A Mirage or an Opportunity? 21st Century Water Governance.

Dec 24, 2016


If water governance does not improve in India, we seem headed straight towards disaster. Our groundwater tables are abysmally low in many parts of the country; many of our main river basins are closed. And the expressed demand for water might not even be half-met in the next decade.

So the question of how to radically reimagine the way the country manages its key natural resource is a most critical one to answer.

Under the circumstances, the Mihir Shah committee has done nothing short of a valiant job. Looking into the functioning of 2 key national water institutions, the CWC And the CGWB, and recommending that they be more closely tied at the hip, they have tried to integrate national water institutions as water itself is integrated in the real world.

Unfortunately, the committee’s job was a bit like that of the man looking under the lamppost for the ring he lost in the gutter, because that’s where the light was.

Clearly, in the TOR, there was not much scope to make bold recommendations about an out dated, inefficient bureaucracy; to suggest it be dismantled wholly or in any part, for example, but merely to re-orient and restructure it.

Within that constraint, the committee has tried to load onto the new institution envisaged by it – the National Water Commission, all the wonderful, progressive things it would like to see implemented as part of what it calls a 21st century institutional architecture.

It has the created a long, detailed report (146 pages with annexures!) that is both tantalising and perplexing. To its credit, the committee has first cogently plied us with the urgency and criticality of thinking anew about water governance in the new century. It is an encyclopaedic list of new sector thinking, that some on the committee have been leading for the past several years. Firmly based on principles of ecological justice and human welfare, it looks at the key natural resource of water through the lens of integration and inter-disciplinarity, people’s participation and decentralisation, science and data applied to the public interest, and so on. It tells the reader very clearly that existing strategies have failed people, especially farmers, and has also created ecological disasters, in terms of closed river basins, flooding, droughts, drained aquifers, depleting base flows and more. It looks with clear eyes at the growing human demand across sectors, from agriculture to industrial and urban, and the need to manage this demand better. The report proceeds to remind us that in the light of this knowledge about earlier failures and misguided thinking, it is imperative that water sector governance in the country is truly revolutionised.

The report then abruptly lets us down by describing, again in great detail, the setting up of a new governance institution that is more about the 19th century than it is about the 21st century, in terms of its architecture! With apologies to the many friends and colleagues on the committee, I do believe that creating a new bureaucracy by merging two old entities, retaining all its personnel, and keeping it locked under all the constraining factors that prevent our bureaucrats and institutions from meeting their mandate, will not make the difference this country needs, especially in this most critical water sector.

The report talks of hydro- schizophrenia but seems to succumb to some of that malaise itself. On one page, the report accepts that the capacities of existing personnel are quite inadequate for the new sector challenges, and on another, it timidly accepts the possibility of redeploying all existing personnel into the various divisions of the new NWC. It talks of societal goals and people’s participation but then expects the government’s mammoth bureaucracies to oversee what firmly must rest in the societal space – the space of the samaj, with all its diverse risks and possibilities. It speaks of the need to create that diverse set of responses to diverse needs on the ground, but then expects governments to scale up such diversity. If there is any lesson about government behaviour over two centuries, it is that governments are excellent at scaling up one size fits all responses, and solutions, but remarkably ill-equipped to scale up solutions that require flexible, just in time solutions. It speaks of decentralisation and a ground up governance infrastructure, but lands up recommending a top and middle heavy bureaucracy. It speaks eloquently about the need to adopt best practices from around the world, and to build partnerships with all manner of academic and civil society institutions, but fails to acknowledge that governments are very turf protective and reluctant to create open architectures.

In short, while the committee’s analysis of the complexity of the water sector is finely nuanced and its understanding of what needs to be done is far-reaching, it fails in arriving at the ‘how’ of making its ideas fructify.

Its prescriptions, if adopted, are more likely to lock India’s water sector into a low level equilibrium than to set it free to innovate boldly for the complex new challenges at a new, little understood scale.

Perhaps, if the committee was given a more free hand to look at water governance from a clean slate, we could have got a more innovative approach and more radical, and more implementable solution frameworks from the group of brilliant, respected practitioners and academics that formed the committee.

Many of its ideas need to simultaneously apply to other institutions, especially to the highly toxic structure of the Pollution Control Boards. These architectures must also be tested at the parastatals like the BWSSB that dominate the urabn water management scenario in the country.

It remains to be seen how this government reacts to the report and whether it will go ahead with creating the National Water Commission as recommended in it.

Meanwhile, citizens, water practitioners, farmers, corporates, urban planners or NGOs, all have had little choice but to experiment in myriad ways to tweak the way water is governed in the country today. As we speak, so many efforts are already under way, without waiting for the government to overhaul its institutions, or even to adopt better policy and laws.

Some examples:

*In the wake of ever more variation in rainfall, people – and corporations – are taking up the construction of small water bodies and rainwater harvesting structures wherever they can. They are reviving and cleaning up their open wells. They are digging farm ponds, with or without the assistance of NREGA or other work programmes of the government. Citizen groups in places like Bengaluru are coming together to save lakes, and to conserve water.

*Rightly or wrongly, new deepening of river channels is happening in places like Marathwada, with crowd sourced funding, hoping to revive the dried up rivers there. This is the second wave; at least, of community-based river rejuvenation programmes after Rajinder Singh’s groups and many others like Sambhaav revived rivers and aquifers in Rajasthan.

*Many corporations are looking closely at improving water efficiency in their entire supply chains, thereby acknowledging the non-monetary value of water. They are holding themselves accountable for using less water inside their fence as well. These are good signs, even if small and sometimes imperfect.

*Decentralised waste management is gaining some traction, as is experimentation on new toilet design, faecal sludge management, behaviour change communication and the massive building of toilets with or without subsidies from government (for example, the micro finance backed toilet construction in towns like Coimbatore), Much philanthropic capital is entering this space, and is able to absorb serious risk.

*Participatory Ground Water Management (PGWM) is also spreading in different forms, and might scale faster as ground water becomes scarcer. Arghyam itself has supported 500 such efforts around the country and other donors and institutions have picked up such work in multiple geographies.

*Community centred rejuvenation of neglected springs has spread quickly in some areas, including in the mountain states of the north, creating local, sustainable, zero energy, 24/7 drinking water supply for local communities.

*Ground water is increasingly bought and sold around the country, and is possibly revealing its true economic price. Government documents consistently have ignored the existence of thriving though unregulated water markets all over the country. In the context of scarcity, these markets get a new lease of life, with farmers being forced to buy ground water for their crops in some areas. Assuming that people who buy water will not want to waste it, this might be a driver for more efficient use too.

*Water quality awareness is rising. For example, the water quality networks on arsenic and fluoride (supported by Arghyam) are seeing impressive action across states.

Everywhere, people are choosing to buy safer, cleaner water if their local governments cannot supply it. A burgeoning market for water purification has emerged, and needs to be understood better.

This is a small sample of innovations. All these interventions need to be studied in much greater detail. But the strong point is that these are societal responses in diverse local forms, to the increasing unpredictability of access to safe water.

There has been a clear failure of the state at all three levels to create a holistic approach to water management that allows people to draw minimum water from the environment and yet meet lifeline and livelihood needs. Yet this is not a blame game.

It is time to unleash all manner of experiments to allow water resources to be understood and managed locally and at different scales, using emerging technologies and new ideas, rooted in principles of justice.

In this process, it might be wise not to preemptorily create new regulatory structures that knock out the innovation and the samaj’s own initiatives.

21st century water governance requires people and institutions to move away from hard-wired, financially prohibitive infrastructure towards decentralised, flexible, financially and operationally viable infrastructure and systems for storage, for equity and efficiency of use, and for treatment and recycling of waste water streams. Necessarily then, the behaviour of the state will need changing to allow for this flexibility.

21st century water governance also requires us to imagine the use of new technologies that have emerged in just the past few years, to meet the twin goals of equity and sustainability.

To name just a few, there are tools and technologies like crowd-sourcing, smart sensors, IOT, data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, data visualisation tools, modelling tools, drones, robotics and more.

If we are open to their possibility, they allow the creation of incredibly powerful open source, open access data platforms that can reduce knowledge asymmetry in dramatic ways.

Knowledge symmetry is at the heart of many successful water governance systems of the past.

In the 19th century, across India, but especially in water scarce Rajasthan, people created the most aesthetic water structures that were also architecturally designed to provide the community equal information about precious water. For example, the baudis or step wells of Jaisalmer were designed with the depiction of different animal forms rising from the steps of the well. If people could see water till the trunk of the elephant, for example, they could roughly estimate that there was enough water to last for several months. But if the water pooled at the elephant’s feet, it meant scarcity ahead and allowed people to plan for conserving that water and creating the necessary trade-offs. No doubt it was a difficult process, but it seems to have passed the test of time.

At that scale, this approach works just fine. The moment we cross over into societies of multiple layered structures of identity and authority and commerce, we need a new design.

Today’s technologies allow similar open knowledge structures to come into the palm of people’s hands through mobile phones, with much more sophistication.

A 21st century water governance imagination would need to include the immense potential of such technologies.

So, let us imagine what can be unleashed if we created such an open data platform for crowd sourced information on ground water use, for example.

30 million or more, mostly private bore wells cannot be managed through retrofitted government regulation. Nor should they be. And yet, because individual users have little or no information about their actions on their own future usage, or the implication of their action on their neighbours, profligate extraction continues.

What if, with some groundwork, bore well water users were willing to put sensors or meters on their wells, purely in a voluntary manner, in small closed experiments at first, to create a data picture of aquifer usage, for better neighbourhood management of a common pool resource?

As such a movement grew, it would mean that we could begin to map the country’s aquifers in a bottom up manner that could seriously complement the ambitious NAQUIM programme’s somewhat top down approach.

Let’s be clear. We cannot do this bottom up mapping and re-imagining of the role of the samaj if we reject these technologies for the samaj space. If communities do not equip themselves with these tools, they can lose the information race. That is exactly what happened when a social platform (though not a societal one, in my dictionary) was created to allow people to friend each other in a totally private universe. This platform’s goals were substantially different from the common goals of a broader public. Yet, many civil society organisations stayed away from this crucial debate. It must not happen again in the water sector.

As far as I can understand it, the same technology tools can allow for total surveillance but also for pervasive sous-veillance (monitoring from below). It is up to us, as citizens, to use the potential of these forces to suit the public interest.

While I acknowledge that this is easier said than done, I wish mainly to paint the contours of what could truly become a Version 1 of radical, community based, decentralised water governance for this century, with an enabling, not all-encompassing, role played by the state.

In fact, that is exactly what happened in ground water four decades ago. While the government’s attention and money were mainly focused on massive surface water infrastructure, at a combined cost since independence of Rs 400,000 crores, people had discovered the bore well rig. Supposedly brought into the country through Unicef, as one story goes, to wean people away from contaminated surface water, it soon became a decentralised tool in the hands of people to access the invisible water below their feet.

There are lessons to be had from this saga of how bore wells spread across the country in 40 short years, without any active government intervention. Maybe we need more nuanced research about the incentives and drivers behind this phenomenon that has made India the biggest extractor of groundwater in the whole world.

Of course this has led to unsustainable extraction. Most solutions at one scale turn into new problems at another scale. And in this case, the conspicuous absence of regulation and sensibly public policy created a rapid race to the bottom.

Is the answer more regulation? Perhaps not.

There are risks to creating new state structures that take back the people’s power and freedom, in the name of sustainability or equity. We need to think carefully before handing back an essentially decentralised system, with all its perils, into the hands of a dysfunctional state, susceptible to elite capture.

What proper lessons can we learn from these past four decades of private initiatives combined with benign state neglect?

Can we stop hiding from the plain truth, that a lack of regulation allowed the flourishing of a system that allowed millions of people access to water, especially in rain fed areas where canal water would never have reached?

How can we turn that understanding so that the same kind of private and public energy helps us manage ground water better?

What kind of new policy can we create in the immediate future that does not over regulate the sector with heavy -handed punitive measures?

Which policies can encourage collaboration or competition but not create monopolies? What policies will reject large, ineffective, unaccountable bureaucracies?

How can we create new but minimal institutions that enable the deployment of the latest technology trends to create open, societal platforms that act as trust networks for people to collaborate on problem solving? One clear example is that of the US government funded GPS technology, which has evolved into an open public good.

The opening up of this technology has allowed immense innovation from both the private and public sectors. It has become a public good that many take for granted. Many can search on their phones for a nearby restaurant, or for the nearest hospital in an emergency. This minimal public infrastructure today allows people to manage their own spatial environment in myriad ways. It has created multiplier benefits in all directions.

When it comes to water, many similar things are possible.

What energy or leadership will help design a similar public platform that allows all of us to become smart, sustainable users of the precious water resources of this country and of the planet?

These seem to be the unanswered questions.

But, if we are truly aiming for 21st century water governance mechanisms, we need to open these questions up across sectors.

Some answers will surely follow.



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