Activists and people’s organisations fighting for water rights across the country have slammed PM Manmohan Singh after his address to the National Water Rights Council on Friday in Delhi to discuss National Water Policy 2012.
“Neither the PM and nor the Ministry of Water Resources has nothing new to say,” said Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People who added, “The take-away of the entire speech could be that the government cannot define good governance; cannot regulate groundwater. What’s worse the PM did not forget to indirectly push his advocacy for big storages and centralisation.”
In his opening remarks at the NWRC on Friday the PM talked about water security and sustainability for all, but no rights to water to people, only the rights of the states. He talked about good governance, but he has no specific suggestion of how to achieve that. The PM said a suggestion has been made for "national legal framework of general principles on water, which, in turn, would pave the way for essential legislation on water governance in every State" but claims that won’t lead to centralisation. But as many states fear, the intent of water resource establishment has been towards greater centralisation.
Curiously, the PM talked about "preservation of river corridors" but not about preservation of rivers. In fact though Dr Manmohan Singh acknowledged "groundwater has a prominent role in meeting the requirements of water for drinking and other purposes" and that it remains unregulated, the only suggestion he has in this regard is to take "steps to minimize misuse of groundwater by regulating the use of electricity for its extraction" but that is not likely to help as experience of decades show, say activists.
The PM mentioned substantially increased outlays for the water sector but acknowledged these won’t deliver without good governance. While insisting, "national consensus on the common denominators of water governance is therefore essential" but yet unachieved, it seemed odd that he left everyone guessing on his suggestions in this regard.
The irony of the PM’s end remarks on water security where he said, “We have to swim together or sink together," has also surprised many as the river in the national capital already just does not have any freshwater!
Thakkar says though he is baffled by the PM’s silence on industrial pollution, privatisation or interlinking of rivers, an indication of the government’s intentions can be seen in the PM’s own address to the National Development Council which met just a day before to approve the 12th five year plan where he said: “We are rapidly approaching the position where the total demand for water in the country simply cannot be met by available supply. Available water also needs to be allocated to different uses through a Water Regulatory Authority. This is an area where action lies largely in the domain of State Governments.” Interestingly, but the only functioning WRA that exists in India does not have this function assigned to it. The Maharashtra govt led by the then Water Resources Minister Ajit Pawar took that function away from the MWRRA.
In fact the Union Minister of Water Resources Harish Rawat has gone on record to say, “Water needs to be allocated in a manner which maximises its value.” This is a dangerous proposition says Thakkar. “As against the need to enshrine right to water in legal domain this advocacy would mean that if five star hotels can pay more for the same quantity of water compared to the needs of the poor, water should go for five star hotels rather than livelihood needs of the farmers or the basic needs of poor.”
In fact the previous day the PM said, “Paradoxically, we should not aim at increasing total employment in agriculture. In fact, we need to move people out of agriculture by giving them gainful employment in the non agricultural sector.” This sounds particularly ominous since the gainful employment in the non agricultural sector is not increasing according to the government’s own figures.
The Union Water Resources Minister has also said, “India would need around 450 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water storages in the country by 2050 to meet the water requirements of various sectors. As on today, we have only 253 BCM storage capacity available.” However, storage can also be created through smaller projects and also though underground storages and the figure of 253 BCM used by the minister does not include these options. “This thus means the minister is advocating for big projects when such projects have proved to be ineffective,” says Thakkar.