New Delhi: Mihir Shah, erstwhile member of the Planning Commission and head of several committees on water reforms set up by the Modi government, is candid about the problems facing water management. Excerpts from an interview:
Why has it been so hard to make a national push on water, similar to sanitation or the more recent nascent attempt on health?
For some reason, policy makers in India have consistently failed to recognise the key importance of water for the sustainability of India’s growth process and its vital significance in the lives and livelihoods of millions. This has to urgently change.
There has been enough pushback from citizens who are enduring water stress. Are these making any qualitative difference and do they offer some way forward?
Citizens efforts are vitally important but at best they are exemplars for government of the direction national policy must take.
A committee chaired by you in 2016 had recommended a slew of water-related reforms, including the setting up of a National Water Commission. Has there been any progress?
Whenever I presented the proposals, whether to the Ministry of Water Resources, the Niti Aayog or the Prime Minister’s Office, the response I got was overwhelmingly positive, much more positive, for example, than when I was a member of the Planning Commission. Even so, the proposals have not moved forward due to the extraordinary resistance from vested interests within the Central Water Commission, who exercise an almost mystifying power over water policy in India. It gives me no joy to say this but I am afraid this has to do with the political economy of corruption in India.
This is also the reason why despite spending more than Rs400,000 crore on major and medium dam projects in India, we have a recurring and intensifying crisis of water. Trillions of litres of water stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. Unless we reform the management of our irrigation commands, this problem will remain. We need to move towards participatory irrigation management and hand over the management of these commands to Water User Associations of farmers. Wherever we have done this, much success has been achieved. These examples need to be scaled up.
Do you think India has had a serious reckoning with the condition of its groundwater resources?
Sustainable groundwater management is the single most important water reform we need to urgently undertake since groundwater is, by far, India’s most important source of water. India is the largest consumer of groundwater, way ahead of even China, which is in second place. During my tenure in the Planning Commission, we initiated the National Aquifer Management Program (NAQUIM), the largest such program ever undertaken in human history.
But over the years, even as groundwater has grown in importance, the central and state groundwater boards have been consistently shorn of human resource capacity. We need a large scale network of partnerships with academic institutions and civil society organisations in order to implement NAQUIM, which seeks to both measure and manage aquifers.