Some months ago,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told states that urgent and pragmatic decisions need to be taken in the water sector,for water security is an issue on which everyone will swim or sink together. Now,the Centre has unveiled the broad contours of its proposed but contentious National Water Framework Law,which has some some ambitious proposals.
While the concept of right to water one of the highlights of the proposed law is largely a rhetorical slogan with an eye on elections,the plan to introduce economic pricing amounts to a paradigm shift and is in line with the controversial Dublin principles recognising water as an economic good. The idea behind introducing the concept of economic and differential pricing is to address the issue of excessive use of water,cut down its wastage and to encourage conservation and reuse. It is a welcome concept as far as the fact that nominal pricing of water has over the years led to unbridled use of groundwater goes.
Akin to the polluter pays principle,the law also wants big water-using industries to pay more. Industries consuming more than one million cubic metres of water a year may soon have to file water returns on the lines of income-tax returns.
While these are positive suggestions,they are contentious too. Worldwide,activists and NGOs have been questioning the Dublin principles itself. One other argument is that instead of economic pricing,water should be reasonably priced so that it provides for cost recovery while safeguarding ecological requirements and access to safe water for the poor.
In India,the Centre will face a different kind of challenge as the proposed law would rekindle the federal overreach argument as water is a state subject. At the discussion stage itself,many states including Congress-ruled ones like Kerala,Andhra Pradesh and Haryana opposed such a law arguing it would impinge on their rights. Needless to say,most of the opposition-ruled states were against it.
Given the fact that many proposals,notably regarding a National Counterterrorism Centre,have fallen by the wayside after getting caught in Centre-state conflicts,it is to be seen whether the government can convince a large number of states opposed to such a broad law. The only way forward is to get the states on board,or else this ambitious reform will remain on paper.
Manoj is a special correspondent based in Delhi
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