The focus of public procurement predominantly on wheat and rice, dates back to the early years of the Green Revolution, which enabled India to build a large buffer stock of grain.

This overwhelming focus, on just wheat and rice, has played a key role in aggravating India’s water crisis, says Water Policy Expert Mihir Shah.

The Mihir Shah-led committee, a 11-member high level Committee, was constituted by the Jal Shakti Ministry in November 2019, to update the current National Water Policy, which was last drafted in 2012.

The Ministry is currently going through the draft policy submitted by the Committee, before it is approved by the National Water Resources Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister, and includes all Chief Ministers as members.

It is noticed that, water-intensive crops are grown, even in relatively water-short regions, because, these are the only crops for which farmers are assured a steady market, because of the government procurement operations. Example of Sugarcane being grown in Marathwada Region of Maharashtra is a classic case.

Marathwada is a drought prone area, obviously not suitable for a water guzzling crop like Sugarcane. The crop is grown in the region by diverting water from nearby rivers. The region is said to be close to desertification. The region has scanty rainfall. Experts naturally question the popularity of sugarcane in the arid, drought prone Marathwada region.

In this connection, Shah has said, crop diversification in line with local agro-ecology, without endangering national food security, is NWP’s single most important measure in resolving the country’s water crisis.

To enable this, he says, we need to diversify crop procurement operations in a carefully calibrated manner, to include nutri-cereals, pulses and oilseeds. According to him, as this diversity of crops, finds a growing place in public procurement operations, farmers will gradually diversify their cropping patterns, to align with this new structure of incentives. This will then lead to a huge saving in water, Shah has noted.

It is worth noting here that, about 80-90 per cent water in India is consumed by the agricultural sector, and of this, 80 per cent water is consumed by just three crops, rice, wheat and sugarcane.

Shah, a former Member of the Planning Commission during the UPA government, says, the previous NWPs (in 1987, 2002, 2012) had many good features. The Committee has tried to place those ideas within a more coherent structure, provide greater clarity on how to take these ideas forward, provide more information to make clear the link of the water policy to policies in other sectors, and suggest many new ideas, that more accurately reflect the changing needs of the time and the latest understanding of water, as also the new options available.

Need for independent panels, graded fee system

Besides recommending crop diversification, the draft NWP has also recommended setting up of Independent Water Resources Regulatory Authorities (IWRRAs) in all states and UTs.

According to the Committee, IWRRAs would decide on bulk water fees, on the basis of cost determination and cost apportionment across different uses, as per an agreed set of criteria, whereas, the individual user charges or retail charges would be decided by the utilities and local self-governments, within the upper limits set by the IWRRAs.

The Committee has recommended the adoption of a Graded fees system, wherein,

–Basic service should be provided to everybody at an affordable cost, at a level that meets the Operation & Maintenance (O&M) costs; and,

–The economic service, like commercial agriculture, industrial and commercial use, should be charged at an economic cost, where the Operation & Maintenance (O&M) costs and part of the capital cost, would be the basis for the water service fees.

Shah however advocates concessional rates for vulnerable social sections and opines that, care should be taken to see to it that, the poor are not deprived of the basic water service, because of its prohibitive cost.

According to Shah, the problem so far had been, our inability to communicate effectively to the people that, water found in its natural form in the streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and aquifers is very different, from water available in a household tap, an irrigation channel, or a factory, and that, it takes physical infrastructure and management systems to make water, a usable resource wherever and whenever one wants it. It naturally involves costs. It is therefore important to generate social consensus as regards, how this cost should be met, adds Shah.

Service fees, Shah says, are a means to ensure affordable water, as a right to cover basic needs, while achieving financial sustainability by generating revenue, through charging more for commercial and luxury uses.

Of the total costs, Shah says,

–Operation & Maintenance (O&M) costs should be fully recovered through water service fees. While,

–The capital or fixed cost should primarily be borne by the state. However, the state can partially recover these, through a higher water charge for various types of commercial users, such as, commercial farming, industries, commercial establishments, etc.

A very important recommendation of the NWP has been that, the penalty for violations must be high enough to act as a deterrent to the polluters as “Extended Producer Responsibility”.

Another important recommendation of the Committee has been that, licenses of the polluting units, in cases of repeated violations, must be temporarily suspended, till corrective actions are taken. The NWP committee pointed out in this connection that, many instances have been found, where, the Polluter Pays Principle was functional, as a kind of license to pollute, Says Shah.

The draft National Water Policy is said to have recommended to the government that, Operation and Maintenance Costs should be fully recovered through water service fees.

In fine, the recommendations of the NWP, it must be acknowledged, take cognizance of the real problems & therefore need to be implemented, to tide over the impending water crisis in the event of its non-implementation.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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