Support mechanisms for states are key to a national water law
In the belief that we have the civilisational and,given our federal democracy,institutional strength to use water well,I accepted the daunting task of chairing a committee to develop a draft framework law for the water sector. The draft was not only to be the national water framework law. but was also meant to provide the larger structure for organising support mechanisms to states and communities in their governing institutions at the levels that matter local government; community based institutions (CBOs); and the management of ponds,water bodies,watersheds,aquifers and river basins. Support mechanisms was the key.
There is only one issue the framework law insists on nationally that each Indian be entitled to a minimum of 25 litres of water a day and,if she is poor,to get it free. States or local bodies could raise the bar,but the minimum was specified. As regards the demand for water,the policy would need to be concerned with the basic needs of poor people and with reformed directions of water systems as markets played a larger role. Subsidies could be given for the non-poor,but these are to be transparent and not at the expense of the water sector. Hybrid systems and transitional paths would also be possible.
Returning to support mechanisms,at the local level,many flagship schemes of the 11th and 12th Plans are based on the strength of local CBOs. The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana insists on local bodies making plans for the local resource envelope. Action on water problems would be at the local,watershed,aquifer,state and river basin levels. This was the guiding mantra of the draft. But it was not allowed to remain just a mantra. The draft also suggests the mechanisms to give strength to the various levels mentioned.
Once these mechanisms are in place,the national role is seen to be largely that of support. But these support mechanisms are not trivial,and could be critical for the appropriate government at lower levels. Cutting-edge technology in water delivery and development projects has to be built at home,as well as accessed abroad and made available here. Development and the application of success stories will require a water resources data and information system (WRIS). The framework attempts to set up the systems to aid state governments,local bodies and the appropriate government through these support mechanisms.
Information support is now seen as an operative management tool. The Andhra Pradesh farmer-managed information system has now been introduced as a major instrument of water management in the 12th Plan. These systems are inter-disciplinary,farmer- and user-friendly and well-honed to solve problems. In the 100 distressed groundwater districts,real-time information on water levels to each farmer can be a major instrument for evolving better systems. If you and I both know how each is impacting the common aquifer,we can better evolve working systems. The framework suggests groundwater approaches with these methods. It talks of nationally standardised water footprints for every activity.
There is also a lot on river basins. The framework has an undercurrent that technology,data systems and institutional underpinning will solve problems better by producing more alternatives. Its approach is that of a new research effort at integrating water-resource assessment work with agro-climatic regional categories,and that of improving the precision of estimates and setting the base for more work on features that augment the availability of fresh water in a renewable manner. Apart from institutions,it sets down categories corresponding to agro-climatic concepts defined in a regional context,simultaneously modelling water availability. Surface-groundwater interaction models are by now common. It is being suggested that such modelling should be attempted more systematically,with instruments of a water-conserving or water-augmenting nature built in. In a three-to-five-year framework,it should be possible to generate knowledge from which generalisation could proceed.
The frameworks approach is of convergence and integration. There is a new and fairly comprehensive section on definitions. Appropriate government,ecological integrity,pre-emptive needs,precautionary principles,water footprints,are but examples. These methods set out the water problem in a holistic sense. There is finally a section on a mechanism for setting up a coordination and policy support system. This would oversee the long-term plans,study and make available best practices and experience-based understanding of water problems and their solutions,not just in a hydraulic sense but in functioning social terms. The framework only designs a structure to empower and support state governments,local bodies and governing institutions of the water sector in playing their roles. Knowing ourselves,it will be critiqued and get a life of its own.
The writer is chancellor,Central University of Gujarat