Towards the end of May 2016, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, placed the Draft National Water Framework Bill 2016 (NWFB) in public domain for comments. Almost at the same time, the Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater 2016, was also placed in public domain. Unfortunately, till now, the Bills have not raised the public debate that they are supposed to evoke, given the fact that there are sufficient elements that deserve to be discussed and debated. The NFWB seems to be a follow-up on the action taken on The National Water Policy 2012 that talked about the “..need to evolve a National Framework Law as an umbrella statement of general principles governing the exercise of legislative and/or executive (or devolved) powers by the Centre, the States and the local governing bodies.”

The NWFB has been placed in public domain at a time when the world is witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm in water management, which is continually enriched by incremental accrual of new knowledge, both disciplinary and interdisciplinary. The paradigm of reductionist water engineering is steadily being challenged and gradually marginalised by an interdisciplinary paradigm of water systems management that is ecologically informed.

However, water policy formulation in India has been largely disconnected from the ongoing conceptual changes in water management. The clear disconnect between holistic science and fragmented policy making has resulted in the domination of a reductionist engineering paradigm to manage water without any concern to the ecological concerns. Though the policy documents related to water in South Asian nations often allude of terms like “integrated river basin management” (IRBM), “demand management”, etc. they prove to be rather decorative when it comes to concepts and project design.

This disconnect is evident even in the two bills mentioned above. The reservation at the very beginning emerges from the fact that the two bills are separated, and hardly any linkage has been created between the two. As such, groundwater and surface water are integral components of the global ecohydrological cycle, and need to be seen through an integrated holistic lens of water management and property rights. While it is appreciated that there needs to be a separate statement on property rights related to aquifers, that statement could well have been a part of the National Water Framework Bill. Separate bills create the impression of fragmented approach to water management, as the interactivity between surface water and groundwater, which is also acknowledged in the water balance equation, seems to have been ignored.

Second, the draft NWFB suggests: “Environmental flows adequate to preserve and protect a river basin as a hydrological and ecological system shall be maintained.” However, the very science of arriving at a measure of “how much water a river needs” has been challenged globally. It is only in India that there is an over-reliance on a specified quantitative measure on how the environmental water needs of a river. This precludes the very ecological scientific thinking that every flow regime is associated with certain ecosystem services, and merely providing a certain percentage of water to flow naturally is essentially another mode of adherence to the reductionist arithmetic hydrology that has been the root of various problems.

Third, despite the reference of the “River Basin Authority” (RBA) in the NWFB, the role of the RBA seems to have been confined to creating master-plans for the basins. As a recommended institutional set-up, there is a need for a basin-level authority which is democratic in nature, with greater powers, and which can initiate actions to prevent degradation of freshwater ecosystems and can initiate actions against all forms of stakeholders including State governments for any form of violation. This implies that the authority should be vested with adequate regulatory powers. The very statement, “All decisions and actions on water resources of the River Basin, including implementation of water resources projects, shall progressively conform to the River Basin Master Plan,” remains open-ended.

Fourth, it needs to be noted that the moot point lies with the promotion of Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM). While today’s best practices in water resources planning entail integration of water quantity and quality management for both groundwater and surface water, there remains a need for comprehensive understanding of how the natural environment and the resident population of a basin are impacted by various levels of interventions in the rivers or by adoption of new policies. This is best done in a highly participative way, involving all the major stakeholder groups, and in a way that achieves a balance between the level of economic development and the consequent impact on the natural resource base of a river basin as agreed by the stakeholders. This participatory and comprehensive approach is what is generally referred to as integrated river basin management (IRBM). At a watershed/basin level, different water users co-exist and therefore any decision towards sustainable resource management will need collective action. The NWFB needs to encourage, facilitate and promote multi-stakeholder interaction and collaboration between diverse stakeholders at the watershed, sub-basin and basin levels. This is another missing dimension from the draft.

Fifth, while the draft makes very important recommendation regarding “differential” and “full cost pricing”, there needs to be a mention that the pricing instrument should be designed as not merely covering the O&M costs. The pricing should reflect the scarcity value of water not merely of its economic use, but also the scarcity value of the ecosystem services. This implies that the users may cover part of the “environmental costs” that their use of water entails.

Sixth, the composition and role of the statutory Water Regulatory Authority is not clearly defined. It is not clear how such an authority will operate: Is it under the aegis of the river basin authority? Or should it exist as a separate structure?

Therefore, the scope for improvement in this draft remains. While forwarding this IRBM agenda, it is important that the various knowledge gaps are addressed through the creation of a comprehensive research agenda. This will define the overarching principles for managing trade-offs between water for development and water for ecology, and trade-offs arising out of water allocations across competing sectors and sustainable abstraction limits so that the ecosystem integrity is maintained. At an institutional level, there needs to be constant evaluation of the effectiveness of various institutions at various levels, including the river basin master plans.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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