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.)