The state and water rights

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

THE per capita availability of water in India has dropped from 5,000 cubic metres a year in 1947 to less than 2,000 cubic metres in 2002. It is expected to drop further to below 1,500 cubic metres by 2025. Six of India's 20 river basins have already reached the water scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres a year. In 15 States, the groundwater level has been falling at the rate of 5 to 7 per cent every year. Twelve major rivers have been declared polluted and, according to hydrologists, there are no more fresh water sources in India. Accounting for 16 per cent of the world's population, 2.45 per cent of the landmass, and 4 per cent of the water resources, India is facing a drinking water crisis.

The government's response to the problem has been to withdraw from its traditional role as a provider of the social good, including water, to that of a facilitator, that is, of marketing water). This primarily stems from giving water a demand-orientation.

Independent India treated water as a basic right and gave its supply high priority. While tracing the government's role in providing water to its people, the Ahmedabad-based water and gender expert Dr. Sara Ahmed (in the article entitled "Engendered Water Policy: The State NGOs and Gendered Outcomes in Rural Gujarat") says that the 1944 Bhore Committee, which looked into the country's health system, first drew attention to the problem of safe drinking water. In 1954, the Health Ministry announced the National Water Supply and Sanitation Programme as part of the health schemes under the Five-Year Plans, and made specific provisions to assist State governments in its implementation, water being a State subject.

By the mid-1960s, when it was realised that the schemes were implemented only in villages that were accessible easily, States were asked to identify villages in remote areas that needed assistance. In 1972-73, the Centre introduced the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) with 100 per cent grant to remote villages. This programme was temporarily withdrawn in 1974-75 and reintroduced in 1977-78 when it was found that it had not reached many of the villages that had been identified.

Periodic droughts during the 1980s and a growing recognition of the need for water conservation, particularly of groundwater, which is a major source of drinking water, led to the formulation of the National Water Policy in 1987. The policy stressed that "drinking water needs of humans and animals should be the first charge of any available water" and called for the integrated and coordinated development of surface and groundwater.

The current laws in India assign property rights of surface (natural) water resources to the State, while the right to extraction of groundwater rests with those individuals who own the land above the aquifer. The unregulated and extensive exploitation of groundwater between 1951 and the mid-1990s, mainly for irrigation, and the growing industrial demand impacted the quantity and quality of water available for drinking purposes.

Recognising the inadequacy of the efforts in recharging water aquifers, the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM) was launched in 1986 with a number of tasks, including data collection and the assessment of water availability, the estimation of recharging potential for groundwater regimes, designing rainwater harvesting structures and enlisting community participation for decentralised water management. The Mission, according to Dr. Sara Ahmed, faced several constraints, primarily because State policies were not consistent with the National Water Policy. Moreover, a target-oriented approach led to haphazard implementation, with little understanding of the ground realities. Around this time water began to be seen as a commodity that could be priced.

The guidelines underlying the Mission, however, were re-emphasised in the Eighth Plan (1992-97): "Safe drinking water supply and basic sanitation are vital human needs for health and efficiency (given the prevalence of) death and disease, particularly of children... and the drudgery of women are directly attributable to the lack of these essentials."

While the Plan drew attention to the management of water as a commodity, based on the principle of effective demand, it also outlined an enhanced role for local bodies. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments (1993), which revamped Panchayati Raj institutions, gave these local bodies the added responsibility of drinking water and sanitation. Panchayati Raj institutions were made responsible for the choice of technology, the recovery of operating costs (through water taxes or user fees) and the maintenance of rural water supply and sanitation schemes through elected water committees. However, many a State government still controls the grants to the Panchayati Raj institutions, and has access to funding from bilateral and multilateral agencies as well as the Centre.

The Ninth Plan (1997-2002) re-articulated the shift from perceiving water as a social good to be provided free by the government, to acknowledging that water is a scarce economic resource that should be provided according to the standard of service that users are willing to maintain, operate and finance. Not only were rural users expected to provide 10 per cent of the capital costs, they were fully responsible for operation and maintenance through the Panchayati Raj institutions and/or the water committees. Private sector participation was encouraged. This was further stressed in the draft National Water Policy of 1998, brought out by the Ministry of Water Resources to review and assess the progress made in water management.

According to Dr. Sara Ahmed, neither the Ninth Plan nor the draft Water Policy made any specific mention of gender-differentiated water needs or women's role in water management. Women are simply subsumed under the general category of "stakeholder participation". Women and communities are looked at as a homogeneous category.

The drinking water needs of human beings and animals were asserted as the main priority. But the question of equity remained unaddressed. Special attention was to be given to the needs of marginal groups, particularly those that may be displaced when developing water projects. But, says Sara Ahmed, women are not considered "disadvantaged" within these marginalised communities. In terms of irrigation development, equity is defined in the context of head reach and tail-end farms and large and small farmers, but not with respect to the type of crops grown and hence water consumption, or access to water between the landed and the landless.

Linking water rights with land ownership excludes the poor and women farmers from the membership of water users associations and, by extension, from decision-making on the timing of water delivery or the pricing. The policy defines project sustainability only in terms of financial and physical considerations, without looking at social or even ecological sustainability.

According to a review by Sara Ahmed of the programmes and the project-level experience of involving women in government and donor-assisted drinking water schemes in India, women have been seen mostly as beneficiaries rather than as partners. Women's participation is often reduced to "labour utilisation" (particularly in drought relief work). "Consultation with communities" always means consultation with men as heads of households and community leaders.

Viewing women's participation as both incremental and instrumental has meant that women's practical needs have not always been addressed, nor has their knowledge about water sources and preferences been tapped. In a number of cases, participation has placed an extra burden on women's time or reinforced gender inequalities without commensurate economic or social benefits in terms of income or status gain. Nor has such participation addressed the larger question of women's water rights - both in terms of access and "ownership" of water resources and their control over decision-making on how (scarce) water resources should be used and managed.

According to a recent review of the Report of the First National Commission on Water (1999) by one of its members, women have "little voice in water-resource planning in this country", and yet they are always depicted as the providers and managers of water at the household level. Not surprisingly, the thrust of the Commission's report was on large water resource development projects as the primary answer to the future needs of a growing population. The private sector is acknowledged as having a significant role to play, given the "financial constraints and managerial limitations" of the State.

However, according to Sara Ahmed, the role of private sector investment is debatable - apart from an increased market for bottled mineral water, the provision of water by tankers during periods of scarcity and a few industry-led initiatives (for instance, Reliance Industries' effort at Jamnagar) there has been little investment in water infrastructure development for the poor majority.

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