For a vast developing country like India with layers of governing institutions, a policy framework on water has been long due. Although, India has a National Water Policy since 1987, the current draft is far more comprehensive in its approach. It has brought back the prioritisation of water, which was done away with in the National Policy 2012. It now includes people-centred water management, water Footprints, Integrated River Basin Development and Management, Convergence of Water Sector Schemes, Urban Water Management, Industrial Water Management etc.
At the outset, the draft makes a detailed rationale for a national framework. Over-extraction of ground water, pressure on freshwater, inter-state conflict, decrease in river flows, falling water tables and quality are some of the immediate concerns for the Ministry.
But, at the core of the draft is the recognisation of “Right to Water for Life”. The draft argues that “Water in its primary aspect as a sustainer of human life shall take precedence over other uses of water, such as agricultural, industrial, commercial, and other uses”. The other policy guidelines within the draft, such as Integrated River Basin, Planning for Water Security, Flood Mitigation and Management, Access to and Transparency of Water Data, etc. have been linked with ‘water for life’ and its sustainability for current and future generations. The second important aspect of the draft is that it fixes responsibility of water security on the State. Sub-section three of chapter II notes that “The State’s responsibility for ensuring every person’s right to safe water for life shall remain even when water service provision is delegated to a private agency…”. Sub-section 19 (a) of the draft further states that, “Water as a part of water for life as defined herein, shall not be denied to anyone on the ground of inability to pay”. Further, the draft makes a mention about the equitable access to quality water regardless of caste, creed, religion, community, class, gender, age, disability, economic status, land ownership and place of residence.
Nevertheless, the draft has certain weaknesses as well. For instance, it fails to mention anything concrete about the quantity of water supply that would be available for different purposes. For instance, there is a goal for rural drinking water under NRDWP of providing 70 lpcd by 2022. The draft could have taken clue from the NRDWP instead it shifted this responsibility to the “appropriate government”. Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, to which draft belongs, also needs clarity on the issue of water pricing. It has argued for “differential pricing”. One interpretation would be that everyone has to pay for water. And, only in case of ‘inability to pay’, individual shall not be denied water. Here, the proof of ‘inability to pay’ lies on the users and not on the administration. In the current techno-bureaucratic environment, dominated by the idea ‘when they (poor) can afford mobile, why can’t they pay for toilet’, it would be hard for poor to prove their inability. I would suggest that government should provide free water for basic purpose to citizens falling in the lower middle and lower income categories.
Third area which needs further explanation in the draft is ‘how lowest possible administration shall ensure protection against gender discrimination and other socio-economic inequalities in access to groundwater’. In a CBGA study, it was found that the control over water resources by the dominant caste in villages reinforces the caste system. The government should produce a roadmap to deal with caste and gender based discrimination. Next hurdle will be to deal with the non-compliance of states. It appears that the draft policy does not have binding power over the states. The success of the national framework on water depends on the states’ approach towards it. The Central government has to work harder to convince the states that a national framework is not in contradiction with country’s federal structure.