Issue BriefsPublished on Jul 02, 2014 PDF Download
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Attitudes towards water in India

The ORF Report on "Attitudes towards water in India" is a culmination of 165 qualitative interviews of key stakeholders of the water scene in India under a collaborative research project between ORF and Chatham House.

The water debate in India has increasingly become a contested and inchoate space. Disputes are extant between India and its riparians, among its internal provinces and competitive claims on water usage abound from different sectors namely, industries, farmers and household consumers. Millions of people are also facing growing water stress as a result of over-exploitation, population growth, changing climatic conditions and the rapid pace of urbanization in the country. But even as the lack of access to water remains a pressing issue, one which holds the power to sway the electoral fortunes of governments, a coherent 'water approach' and a remedial action plan are yet to emerge in the policy narratives of India.

Within the larger water discourse in South Asia, there is no sense of a common 'water vision' informed by shared challenges of countries in the region. In fact, heightened attention is being placed on the subject of 'water wars' wherein conflict over water is being touted as the next imminent threat to peace and cooperation. Such a view, although far from widely accepted, has managed to gain traction, in part due to the 'emotive' appeal of water in the subcontinent and the myriad communal, religious and nationalist associations attached to it in each country and in part due to the zero sum proposition that has framed water sharing between riparians thus far.

In such a scenario, understanding the water conversations prevalent in individual countries of South Asia and their unique perceptions towards water is the crucial first step in understanding how water is managed, distributed, and negotiated over. Should water be treated purely as a commodity, a human right or a zero-sum proposition? For these questions to be answered, it is important to anatomize the manner in which attitudes towards water have a bearing on policy outcomes. For a country like India and its complex nature of water demand, perceptions are important for getting at the root of its numerous problems of water governance and, in turn, addressing them in a mindful, efficient and cooperative way.

This was the aim of the Attitudes towards Water project undertaken by the Observer Research Foundation in collaboration with Chatham House, United Kingdom. The report is the outcome of this research, based on 165 extensive interviews conducted with key stakeholders of the water scene in India, i.e. Government Officials including Secretaries, Advisors from several Ministries of the Government of India, Ambassadors and Diplomats, Personnel from Governmental Water Resource Management Organizations, researchers, academics and NGO employees/experts on water. The research was conducted with a view to study the key drivers, incentives and traditional nodes of influence that shape the policy process and public discourse around water management in India.

Since similar research exercises were conducted by partner organizations in Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, a vital aim of this report is to reframe the opportunities for constructive debate on India's transboundary matters, based on differing approaches towards water in the subcontinent. It is important to emphasise that differences and schisms in transnational water perspectives need not be viewed in wholly negative terms and may in fact contain the answer to transboundary collaboration in the region. Unique perceptions and knowledge systems (real or imagined) regarding weather variability, climate change, agricultural practices, migration and urbanization abound in the region that can be combined to enrich the water vision of each country and collectively into a common 'South Asian approach'.

The research managed to yield vital insights into effective governance strategies of water within the country and with riparians. For instance, the competing paradigmatic understandings of water- common pool resource, unit of basin, unit of state, human right, economic good- creates water priorities that remain unclear and devoid of a 'domestic water vision'. A strong water governance approach that takes into account the several interconnected linkages of water: foodwater-energy and accommodates its definitional challenges was deemed paramount.

The research also revealed water shortages and scarcity as conditions created by domestic mismanagement, rather than actions of upsteam countries, a conclusion that could significantly lower the threat perception induced by India among its neighbours and have a transformative impact on transboundary relationships in the region. Another effective way of broadening the framework for transboundary engagement from the narrow focus on water security would be to highlight shared challenges of demographic growth and urban expansion and their impact on water demand, specifically in the case of India and Pakistan. Threat perceptions could be further dismantled with confidence building measures such as data-sharing and civil society exchanges based on common water issues such as floods and droughts and baseline practices of local water management that would help foster a sense of shared ownership. Given these suggestions, the scope for cooperation in South Asia seems to be wide and the potential for leveraging innovative methods for efficient domestic management, immense. Recommendations based on the findings of the study are as follows:

(i) Devise a Strong Water-Management Approach;

(ii) Increase Water Efficiency;

(iii) Conslidate Water Conservation Measures;

(iv) Mainstream Gender Concerns in Water Management;

(v) Follow a Bottoms-up Approach to Water Management;

(vi) Improve Quality and Accessibility of Data; and

(vii) Modify Methods of Transboundary Water-Sharing

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Samir Saran

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Samir Saran is the President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India’s premier think tank, headquartered in New Delhi with affiliates in North America and ...

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