A slew of bills on water awaits Parliament’s approval. Two of them, passed by the Lok Sabha, were listed for clearing by Rajya Sabha in the monsoon session — The Interstate River Water Disputes Amendment Bill 2019 and the Dam Safety Bill 2019. The truncated session could not get to discuss the bills, though. A common issue that the bills confront is with respect to the ways in which the Centre can work with the states to deal with the emerging challenges of inter-state water governance. The latest centrally sponsored scheme (CSS), Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), too is pumping massive finances into achieving universal access to safe and secure drinking water in rural areas — otherwise a domain of the states. JJM presents an opportunity to get states on board for a dialogue towards stronger Centre-states coordination and federal water governance ecosystem.
The two bills under Parliament’s consideration attend to longstanding issues of inter-state externalities. The Interstate River Water Disputes Amendment Bill 2019 seeks to improve the inter-state water disputes resolution by setting up a permanent tribunal supported by a deliberative mechanism, the dispute resolution committee. The Dam Safety Bill 2019 aims to deal with the risks of India’s ageing dams, with the help of a comprehensive federal institutional framework comprising committees and authorities for dam safety at national and state levels. The other pending bills also propose corresponding institutional structures and processes.
However, the agenda of future federal water governance is not limited to these issues alone. There are a whole set of reasons — some well-known and others new — why a coordinated response from the Centre and states is vital. These include emerging concerns of long-term national water security and sustainability, the risks of climate change, and the growing environmental challenges, including river pollution. These challenges need systematic federal response where the Centre and the states need to work in a partnership mode.
Greater Centre-states coordination is also crucial for pursuing the current national projects — whether Ganga river rejuvenation or inland navigation or inter-basin transfers. However, water governance is perceived and practiced as the states’ exclusive domain, even though their powers are subject to those of the Union under the Entry 56 about inter-state river water governance. The River Boards Act 1956 legislated under the Entry 56 has been in disuse. No river board was ever created under the law. The Centre’s role is largely limited to resolving inter-state river water disputes. That, too, a detached one in setting up tribunals for their adjudication.
Combined with the states’ dominant executive power, these conditions create challenges for federal water governance. The country is ill-equipped to address the governance of increasingly federalised waters to pursue its development and sustainability goals.
This state of affairs puts the proposed bills at a disadvantage. Each bill proposes their own institutional mechanisms and processes leaning on closer Centre-state coordination and deliberation. The disputes resolution committee and dam safety authority rely on active Centre-states participation. Segmented and fragmented mechanisms bear the risks of the federal water governance gap. The massive central assistance through JJM is an opportunity to open a dialogue with the states to address this gap.
JJM involves large-scale intergovernmental transfers to states at a proposed outlay of Rs 3.6 lakh crore (Centre and states together) over the next five years towards universal access to safe and secure drinking water in rural areas. In terms of the numbers, this is perhaps the largest CSS so far — larger than even the MGNREGA or the PMGSY.
Globally, federated systems with comparable organisation of powers have used similar investments to usher key water sector reforms. Australia has plans to make large investments to nudge its federal constituents towards a dialogue under its National Water Act of 2007 and to arrive at the Murray-Darling agreement. The experiences also suggest that inter-governmental transfers produce better outcomes when the transfers build on an ex ante federal consensus.
The scale of investments under JJM can be used similarly to draw states to deliberate over reworking of the larger structural contours of federal water governance. The engagement can also be beneficial to JJM’s success.
Drinking water supply is within the states’ domain of responsibilities. They are equipped with the institutional channels for this purpose. The mission has to build on these structures for enduring outcomes. It has to ensure that the states maintain the assets and facilities created through the mission. Such institutionalisation is most critical for JJM’s success. States will certainly appreciate the much-needed succour to strengthen their institutions and improve the delivery of this essential service to its populations.
The symbiotic phase of implementing JJM can be productively used to engage in a dialogue with the states about the larger water resources management agenda, beyond the mission’s goals. It can discuss the contours of Centre-state partnership for the success of the above two bills and move towards a robust federal water governance ecosystem. The dialogue can consider the long-recommended idea of distributing responsibilities and partnership-building between the Centre and states to long-term water security goals. For instance, the Centre can work with the states in building a credible institutional architecture for gathering data and producing knowledge about water resources — a foundational necessity to address most federal water governance challenges.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2020 under the title ‘Writing on the water’. Chokkakula is with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal
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