India’s Water Resources Ministry has drafted a bill to replace the River Boards Act of 1956 in order to take control of the management of inter-state river basins, reduce conflicts and foster cooperation for sustainable management of the basins.

At a time when many states are fighting over inter-state rivers, there is an urgent need to plan river basins as ecological entities managed in a participatory way. The 1956 Act was supposed to do this, but remained a dead letter.

The river boards envisaged under that Act were supposed to advise governments on integrated development of inter-state basins through cooperation between sectors such as irrigation, drainage, flood control and hydroelectric power. The current draft does the same.

Legal experts say the 1956 Act has remained unimplemented because the jurisdiction of the states is different from the areas the river basins occupy, as well as the fact that state governments were always apprehensive about water apportionment. Further, until the 1987 National Water Policy, no priorities were set for water allocations among various sectors. The states were also apprehensive about the centre taking control of prioritisation.

These have worsened with growing water scarcity all over India. The current National Water Policy – written in 2012 – allowed water managers to fix priorities. That may avoid conflict between state governments to some extent, but has ended up giving preference to industrial houses at the expense of farmers and fishers, and definitely at the expense of the river’s ecology.

By placing environmental needs after domestic, industrial and agricultural uses in its preliminary chapter, the draft does the same. It ignores the fact that a river cannot fulfil any other function if it does not have adequate water.

Too top down

The draft reads, “The Central Government should take under its control the regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys…” This is not in line with its introduction, which reads, “It is expected that enactment of the proposed legislation would result in… change of environment from the one of conflicts to that of cooperation.”

In the draft, the term “development” has been used to justify state-controlled top-down planning to build dams, barrages and other activities that colonise water and lead to more conflicts, inequitable distribution and injustice to the people directly dependent on the basin waters. Development needs to be redefined as bottom-up planning in a river basin.

The draft is silent on forests, mountains, hills, all integral parts of a river basin which play a large role in keeping the basin alive. It clubs everything under “related resources”, which leaves great scope for misinterpretation.

One bureaucrat over all?

The draft says decisions of the proposed basin authority shall be binding even if a state government fails to participate in its meetings. This defies the very objective of participation and is an invitation to carry on with the conflicts that have bedevilled inter-state rivers in India for decades. How can a river basin authority have more power than an elected state government?

I have been watching the Mahanadi river dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The Odisha Chief Minister rejected the formation of a negotiation committee by the centre and never participated in the meetings of that committee. He said the Prime Minister or central water resources minister should conduct negotiations with chief ministers of riparian states instead of forming a committee headed by a bureaucrat. The same may happen to a basin authority.

No clarity on “vital ecosystems”

In another chapter, the draft defines Integrated River Basin Management as a process that promotes coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources in a basin, in order to optimise economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems. This term “vital ecosystems” must be defined to include the entire ecology of the basin. Otherwise, it may be used to keep aside just a few “protected areas”, whereas it is vital to restore and maintain the ecology of entire river basins.

Most wetlands and surface water bodies have not been designated “vital ecosystems” by the authorities, although their existence and proper maintenance are vital for the basins. The National Water Policy says, “Encroachments and diversion of water bodies (like rivers, lakes, tanks, ponds etc.) and drainage channels (irrigated area as well as urban area drainage) must not be allowed, and wherever it has taken place, it should be restored to the extent feasible and maintained properly.” The new bill needs to incorporate this.

What is “national interest”?

In the chapter on cooperation, the draft reads, “Basin States shall participate and cooperate in best interest of the nation.” This is likely to create more controversies. “National interest” has been a contentious term in India, and local communities, especially the poor and the tribals, have suffered a lot in its name. For example forest dwelling indigenous communities – one of the most disadvantaged communities in India – are about 8% of India’s population but make up approximately 40% of those displaced by large dams.

When it comes to doing something for these communities in “national interest”, it keeps getting delayed, like the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) that was not even set up till the Supreme Court intervened and created ad-hoc advisory committees. It has still not been able to effectively compensate deforestation, nor has it been able to do justice to local, forested and indigenous communities.

All the large dams built in India have been justified as being in the “national interest”, while most have actually caused conflicts between the state and riparian communities or between different states. For example, in the Mahanadi, Hirakud dam – built in the 1950s – has been the genesis of the conflict between Odisha and Chhattisgarh, while inside Odisha various stakeholders are at loggerheads over its waters. Farmers are fighting a battle against water diversion from irrigation to industries, fisher folk are fighting a battle against reduced and polluted water due to this dam, and the people displaced by the dam – many of whom have subsequently been displaced by mining projects in the Mahanadi basin – are fighting for clean drinking water, good health and secure livelihood.

There is every possibility that giving absolute power to basin authorities to plan and implement projects under the rubric of “national interest” will create more problems rather than solving any. States may refuse to cooperate when it comes to their share of water being diverted to others like in the case of proposed Mahanadi-Godavari link. It also raises the danger of further exploitation and consequent alienation of local and indigenous communities.

Who makes the decisions?

The proposed river basin authority does not have any scope for participation of local communities in decision making. The bill should make it mandatory to involve local communities, village councils and other traditional institutions of indigenous peoples in all decision making processes that impact their lives.

It is also important to take on board previous laws such as the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, which also give rights to local resources – including water – of a basin to indigenous and forest dwelling communities. The National Water Policy calls for active participation of local communities in planning and implementing water resources management. The new bill must do the same.

In sum, the current ways of managing water resources need drastic revamp. Rivers have to be treated as ecological entities and not commodities to be exploited, and river basin management should be more participatory involving centre, states and all other stakeholders as equal partners.

The period during which people could provide feedback on the draft got over on November 5. The draft was placed on the ministry’s website with inadequate publicity, and has failed to elicit much feedback. The central government now needs to discuss the draft with multiple stakeholders in all the inter-state river basin states and incorporate the changes suggested before the bill is placed in Parliament.

Ranjan K Panda is the Convener of Water Initiatives Odisha as well as of the Combat Climate Change Network, India

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