From wastefulness to thriftiness: A better water regime

Woman carrying drinking water at Swasthi Road, Shantinagar in Bengaluru. DH Photo by S K Dinesh

India is bracing a tipping point wherein water is taking centre-stage of all concerns. In all corners of the country, water scarcity trepidations have become a very common occurrence.

The rural residents now believe that water insufficiency is a way of life. In recent years, even the urban spaces have started facing critical scarcity of water.

According to the Central Water Commission (2017), the country receives about 4,000 trillion litres of fresh water from rainfall, of which only 1,123 TL can actually be utilised. The current consumption in the country is about 581 TL. Despite the higher supply, water scarcity is looming, a puzzle to be solved.

In the last three decades, there has been an exponential increase in the usage of groundwater, due to topographic constraints, distributional leakages, and inefficiency in supplying surface water.

Currently, as per the official estimates, 70-80% in rural areas and 60-65% in urban areas are catered to by groundwater. Many aquifers are stressed and declared critical, resulting not only in the availability part but also deteriorating quality. The presence of arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate have deepened the crisis further.

The supply-side management of surface water, which has been attempted in the country hitherto, has not yielded satisfactory results. On the other hand, many water users associations and NGOs came forth with various indigenous decentralised methods in managing the resources.

No doubt, these techniques yielded the ascertained results, but nevertheless, couldn’t scale up to the required goal of water security. The current laws do not provide adequate incentives for the efficient use of water, as they are partial and parochial. Water is certainly a life-blood. However, the fundamental right bestowed by Article 21 under Right to Life is not well enforced.

Water resources is a State subject. However, for groundwater, we adopt the common law approach of land ownership doctrine, wherein, as per the illustration (g) to Section 7 of the Indian Easement Act of 1882, “A landowner has the right to appropriate water which is below land and no action will be taken against the owner even if it intercepts, abstracts or diverts water which remains under the land of another.”

Hence, an enormous power in the hands of the individual to have absolute authority over water resources flowing under the piece of land owned have aggravated the problem.

Model bills devised by the Centre did not get the desired response from the states. Further, the regulations could only control new aquifer but not the existing once.

The existing framework did not produce anticipated results, ultimately hampering the growth of the economy. Some cities are already facing the heat of water scarcity. Such archaic laws and half-hearted implementation not only depletes the water resources but also disregards the rights over water for landless, poor and vulnerable.

Water is an extremely complex proposition as it deals with the nexus between the human societies, physical environment and their exploitation for livelihoods. Today’s competing demands on water urge for rational management in an integrated and holistic fashion.

India needs a radical shift from water resources development to water resources management by restructuring and strengthening its institutions and law for better service-delivery and resource sustainability.

LLP Strategy

For completeness in the integrated policy, it is very essential to have the right measures and the right approach. A right measure can hold up resource use efficiency and the right approach can bring in the ways and means to attain effectiveness in the policy.  For which, we need to adopt three important strategies namely “Law, Loop, and Pricing”.

Law: There is an urgent need to take away the absolute right over the groundwater which is linked to land ownership. In fact, groundwater should be treated as a res communes, that is, a public property, incapable of private appropriation.

However, using the relative rights can be considered if the user recharges the groundwater and ensure that the net extraction is negative. Need-based policies for rural and urban consumers can be adopted and phased wise shift be embraced after strengthening the surface water delivery.

There is an urgent need to bring the surface water resources under Concurrent List for better utility.

Pricing: Most of the inefficiencies and misuse in water have their roots in the mispricing of water and electricity.

We need to move away from the current average cost pricing strategy to marginal cost pricing strategy. The aim of appropriate pricing is to cull out dependency syndrome and the free rider problem through punitive measures and achieve resources efficiency in the long run.

Loop: Loop system is a beneficial manipulation of resources use for achieving resource equity. India must adopt the closed loop strategy as done by Singapore wherein, the focus should be conjunctive development and use of rainwater, wastewater and desalinated water.

Here, every drop has to be used and reused. Though this model is a costly proposition, however, in the long run, a very effective solution.

Loop can be achieved by a means of localisation and  lateralisation approach of resources use with the proper application of the top-down and bottom-up approach of governance. For example, a city like Chennai must opt for a localisation strategy by depending on desalinated water and also ensure all the water used are recycled and reused.

Here, the desalination will be governed by the top-down approach and the recycling be bottom-up approach. Whereas places like Kolar have to depend heavily on lateralisation approach by purchasing water from Yettinahole and invest heavily on a decentralised system of recharging and recycling.

This takes us to the issue of inter-linking of rivers. Many ecologists claim that interlinking may cause an ecological disaster. But with various technological advancement and innovation, some major disasters can be averted. The recently inaugurated Narmada-Shipra river link stands as a testimonial.

The LLP strategy is required to achieve the “3Es” - equity, efficiency and effectiveness of water delivery. The management of water is not just building a physical edifice but building the relationship of society with its resource. This attitude will certainly put an end to the present day crisis of water.

(The writer is Assistant Professor
(Economics), IILM University, Gurugram)

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