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Proposed Revisions in National Water Policy Call for Privatisation of Water

New Delhi: The Hindu, India’s leading English daily, recently reported after accessing the first draft of the proposed revisions to the National Water Policy sent to experts for their comments.

The Hindu report by Gargi Parsai said, the Union government has begun consultations on a new National Water Policy that calls for privatisation of water-delivery services and suggests that water be priced so as to “fully recover” the costs of operation and administration of water-resources projects, documents available with The Hindu show.

Recently circulated to water experts for consultations, the 15-page draft National Water Policy suggests that the government withdraw from its role as a service provider in the water sector. Instead, it says, communities and the private sector should be encouraged to play this role. The proposals could mean sharp rises in the cost of water for both rural and urban users — an outcome the policy suggests will help curtail misuse of a precious but scarce resource.

The draft policy calls for the abolition of all forms of water subsidies to the agricultural and domestic sectors, but says “subsidies and incentives” should be provided to private industry for recycling and reusing treated effluents. It also proposes that subsidy to agricultural electricity users be curtailed, saying it leads to a “wasteful use of both electricity and water.”

Similar World Bank proposals

In 2005, a World Bank paper made similar recommendations, arguing that “if India is to have sustainable economic growth, the role of the Indian water state must change from that of builder and controller to creator of an enabling environment, and facilitator of the actions of water users large and small.” The paper called for, among other things, “stimulating competition in and for the market for irrigation and water and sanitation services”.

The draft policy calls upon the government to ensure access to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all citizens, available within easy reach of the household. Significantly though, it does not suggest that these be turned into enforceable rights through new laws.

For expeditious resolution of inter-State disputes, the draft policy suggests the establishment of a permanent tribunal at the Centre.

In a major departure from the past, the policy also suggests that people displaced by large water projects should be made partners in progress and given a share in the benefits comparable to the project-benefited families. In fact, the policy suggests that the cost of rehabilitation and compensation to the project affected families be “partly” borne by the project-benefited families through “adequate pricing of water.”

Himanshu Thakkar, an expert at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said the policy showed the government had been unable to “learn from the past.” “The entire focus should have been on how to sustain groundwater, which is the country’s lifeline,” he said.

Blue Planet Project analysis

Our own analysis suggest that the new draft completely ignores the emerging reality of fast urbanisation and impending water scarcity in the cities (see the BPP blog on Draft Framework Law). The draft policy also fails to acknowledge the linkages with the large number of thermal power projects in the country. By 2032 India plans to increase its installed power generation capacity to 800,000 MW which will require a huge quantity of water. Unfortunately many of these proposed thermal power plants are in water deficit regions, for example in Vidarbha, Orissa and others. These will further perpetuate the stress and scarcity in these regions. Integrated energy policy will have a direct bearing on the water usage but there is no correlation between the two. Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India has already granted environmental clearance to 192,913 MW and another 508,907 MW are either awaiting Environment Clearance or have Terms of Reference (ToR) granted or are awaiting ToR.

Another lacunae stems from the fact that Policy completely ignores the traditional wisdom of communities and the role of communities in planning water usage, conservation, project planning and management. The whole plan and proposed mechanisms are technocratic and top heavy and see public as only users.

The proposed mechanisms seeks space for more Public Private Ventures like Khandwa water privatisation plans and so. Proposed Water Regulatory Authority will also mean disaster since in past these have not worked but no lesson seems to have been learnt from it.

In the name of flood control and water scarcity between zones inter basin transfers are being proposed as solution whereas it remains to be said that river linking project has been shelved as a pan India idea but this will encourage states to take these up too.

It remains to be seen when the Policy will be actually put in public domain for wider public consultation.