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India’s waterman demands water security law

Rajendra Singh, known as India’s waterman, wants all parties preparing their manifestos for the coming elections to promise a water security act that he and other activists have drafted
<p>Sanjay Singh (left) and Rajendra Singh </p>

Sanjay Singh (left) and Rajendra Singh

The right to water should be as fundamental as the right to food, and India’s waterman Rajendra Singh wants all political parties to promise a law to this effect. The man who won the Magsaysay Award – known as Asia’s Nobel Prize – in 2001 for regenerating seven rivers in a semi-arid part of India’s desert state Rajasthan has now teamed up with activists around the country to push a water security bill drafted by them.

The plan is to push the bill as a promise by all political parties, which are now preparing their manifestos for elections to India’s parliament. Polls are expected in April or May. The activists’ case has been strengthened because the outgoing government has passed a Food Security Act that guarantees a minimum amount of food to every Indian.

“Along the same lines, it must be enshrined in law that every Indian has the right to get the basic minimum amount of water,” Rajendra Singh told thethirdpole.net. The draft bill does not specify what this amount should be. “There are various definitions of what the basic minimum requirement may be. We did not want to get into that. But, if you ask me, we should work on the basis of the WHO definition,” said Sanjay Singh, a water rights activist who has teamed up with Rajendra Singh to form Jal-Jan-Jodo Abhiyan,  a civil society platform to push the bill.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says, “A minimum of 7.5 litres per capita per day will meet the requirements of most people under most conditions…a higher quantity of about 20 litres per capita per day should be assured to take care of basic hygiene needs and basic food hygiene.”

Silence on transboundary rivers

The draft bill emphasises the need to conserve water bodies and give prime importance to women when it comes to essential water needs. However, it is silent on the three transboundary river basins that are among the largest basins in India – Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus.

Asked to explain this omission, Rajendra Singh said, “You are right, these basins are very important, and the issue of transboundary water sharing is crucial. But it is such a divisive issue that we did not want to include it at this stage. We don’t want to scare all political parties away. But I assure you that we’ll take this up later.”

Another crucial issue on which the draft bill is silent is disputes between various Indian states over water sharing. In some cases – Karnataka versus Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery and Punjab versus Haryana over the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal, for example – these disputes have been going on for decades, despite repeated attempts by the central government and India’s apex court to resolve them.

Part of the reason is that water is a subject under the purview of state governments as per the Indian Constitution, but inter-state and international water issues are supposed to be handled by the central government. Asked why the bill did not talk about this crucial issue, Sanjay Singh said, “We’re not going to get anywhere if we ask for amendments to the Constitution at this stage. Let us get the basic minimum water right guaranteed by law, and then we’ll take up these contentious issues.”

One contentious issue that the bill has taken up – though briefly – is groundwater. India is the world’s largest groundwater user, and water tables are falling dangerously fast almost all over the country, especially in the hard rock Deccan Plateau that covers much of central and southern India and where aquifers take thousands of years to be filled. India has no overall law to regulate groundwater usage, so anyone who owns a piece of land is free to tap the aquifer beneath. The Central Groundwater Board keeps preparing maps to show how dire the situation is and often tells state governments to stop pumping from critically imperilled aquifers. The implementation of such arbitrary rules is generally poor.

The activists’ draft bill responds to this situation by suggesting, “No person may undertake any activity that can result in or be deemed as aquifer interference activity.”

The bill is also silent on whether the use of water beyond the basic minimum should be priced, though Rajendra Singh was very clear that households and farmers should not be asked to pay for water. In this regard, he was very critical of the government’s 2012 National Water Policy. “It says in its preamble that water is a fundamental right, then it goes on to suggest that water should be priced,” Rajendra Singh said. “I told Harish Rawat (then the minister for water resources) he must get this changed, that water must not be priced. He is a man originally from the socialist movement. How could he have done this? But they did not change.”

Overall, the draft bill seeks to move control over water to Panchayats (village councils) and municipalities and away from state and central governments. “The local elected bodies are the organisations where people know what is going on, and water can be conserved and sustainably used only if we empower them,” Sanjay Singh said.

The draft says, “The Panchayat may have all such powers to ensure the biological, ecological and hydrological integrity of the water body.” It also says that if necessary, local authorities may form “River Panchayats” or “Area Sabhas” (meetings) dedicated to this purpose.

The bill says every local authority must publish maps of water bodies under their jurisdiction within four months of the passage of the act, and then maintain records and protect these water bodies. This can mean major change, because many water bodies are encroached upon by local strongmen while many more are polluted.

The draft says that all “prohibited activities” that may endanger a water body “shall be cognizable offences chargeable with the maximum penalties under the relevant IPC (Indian Penal Code).” Failure of local authorities to carry out their obligations under this law shall also be deemed an offence.

The activists are planning to hold a meeting with Members of Parliament across all parties to push their case before taking the draft bill to individual parties and asking them to promise in their manifestos that they will enact this law if they are elected.

Comments (2)

Agriculture causes both the biggest drawal of water and also the greatest pollution of it primarily due to the water and chemical intensive method in which it is practised. Unless this major demand side factor that is at the root of some of the most serious problems facing water systems in this country ranging from damming of rivers, drying up of flows, depletion of groundwater levels and pollution of both surface and groundwater, is addressed it will not be possible to ensure water security by just enacting another law and putting in penal provisions against its violation. So the connection between food security, water security and sustainable agriculture has to be spelt out and a social movement started instead of just enacting another law. Another serious problem is the unsustainability of water use in habitats whether urban or rural. 90% of the water that is supplied to habitats whether for domestic or industrial purposes becomes waste water after use. This waste water is being disposed of without treatment in most cases further endangering our water systems. The rational thing to do is to treat this waste water and reuse it so as to keep the water systems clean and also drastically reduce the demand for fresh water. This can easily be done in a decentralised manner. This important aspect of quality of water is cursorily dwelt on in the proposed water security bill saying that water bodies are not to be polluted. However, it is a Herculean task to ensure that pollution does not take place almost as difficult as ensuring that agriculture is sustainable with respect to water use. Finally, we have at present many laws, regulations and policies with regard to water, soil and forest conservation and also provisions for environmental impact assessment which together can ensure water security in terms of both quantity and quality but these are all being flouted with impunity despite there being heavy penalties. The State happens to be the biggest violator of all these laws. Under the circumstances unless this culture of violation of laws changes, the enactment of yet another law will not achieve much. Overall there is a lack of contextualisation of water within the whole ecosystem which has forests, soil, underground aquifers and human intervention agriculture, mining, industry and domestic use. It would be better to see why existing laws, regulations and policies are not working and try to raise the level of awareness and public pressure to remedy this than campaign for yet another law.

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