Surely, people should have a say

Surely, people should have a say
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First Published: Wed, May 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST
Updated: Wed, May 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST
This sounds weird. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act 2005, a pioneering act of its kind, has no role for the people outside the bureaucracy and the ministries. This shocking revelation was reinforced at a recent meeting in Pune, where the chairman and secretary of Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority also spoke. The Act is being amended, Suresh Sodal said, to bring into its ambit groundwater development and management issues and to expand the tariff fixing role of the Authority.
This may be a good time to bring in other amendments to give people of the state a say in the water sector. The assurance by officials of the Authority that people will have an opportunity to express their views (and the officials will decide what to do with them!) is clearly inadequate, to put it mildly.
The objective, as stated in the Act is, “to regulate water resources within the state of Maharashtra, facilitate and ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilization of water resources”. Maharashtra is the first state in India to come out with such an Act, but clearly, the Centre would like such laws to be passed by all states. Particularly when the World Bank (WB) wants this as part of the reforms in the water sector. Arunachal Pradesh has passed such a law and Gujarat drafted one over two years ago.
Significantly, the Act was published in the Gazette on 4 May 2005, and the WB-funded, $325-million Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project was cleared on 26 May 2005. The project appraisal document of the WB loan is candid about its role in making it a reality. In fact, as the document declared, one of the key legal conditions of the loan was to “establish the Authority by no later than 31 December 2005 and make it operational by 30 September 2006.” Ajit Nimbalkar, chairman of the Authority, accepted the crucial role of the Bank in making the Act possible.
Broadly, the Act consolidates the hold of the government in planning and decision-making in the water sector. For a sector characterized by a non transparent, unaccountable, non-participatory, top-down and big dam-centric approach, it facilitates weakening of the accountability of politicians. This can’t be good for democracy. Bringing sweeping changes in the sector, the Act also empowers the Authority to allocate and change entitlements of water across categories (agriculture, domestic, industrial, etc.) and users. Sodal also revealed that the concept of entitlement across, and within, various categories of use is being introduced in six pilot irrigation projects.
For the first time in India, the law empowers the Authority to create mechanisms for trading water entitlements. This, again, can’t be good for the weaker sections of the population. In a trade-off between the prosperous and the poor, it is known who would suffer.
Non-transparency, lack of accountability and lack of representation of people from outside government, coupled with the concept of trading entitlements so that the water goes to the highest-valued users, could be very dangerous. It could mean that since industries and urban users are valued more in WB parlance, the needs of the rural, agriculture and poor sectors within a region, and weaker regions within the state, would get lower priority, or even no priority, while entitlements are considered and traded.
Such sweeping changes, without wide and informed consultation, are neither warranted, nor justified. Most atrociously, a reading of the Act shows that it has no significant role for anyone outside the government.
Look at the constitution of the Authority (all three members are current or former bureaucrats and five special invitees are officials from government agencies) as well as the river basin agencies, the water board, the water council, and the selection committee (that selects the chairperson who “is or who was of the rank of chief secretary or equivalent thereto”)—there is no place for anyone outside the government. This cannot be an acceptable situation.
The two members of the Authority (besides the chairperson) are supposed to be experts in engineering and economics. When over 80% of water use is in agriculture (on which 65-70% of people are dependent), and when every action in the water sector has such profound impact on the environment, there is no place in the Act to include members from the agriculture, environment and social sectors. The first thing the government needs to do is to add experts from these three areas as full members—they should come from outside the government and should not be former bureaucrats.
Thus, it seems, this has been a missed opportunity to bring some fundamental changes in the character of India’s water sector. The minimum one can expect is to suspend it till there is a wide and informed debate on the Act itself, its rules and regulations (currently under the consideration of the state government) and implications thereof. Moreover, the reforms should be bottom up, if they are to respect the democratic norms of India’s Constitution.
Himanshu Thakkar is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, May 09 2007. 12 03 AM IST
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