Subir Roy: Vote banks and politics of water

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 01, 2013 19:31 hrs

The country now has a national water policy. As happens with all such policy documents, this one also is full of unexceptionable “motherhood statements”. What matters is how it will be used. The policy will have served its purpose if it is able to concentrate minds on, in its own words, “basic concerns and principles as also a unified national perspective”. For this the states may have to draft or revise their own water policies so as to bring them into line.

The states have lost no time in voicing their objection to the provision in the policy to set up a “national legal framework” for water governance, expressing their fear that this will encroach upon their constitutional rights since water is a state subject. The Centre can hardly take away, even if it wants to, what the Constitution has granted the states. This is particularly the case given the kind of weak central authority that the United Progressive Alliance government represents. Raising the issue makes sense only if it is done to put on record their views so that silence is not interpreted as consent.

What is interesting is some of the specific utterances by states’ representatives. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, for example, is apprehensive that the Centre will use central funding for water projects to “incentivise” states to toe its line. And what is this horrible line? Creating a regulatory authority to fix water tariffs and levying tariffs on agricultural use of water. But aren’t those moves vital for any kind of future for the country in which there is enough water to live by?

Beneficiaries of large post-Independence irrigation projects have got by without paying proper charges, and widespread use of groundwater through minor irrigation in later years has played havoc with the country’s water table. Water is scarce and one way to curb its profligate use is to charge a fair rate – that is what a regulator fixes – from those who have the ability to pay.     

The Punjab chief minister has been even more explicit. He has asserted that states have “exclusive power of legislation” on water that cannot be tinkered with. Each state has its own considerations for managing its water; these vary from state to state and region to region. Quite true, but the rain clouds that bring life, the rivers that come down from the hills and the aquifers beneath the earth do not know state boundaries. Common resources – and water is a primary one – have to be shared on the basis of sensible principles.

From Tamil Nadu to Karnataka to Punjab, rural wealth and a politically powerful agricultural lobby have been built up on the foundations of easy use of free water — regional political parties are beholden to this lobby. By citing constitutional provisions and sacred principles of federalism, they are seeking to ensure the future of their power base.

Karnataka and Tamil Nadu should not be extensively growing water-guzzling rice and sugar cane, and Punjab and adjoining states should have long ago shifted out of the green revolution-ordained resource-intensive cultivation of cereals and used modern technology to grow crops that would both use less water and restore the nutritional balance of the soil.    

It is particularly appalling that states are opposed to water being declared a “community resource”. Anything that is essential, scarce and has to be shared on the basis of equity, not individual clout, belongs to the community. This is axiomatic. If from these first principles thinking has drifted into wrong channels then it has to get back on track, not question the underlying principles.

The foregoing is not to deny two realities. One, water eventually becomes a local issue; in every instance, a solution has to be defined keeping in mind the local imperatives. And two, till the eighties the country was severely harmed by the practice of handing down solutions from the top, and only locally devised solutions that spring out of ground realities can work and produce results.

So where do we balance out the need to share as well as local aspirations? The Karnataka chief minister, possibly because as a badli he can do no more than read out briefs prepared by his officers, has been restrained in his choice of words. He has said “care” should be taken in the matter and the “proposed framework law should be based on providing broad guidelines rather than specific directions”. This is absolutely kosher and that’s all that anyone should ask for.  

The country’s water economy is in a mess, and unless we can use water more frugally and scientifically we will be headed for chaos and economic ruin. An inability of states and regions to share water would lead to the death of the republic.

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