New mantra for water resources

India is bracing a tipping point wherein water is taking center stage of all concerns. In all corners, water scarcity trepidations have become a very common occurrence. The rural residents now have believed that water insufficiency is a way of life. In recent years, even the urban spaces have started facing critical scarcity of water. According to the Central Water Commission 2017, India receives about 4000 trillion liters of fresh water from rainfall. Of which, only 1123 trillion liters of water resources can actually be utilised. The current consumption in the country is approximately 581 trillion. Despite the higher supply, water scarcity is looming, a puzzle to be solved.

In the last three decades, there has been an exponential increase in the usage of groundwater, due to topographic constraints and distributional leakages in supplying surface water. Currently, as per the official estimates, almost 70-80 per cent in rural areas and 60-65 per cent in urban areas are catered by groundwater. Many aquifers are stressed and declared critical, resulting not only in the availability part but also decreased the quality. The presence of arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate have deepened the crisis further.

In India, the supply-side management of surface water, which has been attempted hitherto, has not yielded satisfactory results up until now. On the other hand, many water users associations and NGOs came forth with various indigenous decentralised methods in managing the resources. No doubt, these techniques yielded the ascertained results, nevertheless, couldn’t scale up to the required goal of water security.

Access to safe and clean water is a right and the responsibility of providing lies in the hands of the government. The current laws in India do not provide incentives for the efficient use of water, as they are partial and parochial. Water is certainly a life-blood, however, the fundamental right bestowed by Article 21 under Right to Life is highly misused.

India considers water resources as a state subject. However, for groundwater, India adopted the common law approach of land ownership doctrine, wherein, as per the illustration (g) to Section 7 of the Indian Easement Act of 1882 “A landowner has the right to appropriate water which is below land and no action will be taken against the owner even if it intercepts, abstracts or diverts water which remains under the land of another.”

This legislation gave enormous power in the hands of the individual to have absolute authority over water resources flowing under the piece of land owned. India, through a model bill, tried to bring in regulation but faced limited success. Further, the regulations could only control the new aquifer but not the existing once. India with the existing fuzzy laws have resulted in grave tragedy and this will hamper growth in the economy. Some cities in India are already facing the heat of water scarcity due to mismanagement. Such archaic laws, not only deplete the water resources but also disregards the rights over water for landless, poor and vulnerable.

Mitigating the Crisis

Water is an extremely complex proposition as it deals with the nexus between the human societies’, livelihood and the physical environment. Today’s competing demands on water urge for rational management in an integrated and holistic fashion. India needs a radical shift from water resources development to water resources management by restructuring and strengthening its institutions and law for better service-delivery and resource sustainability. For completeness in the integrated policy, it is very essential to have the right measures and the right approach. A right measure can hold up resource use efficiency and the right approach can bring in the ways and means to attain effectiveness in the policy. For which, India needs to adopt three important strategies namely Law, Loop, and Pricing (LLP Strategy).

Law: There is an urgent need to take away the absolute right over the groundwater which is linked to land ownership. In fact, groundwater should be treated as a res communes i.e. a public property, incapable of private appropriation. However, using the smart meters, the relative rights can be considered if the user recharges the groundwater and ensure that the net extraction is negative. Differential policies for rural and urban consumers can be adopted and phased wise shift be embraced after strengthening the surface water delivery. In case of surface water, there is an urgent need to bring the resource under concurrent list which can usher better utility.

Pricing: Most of the inefficiencies and misuse in water have their roots in the mispricing of water and electricity. India needs to move away from the current average cost pricing strategy to marginal cost pricing strategy. The aim of appropriate pricing is to cull out dependency syndrome and the free rider problem through punitive measures and achieve resources efficiency in the long run.

Loop: Loop system is a beneficial manipulation of resources use for achieving resource equity. India must adopt the closed loop strategy as adopted by Singapore. Wherein, the focus should be of conjunctive development and use of rainwater, wastewater, and desalinated water. Here every drop has to be used and reused. Though this model is a costly proposition, however, in the long run, a very effective solution.

Loop can be achieved by a means of localisation and lateralisation approach of resources use with the proper application of the top-down and bottom-up approach of governance. For example, a city like Chennai can depend on desalinated water and also ensure all the water used are recycled and reused. Here, the desalination will be governed by the top-down approach and the recycling be bottom-up approach. Whereas places like Kolar have to depend heavily on lateralisation approach by purchasing water from Yettinahole and invest heavily on a decentralised system of recharging and recycling.

This takes to the issue of inter-linking rivers, many ecologists claim that interlinking may cause an ecological disaster. But with various technological advancement and innovation, some the major disaster be averted. Recently inaugurated Narmada-Shipra river link stands testimonial.

The management of water is not just building a physical edifice; but, it is about building the relationship of society with its resource. This attitude will certainly put an end to the present day crisis of water.

-S Subramanian

The writer is an assistant professor at IILM University, Gurugram. Views are personal.

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