Status of water

Nikhilesh Jha : Wed Aug 01 2012, 01:31 hrs

Exclusive jurisdiction of states over water hinders its proper management

Many significant developments have taken place in the past few months regarding water resources management (WRM) in the country. The Supreme Court, in February, gave its go-ahead to the interlinking of rivers and asked the government to ensure that the project is implemented expeditiously. The judgment seems to have more opponents than supporters. Then, inaugurating the India Water Week in April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singhobserved that a problem that hindered better WRM was the fragmented and inadequate institutional and legal structure for water, and that there was an urgent need for reforms.

A solution to the water problem requires a revisiting of the entire gamut of WRM. The subject “water” is placed in the Constitution in Entry 17 of List II (State List) of Schedule VII. However, the caveat is Entry 56 of List I (Union List), which says, “Regulations and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest.” Unfortunately, the Centre has made little use of the powers vested in it vide Entry 56 of List I. The result is that by virtue of Article 246 read with Entry 17, List II, states have exclusive jurisdiction over waters that are located within their territories, including inter-state rivers and river valleys. It is arguably this status of water in the Constitution that constrains the highest in the executive and the judiciary, despite their pronouncements on and commitment to resolving the problem. It also makes a mockery of the National Water Policy that declares water a “prime natural resource, a basic human need and a precious national asset”. It has also stopped the Centre from establishing allocation rules and clearly defined water rights among states that have unending disputes over the sharing of inter-state water resources. The latest example is the second Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal, which has turned into a warzone, with a battery of lawyers, technical staff and irrigation department officials from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh fighting to win the maximum allocation of the Krishna river for their respective state.

The Centre has also been reluctant to take a proactive position on the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (CLNNUIW), a document adopted by the UN on May 21, 1997, pertaining to the use and conservation of all waters that cross international boundaries, including surface and ground water. Unfortunately, the convention is not yet ratified. Alongside the US, China, Canada and Australia, India is among the major opponents of the CLNNUIW. A ratification by India would have at least given it the support of other ratifying nations to pressure China against the diversion of the Brahmaputra. Several Chinese projects in west-central Tibet may have a bearing on river water flow into India as well as Bangladesh. There are also reports that China is planning to divert 200 billion cubic metres (BCM) of the Brahmaputra from south to north to feed the Yellow River. If this is true, India will face a severe crisis once the Chinese projects are completed. Many of the hydel projects in the Northeast may have to be shelved. Of the 1,900 BCM of river runoff available in the country, about 600 BCM is generated in the Brahmaputra, one can imagine what would happen if the bulk of this is diverted by China.

According to a recent World Bank report, entitled “India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future”, “faced with poor water supply services, farmers and urban dwellers alike have resorted to helping themselves by pumping out ground water through tube-wells… it has led to rapidly declining water tables and critically depleted aquifers, and is no longer sustainable (at many places).” The report adds that “government actions — including the provision of highly subsidised or even free power — have exacerbated rather than addressed the problem.”

India is getting seriously water-stressed; and we need to act fast. Water has to be treated not as a local resource, but a global resource. We need to see if a change in its constitutional status is required. Similarly, we need to proactively decide on our stand on the proposed UN convention. Our opposition is not helping us nor the cause of humanity. We also need to enhance our water-storage capacity, as we suffer the most from the vagaries of the monsoon.

The river-linking project, alongside a chain of water-conservation projects, would offer a solution.

The writer is joint secretary and CVO, CPWD. Views are personal
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