central Water Commission and Central Ground Water Board need to reinvent their role in today’s vastly different irrigation and water use scenario. CWC has to break out of its limited role of project design and planning, and reinvent itself for a far more ambitious responsibility of irrigation governance.

Written by Tushaar Shah | Updated: July 20, 2017 4:59 am
 India water challenges, institutional architechture, institutional reform, water governance, national water commission, india news, indian express The Sardar Sarovar dam. (Express Photo)

In July 2016, a high level committee constituted by the Narendra Modi government, chaired by the former Planning Commission member Mihir Shah, delivered a comprehensive report on improving water governance in India. Among other things, it called for a 21st century institutional architecture to meet the country’s increasingly serious water challenges.

One year on, the report’s many wide-ranging recommendations remain largely ignored, even as we now have a debate that’s centered around merging the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) under a National Water Commission. This, when the real issue highlighted by the committee was about both these organisations risking becoming bystanders to the goings-on in the Indian water scene. Merely merging the two will only yield a larger entity equally at the risk of marginalisation.

CWC was created in 1952 as a technical organisation comprising mainly civil engineers for planning large irrigation and hydropower projects. Similarly, CGWB was founded in 1968 as a groundwater investigation and monitoring agency staffed with hydro-geologists. Both built solid technical capabilities and met the requirements for those times rather well. But the water challenges today are different and far more complex. CWC and CGWB need to break out of their narrow technical groove and morph to meet these new challenges.

Today, we have almost exhausted our best sites for irrigation and hydro projects. The challenge now is of managing these projects well. On this, CWC should actually be our pathfinder. Since the 1990s, the more money we have invested in irrigation projects, the less has been the actual area irrigated by government canals. CWC ought to know why this has been so and guide states in closing the widening gap between irrigation potential created and utilised. This requires more than just conventional engineering.

It is interesting here that when Shivraj Singh Chauhan wanted Madhya Pradesh’s canal systems to irrigate to their potential, CWC wasn’t his go-to place for knowhow. Instead, he used a generalist-bureaucrat to squeeze four times more water out of the state’s canals, by simply tightening irrigation management. As the custodian of the country’s irrigation systems, CWC should have made a thorough assessment of MP’s success and launched a nationwide campaign to replicate it in other states.

Likewise with the CGWB. Over past 30 years, India has emerged as the world’s largest groundwater economy with the most complex hydro-geological, socio-economic and institutional dimensions. CGWB’s job in today’s scenario cannot stop just at mapping aquifers. It needs also to map the socio-economics of groundwater exploitation and analyse its institutional and eco-system implications.

In this connection, isn’t it odd that some of the biggest water initiatives in recent times have originated from chief ministers of states, rather than from our apex technical organisations? Telangana’s Mission Kakatiya, Maharashtra’s Jalyukta Shivar, Rajasthan’s Jal Swavalamban Yojana or Gujarat’s Sardar Patel Sahabhagi Jal Sanchay Yojana are all flagship water conservation schemes of state governments. Neither CWC nor CGWB have had a role in their design or implementation, or even in drawing lessons of success and failure from these programmes. This is a measure of how far removed the two organisations have become from water action on the ground.

Can merely merging CWC and CGWB into a National Water Commission, then, produce a 21st century architecture for water governance? Hardly. What is needed is effecting deep changes in their operational and management functions, starting with how they view themselves.

CWC has to break out of its limited role of project design and planning, and reinvent itself for a far more ambitious responsibility of irrigation governance. It should be judged not just by irrigation potential created, but also by potential utilised. It must work towards improving the financial viability of canal systems, promoting conjunctive management of surface and ground water, and providing the lead for farmer participatory irrigation management. States, in turn, should not resent CWC for its coercive power, but indulge it for its expertise and referent power.

CGWB similarly must transcend beyond its groundwater investigation and monitoring role. That function remains critical, no doubt, but CGWB has to also learn to preside over a complex groundwater irrigation economy that supports over Rs 4,00,000 crore-worth of annual crop and milk revenues of our predominantly small farmers. The Supreme Court, in 1996, had designated CGWB as India’s Central Groundwater Authority. But it made nothing of this godsend opportunity and remained a mere paper tiger.

Transforming CWC and CGWB into truly strategic water management organisations requires changes in their organisational culture and processes. In all such organisations, the new entrants are preoccupied with technical specialities, whereas those reaching the top acquire a broader view of the world. In CWC and CGWB, the opportunities for a broadening of outlook and developing a trans-disciplinary worldview are limited, which needs to change. The top leadership of CWC and CGWB should be selected, even if from within, on merit and must be given at least five-year terms. Broad-based capacity building needs to be carefully planned for the top management cohort, which would include interactions with leading practitioners of their craft around the world.

How organisations groom their people is, perhaps, also an indicator of how seriously they pursue their mandate. Both CWC and CGWB have their captive training schools, but their limited faculty and training focus means they are stuck in a narrow groove. Reform must begin by preparing their technical professionals for a larger role. The Shah committee recommended induction of social scientists into these organisations. Alternatively, the core technical competencies of these institutions could be retained, along with the regular exposure of their engineers and hydro-geologists to economics, the social sciences, eco-systems and relevant management concepts.

With a stroke of his pen, the Prime Minister may well merge the CWC and CGWB into a National Water Commission. But to expect that doing this will create a 21st century institutional architecture for water governance would be optimistic. The long and arduous road to water governance reform needs careful and painstaking change management within CWC and CGWB.

(The writer is Senior Fellow at the International Water Management Institute and was a member of the Mihir Shah Committee.)

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  1. ScSt Nation
    Dec 3, 2017 at 12:00 am
    The Last Part5: Has M.Dinesh Kumar checked the CWC hydrological observation data? It is bundle of lies. Dams and other projects are being constructed with false data. Interlinking is being contemplated on the basis of these false data that is more computed than observed, more data gaps, these data are collected by poorly qualified sis who just have to send some data daily. Whether M.Dinesh Kumar referred CAG repremand on CWC flood forecasting, the AIBP lingering since 20 years. Whether M.DineshKumar know about corruption, financial irregularities, procedural irregularities extensively going on in CWC? Come on guys........what stakes do you hold in preserving this moribund organization called CWC? How does this moribund CWC help achieve better water management in India? Who will lead water management in India, if Central Govt has to wait for State sector organizations to reform first? Any answers? (Now please read from below as Part1, 2, 3, 4, 5 please)
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    1. ScSt Nation
      Dec 2, 2017 at 11:54 pm
      Contd Part4: If you notice the CWC Chairmen like G.S.Jha, NarendraKumar ETC.. India Water Week or Jal Manthan, they even do not know the difference between "Water Loss" and "Diverted Water" in irrigated agriculture. Most of the time, Chairman and Members of Central Water Commission sit like nincom s on the dais. The best path for their promotion in Central Water Commission is not hard work or knowledge enhancement, but sheer "Chamchagiri". You do 30 years of "Chamchagiri" and you will get "Excellent" CR. Besides, the current format of Central Water Commission is a secretive organization with no accountability. SC/ST officials are harassed, discriminated, their lives destroyed by self serving powerful non-SC/STs.. ternal politics rampant.....and only select officials are sent to tour to abroad etc. M.Dinesh Kumar and his cohorts should elaborate what earth shattering invention has been done by CWC in design, floods, basin management etc in the last 70 years? (Contd...Part 5)
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      1. ScSt Nation
        Dec 2, 2017 at 11:45 pm
        Contd....Part3: The current expertise of CWC or CGWB is woefully incapable of understanding, collaborating and executing the latest paradigms enumerated by the very CWC in its 3 National Water Policies. CWC declares basin management - but when Dr.Mihir Shah recommends basin organizations all the vested interests and M.Dinesh Kumar will oppose the same. CWC declares integrated water management - but when Dr.Mihir Shah recommends integration of CWC/CGWB...again the vested interests gets insecure and oppose multi-disciplinary organizations. M.Dinesh Kumar and others should suggest how IWRM, Basin management, multi-disciplinary approach can be achieved in the current format of CWC and CGWB? There could be 700 engineers recruited by UPSC on the basis of B.E/B/Tech, but none of them have any knowledge of environment flows, social impact assessment, geology, groundwater etc. Nearly 99 CWC 700 engineers hardly possess capability to write a paper in a peer reviewed journal...(Contd.part-4)
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        1. ScSt Nation
          Dec 2, 2017 at 11:37 pm
          Contd...Part2: CWC is actually Delhi based organization and therefore most of N dians from U.P/Bihar/Rajasthan/M.P prefer CWC for their convenience when posted by UPSC. They prefer Railways as first choice and CPWD as second choice. CWC is always a last choice and most of them are posted here are rejects of Railways or CPWD or Highways. Now, let us come to the performance of Central Water Commission in the last 70 years. What vested interests boast of construction of 5000 dams was infact happened in 20th century. But even in those 5000 dams, the information is not transparent. Barring the names, river, height etc., the information and data hardly speak of their quality and current live storage after accounting after siltation. Most of the failed dams amongst 5000 dams are kept secret because it brings shame to the officials and the well preserved re tion of CWC will get eroded. The era of large dams has ended. Now there is no place for dam in Peninsular India.....(Contd...3)
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          1. ScSt Nation
            Dec 2, 2017 at 11:27 pm
            I do not understand what are the stakes held by M.Dinesh Kumar and others in opposing the reformation of Central Govt organizations. Going by what M.Dinesh Kumar's argues, shouldn't CWC and CGWB never be reformed as long as State reforms aren't held Or should CWC and CGWB be preserved in 21st century with the format that is suitable 100 years ago, simply because "Water" is a State subject or execution of work remains in the hands of State governments? M.Dinesh Kumar may not be aware that those vested interests within CWC/CGWB opposing Dr.Mihir Shah Report for restructuring CWC and CGWB are those who have bought land/House at Delhi and those who have converted their Delhi offices like second residences. These vested interests project "Expertise" as a pretext to stay at their preferred places for their decades or even till their retirement. (C M.Dinesh Kumar may be aware that nearly two-thirds of Central Water Commission (2 of 3 Wings viz D/R wI HRM Unit one CE office)..Contd..part2
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