Originally Published 2007-02-20 00:00:00 Published on Feb 20, 2007
With the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal announcing its final award, water, in general, and inter-State river water issues, in particular, are once again in the national focus. There are varying concerns about the socio-political fallout of the Tribunal award in the riparian States, with Karnataka and Kerala expressing unhappiness to differing degrees, and Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, respectively, expressing 'relief' and 'satisfaction'. Yet, 'water issues' in India, as elsewhere, are not limited to inter-State disputes. Water-management and water-pricing, along with larger issues like 'fundamental right' to water-availability, have also become contentious matters in recent times. To address these and related issues, the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation organised an Interaction on the 'National Water Scene' on December 23, 2006, with Mr Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Union Water Resources Ministry, initiating the discussion.
The National Water Scene

There is a widespread view that a water crisis is looming large over India. The National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan in 1999 projected a difficult situation and suggested urgent action. In a 2005 report on India’s Water Economy, the World Bank referred to a “turbulent future”. The mainstream view is that the demand for fresh water is likely to increase sharply and rapidly because of population-growth, urbanisation and the processes of economic development. Ismail Serageldin has been famously quoted as saying, “Future wars will be fought over water”; this may sound a bit extreme today but, no doubt, the situation is full of potential for conflict, some of which is being experienced already.
The crisis is one of availability, and the answer would lie in making a greater share of that ‘finite’ quantum of water that is available in nature ‘usable’, through supplyside solutions in the form of large projects. In February 2001, the Ministry of Water Resources, while rejecting the report of the World Commission on Dams, declared its intention to build an additional 200-billion cubic meters of storage by 2025. In August 2002, the Government of India announced the massive project for the interlinking of rivers. Despite attendant issues, another supplyside answer favoured by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and some Indian economists relates to ‘water markets’, which would involve defining ‘water rights’ and allowing trading in the same. The idea is for the State to step back, and allow the play of ‘market forces’, with the expectation that the supply-side response to the growing demand would encourage investments.
Against this mainstream view focussing on availability, there is the problem of gross mismanagement. On the positive side, we have the limited success story of the crucial role played by irrigation in the four-fold increase in foodgrains production, to 200 million tonnes, over a short period under the ‘Green Revolution’. Unfortunately, there is not much more to be said on the positive side, as the following observations would show:
● Limited, unreliable, unsafe water-supply and a burgeoning and thoroughly unnecessary bottled water trade.

● Failure to ensure the Fundamental Right to safe drinking water to all – in particular, the inadequate coverage of the poor by the public system, forcing them to buy water at high rates from private sources. The poor pay much more than the rich.
● The number of uncovered or no-source villages is growing despite repeated achievement of targets. Either the villages are stepping back into the uncovered category, or new ones are getting added to the list. The continuing burden on women and girl children of
having to bring water from distant sources, therefore, continues.
● Most major and the minor irrigation systems are in a state of disarray, rendering poor and unreliable
service—as characterised by inequities such as denial of water to tail-end farmers.
● There is a vicious cycle of low irrigation charges, inadequate allocations for operation and maintenance, poor service, and consequent resistance to any increase in charges of irrigation water.
● The very limited success of reforms such as the
Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM), and Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT).
● The low-efficiency of water-use in irrigation and agriculture which the National Commission puts at 30 to 40 per cent, contributing to low yields, which the Commission projects at an extremely modest quantum of four tonnes a hectare from irrigated agriculture by the year 2050.
● Emergence of water-logging and salinity over the years.
● The persistence and intractability of inter-State riverwater disputes.
● Unplanned, and non-regulated exploitation of ground water from the Eighties through a high of 20-million plus tube-wells, particularly for private self-supply,
generating dramatic, short-term results but leading to depletion and contamination of aquifers.
● Rivers being reduced to sewers, as in the case of the
Yamuna in Delhi and the Palar in Tamil Nadu, and problems of fluoride and arsenic contamination in groundwater, as in West Bengal and Bihar, apart from wide-spread contamination through industrial effluents and residues.
● Mounting flood-related damage and the consequent expenditure on relief, with hardly any plan for disaster preparedness.
To address these and related issues, the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation organised an Interaction on the ‘National Water Scene’ on December 23, 2006, with Mr Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Union Water Resources Ministry, initiating the discussion.

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