Among the first steps taken by the Modi government in its second phase was the May 31 creation of a Jal Shakti Ministry under a full-fledged cabinet minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. The new ministry amalgamates the ministries of water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
mong the first steps taken by the Modi government in its second phase was the May 31 creation of a Jal Shakti Ministry under a full-fledged cabinet minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. The new ministry amalgamates the ministries of water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The creation of the ministry could not have been more fortuitously timed. A heat wave is currently sweeping north India and a delayed monsoon being predicted by most weather watchers except the India Meteorlogical Department which is forecasting a ‘normal’ monsoon. Residents in the arid Thar desert of Rajasthan are forking out Rs 2,500 to buy 2,500 litres of water which they share with their cattle. In Tamil Nadu, the government has ordered all government-funded temples to hold yagnas to appease the Rain Gods and get musicians to play select Carnatic ragas welcoming rains to cope with the continuing water shortage.
Other states are also doing their own thing. Karnataka has on June 1 directed all temples under its Muzrai department to begin the ‘parjanya japa’ to begin on June 6 during the Braahmi Muhurta for which temples are authorized to take Rs.10,001 from the donation boxes for the ceremony. The state has also launched district wise call centres for citizens to complain about water scarcity in their areas – a short term solution until rainfall increases groundwater levels. Madhya Pradesh is mulling ‘right to water’ – legislation aimed at ensuring adequate water for every person in the urban areas in the state is to be introduced in the monsoon session of the legislative assembly. Every household in urban Madhya Pradesh would get piped potable water supply of at least 55 litres a day.
Water levels in India’s major reservoirs have fallen to 21 per cent of the average of the last decade. Fifty four per cent of the country’s groundwater is declining faster than it is being replenished and there is a crippling dependence on monsoon rains to replenish most of India’s key water sources– underground aquifers, lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Close to half the country, about 600 million people, face severe scarcity year after year. By 2020, India will be formally categorized as a “water stressed” country, one where per capita availability of water is less than 1,000 cubic metres or less. A June 2018 Niti Ayog report grimly forecasts water demand will be twice the present supply and India could lose up to 6 per cent of its GDP.
Can a new water ministry tackle the worst water crisis in India’s history? Experts feel an exclusive ministry is only a cosmetic change. Water is a State subject – the 17th entry in the state list- and unless states make specific requests the Centre can’t intervene. There is however a provision via Entry 56 by which the Centre can deal with inter – state rivers if Parliament legislates in the public interest but this has not been done. There is resistance from the states. Even if water is included in the Concurrent List it is uncertain as to how that will actually deal with the water crisis.
The ministry already has a fairly wide ambit- it needs to implement the Modi government’s flagship Nal se Jal scheme to providing piped water supply for every household by 2024. It has to take forward the government’s controversial river linkage programme, a national mission on irrigation for providing water to every field and examine controversial measures like pricing of water.
Experts feel redefining the role and mandate of the Water Ministry rather than restructuring the existing system needs to be top priority. Supply – side management to provide water, particularly for irrigation is considered a major role. There is no evidence to suggest that more spending has increased the net area under irrigation or done any good for farmers. The immediate priority, analysts argue, is to make a paradigm shift to demand side management at least for a decade. There are tools, technology and science to ensure efficient water management. But little is being done.
“This will happen only by restructuring the ministry to take irrigation out into infrastructure and focusing on water management and seriously restricting funds for new irrigation projects,” says international water policy analyst and founder – chairperson AgSri Agricultural Services Private Limited, Dr. Biksham Gujja, admitting “it may not happen for want of political will.” He emphasizes if a farmer can get better input by saving or using less water he will do it. “Today, there is an incentive to use more water, grab more water, dig deeper, use power, the list goes on. If we reverse this pervasive policy, to save water, use less and get incentives to do so, the farmer will be saving more.”
While the crisis worsens with every passing summer the appreciation of the need for water conservation and management is slow in evolving. The NITI Aayog has flagged the calamitous condition by unveiling its Composite Water Management Index and ranking states and doing little else to deliver the country from its water woes. So, pitching for a mix of immediate and long term solutions is the way out but political parties, the central and state governments – have not shown any inclination to change course thus far. Priority,as the NITI Aayog report points out is to meet the immediate needs of 21 cities, including New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad, which are set to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting an estimated 100 million people. It has also warned that groundwater resources, which constitute 40 per cent of India’s water supply, were being depleted at unsustainable rates.
Of the 1121 billion cubic metera BCM of ‘utilisable’ water, by 1997, 629 BCM (56 per cent) had already been used. The FAO estimated that the total water use in 2014 was 761 BCM, out of which 688 BCM was for agriculture. If water use continues in such ‘business as usual’ mode, demand may reach 1180 BCM by 2050. This is more than the total utilizable water resources available. The water demand in 2050 has been estimated to be 197 per cent more for the domestic sector, 287 per cent more than the year 2000 levels, while the agricultural sector may need five per cent more at the 2014 levels. All these estimates indicate that India will not be able to meet the growing water demand. Clearly, water management as a concept and practice has to go through a radical transformation particularly the demand side management of irrigation. The allocation of resources, efficiency in water use and ensuring minimal pollution in both urban areas and industry will largely determine its future course. The newly announced ministry has its task cut out.