Interview with Mihir Shah: Must learn from success stories, break silos, take people along

Interview with Mihir Shah: Must learn from success stories, break silos, take people along

Mihir Shah spoke to Indian Express on what it says, and why some recommendations are being contested.

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A panel headed by former Planning Commission member Mihir Shah has prepared a report on a new institutional framework for the water sector.

The crisis in the water sector has been evident for quite some time now. How is your report different from the several others on water reforms earlier?

The specific meaning we are giving to the word “reforms”, is new and unprecedented. So far we have focused too much on outlays, not enough on outcomes. We have spent around Rs 400,000 crore on irrigation projects but water from these dams has still not met the needs of the farmers. We are focusing on the paradox pointed out, for example, by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, who rightly complains about recurrent droughts despite his state having the most large dams. And our focus is on learning from the proven success stories of participatory irrigation management in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. Another paradox we focus on is that while tubewell irrigation was the key instrument of our Green Revolution, it is today the biggest cause of our depleting water tables and deteriorating water quality. We again need to learn from the many examples of Participatory Groundwater Management from across the country, which have enabled farmers to manage their aquifers sustainably and equitably. We cannot hope to monitor 30 million groundwater structures through a licence-quota-permit raj. We have to move away from command-and-control in both surface and groundwater.

One of your main recommendations is the creation of a National Water Commission in place of the existing CWC and CGWB. How will it help?

India is suffering from endemic hydro-schizophrenia, where the left hand of surface water does not know what the right hand of groundwater is doing. The one issue that really highlights the need to unify CWC and CGWB is the drying up of peninsular rivers, the single most important cause of which is over-extraction of groundwater. If river rejuvenation is the key national mandate, then this cannot happen without hydrologists and hydrogeologists working together, along with social scientists, agronomists and other stakeholders.


The report calls for multi-disciplinary talent in water management. Do we need to move away from engineering solutions, then?

Not at all. We believe engineers continue to have a pivotal role to play. But they cannot keep working in isolation. We have to focus, for example on crop water budgeting, without which we will continue to grow water-intensive crops and use water unsustainably in the drylands of India, which is what partly explains the paradox of Maharashtra. We also must understand that social mobilisers are required to get people together to manage the common pool resource that is water. Without strong people’s institutions, water cannot be conserved and rivers cannot be rejuvenated. Each discipline complements the other and they all need to work as one team, which has not happened so far.

The CWC has said your report is “anti-dam” and “anti-development”, besides other things. Is it anti-dam?

Our report is neither anti-CWC nor anti-dam. Indeed, our aim is to provide both CWC and CGWB a shot in the arm by making them much stronger institutions in a new avatar. We are saying it is not enough to just build dams and then forget about the trillions of litres of water stored in them. We need to ensure that this water reaches the people. We describe the gap between irrigation capacity created and irrigation capacity utilised as massive low hanging fruit that can help us rapidly add 24 million hectares to irrigated area at less than half the cost of the present strategy. How can this be called “anti-development” or “anti-dam”? On groundwater, we are saying “don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg”. Since groundwater is the most important source of water in India, the foundation of our future growth process and livelihoods of the people, we are advocating its safe use, as we are fast running out of this resource. This is not anti-development, it is rather being pro-sustainable development.

One of the fears expressed by CWC is that your recommendations would lead to greater Centre-states stress.

To the contrary. Our report is an instance of the principle of co-operative federalism. The way the CWC operates today has led to serious Centre-state conflict. Several state governments testified that huge delays in techno-economic appraisal by CWC has become a matter of grave concern. They have to deploy people to chase their projects, and do considerable “liaison work” with CWC. We have suggested that appraisal must become a partnership between the central and state governments, using also the expertise of institutions of national repute, such as the IITs and various regional engineering colleges.