Central Water Commission Up in Arms Over Report Calling for its Restructuring

The Shah committee has recommended an overarching National Water Commission be created to encourage a shift in focus from the construction of dams to decentralised management and maintenance of water.

A farmer plants rice saplings in a paddy field against the backdrop of pre-monsoon clouds in Amritsar June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Munish Sharma/Files

A farmer plants rice saplings in a paddy field against the backdrop of pre-monsoon clouds in Amritsar June 13, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Munish Sharma/Files

New Delhi: The engineers of the Central Water Commission (CWC) – the nerve centre of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – are up in arms about the Mihir Shah committee’s recommendation to constitute an overarching National Water Commission (NWC).

The NWC, amongst other things, will build partnerships with independent experts and civil society groups for participatory management of water resources.

The key recommendation of the committee is to shift focus from construction to decentralised management and maintenance in order to ensure har khet ko paani (water for every field) under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana.

The report also lays emphasis on the effective presence of CWC engineers in river basins for better coordination with states.

Civil engineers and hydrologists are fuming over the Shah committee’s recommendations, their main argument being that water is a state subject and such reforms will go against the spirit of federalism.

Logic of National Water Commission

The Shah committee was set up last year to recommend ways to restructure the CWC, which develops surface water projects, and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), which monitors ground water use and contamination.

At present, both functions are independent of each other. The idea was to initiate reforms in the CWC and CGWB for integrated water management, development, planning, water-use efficiency and for budgeting the adoption of a river basin approach. The Shah committee report is the third major report that has been issued on the restructuring of CWC since 2000.

The biggest grouse with the report is against its recommendation to restructure the CWC into a “brand new” multi-disciplinary NWC, which is to be headed by “an administrator with strong background in public and development administration”.

Under the reformed structure, regional NWC offices will be set up. While no jobs will be taken away, the CWC and the CGWB will be included in the new NWC and the current personnel will be redeployed at the Centre and the regional river basin offices.

Another crucial element of the report is the recommendation to forge partnerships with world class institutions, eminent experts and voluntary organisations in the water management field.

The 150-page document, submitted to the government in July, does not say “no” to the construction of dams but asserts that it must happen in “reform” mode so that whatever water is stored in reservoirs reaches the farmers’ fields. At the same time, the focus should be on the completion of ongoing projects, management of the potential created so far and community participation for integrated irrigation Management Transfer (IMT).

“The mandate of CWC and CGWB belongs to an old era when dam construction and tube well drilling was the prime need of the hour,’’ the report says, adding that the CWC lacks expertise in water utilisation, environmental and socio-economic issues and in efficient irrigation management to deal with present-day challenges of droughts, floods, climate change and food and water security.

The NWC will have on board full-time commissioners representing hydrology, hydrogeology, hydrometeorology, river ecology, ecological economics, agronomy and participatory resource planning and management. It will be an adjunct body to the ministry, but it will be “autonomous and accountable”, the report says.

Based on the observation that in its present form the CWC was not equipped to undertake radical reforms, the report suggests that simply by completing ongoing projects, an irrigation potential of 7.9 mha can be created and by prioritising investments in command area development and water management, an additional 10 mha can be achieved. Undertaking extension, renovation and modernisation of abandoned works can restore another 2.2 mha of irrigation potential.

Most importantly, the report recommends that hitherto, no water project should be approved without planning for a distribution network that links the reservoir and main canal to the farm gate for farmers to have an equitable access to water.

Opposition from CWC

The recommendations are in line with the exercise initiated by the erstwhile Planning Commission, of which Shah was a member, to amend laws for making river basins the nodal area for development of water resources.

Shah, last week, made a presentation of the report – A 21st century institutional architecture for India’s water reforms – at the prime minister’s office, which was attended by the top officials of the concerned ministries.

No decision has been announced so far about whether the report will be implemented or not, especially in the light of the silent but strong protests by CWC engineers.

The proposed NWC will not just be focused on building dams, but will also enable state governments to implement irrigation projects in reform mode, take a lead in national aquifer mapping and groundwater management and take steps to insulate agrarian economy and livelihood systems from the effects of drought, floods and climate change and move towards sustainable water security. It will serve as a world class capacity building, data and knowledge institution.

The most pinching observation for the CWC is that the groundwater has been the foundation of India’s green revolution, as the gap between the potential created through river water storages (dams) and its actual utilisation is huge. “The country has invested Rs 4 lakh crore in major and medium irrigation projects since independence, created 111 mha of irrigation potential, of which only 89 mha is utilised, [hence] leaving a huge gap. Vast storages of water are not reaching farmers”.

The committee has also said that the Central Water Engineering Services unit of the CWC should be sent to regional offices of the proposed NWC to manage the distribution of water from dams to farmers in the field, which would involve the formation of water user associations and water audits emulating the Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh models.

At the same time, the committee recommends that the CGWB should have offices in each district to monitor and maintain ground water drawls and quality. Laws need not be changed for decentralisation of CWC and CGWB activities, say experts.

CWC engineers, however, oppose the report, raising the decade-old debate of “dams versus no-dams”. According to the engineers, who declined to speak on the record, India can meet its food and water security requirements only through the development of surface water through the construction of dams.

While agreeing that more efforts were required for demand-side management, the CWC engineers said that between surface water (450 bcm) and ground water (243 bcm), the 693 bcm utilisation nearly meets the demand of 710 bcm projected by the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development for 2010.

For harnessing an estimated 690 bcm by 2050, new dams with storage capacity of about 95 bcm will have to be identified and completed by 2050. They pointed out that a capacity of about 53 bcm is likely to be lost to sedimentation in dams by 2050.

China, they say, with a population of 1.4 billion has created live storage capacity of 718 bcm, while India has a live storage capacity of 259 bcm (minus the ground water) for its population of 1.3 billion.

The engineers blamed the states for not developing a dam’s command area and canal network pari-passu with the construction of a project, for the supply of irrigation water to farmers’ fields and also blamed them for altering the cropping patterns once a project is approved, which prevents “enduring outcomes” for all farmers.

As for the Shah report’s observations about major countries having moved away from building mega dams, the engineers point out that these countries have ‘’finished with’’ the creation of per capita storage and can afford to be in the water management mode.

“It cannot be business as usual,’’ said Shah in a telephonic interview. “20th century solutions will not work now. There is a clear absence of integrated functioning of CWC and the CGWB to address issues of surface and ground water interaction, which is one of the main factors responsible for drying up of India’s peninsular rivers. The water stored in our dams is not reaching the farmers for whom it is meant. We need large-scale social mobilisation. Let farmers be given charge of water management at the last mile. There are many successful examples of this within India and around the world. We have two goals – a viral dhara of rivers and har khet ko paani.’’

While the report highlights the major criticism against the CWC for delays in appraisal and approvals of projects, engineers maintained that since water is a state subject, they have to await responses from the states for which water sector has been a low priority.

They have no control over inter-state river sharing disputes and violation of norms in the use of water resources. There have been states that have gone ahead with projects without the necessary approvals, which has led to the requirement of political or legal interventions.

“That is precisely why there should be an inter-disciplinary institutional architecture that can oversee all of that and manage the country’s water resources within the framework of a river basin approach,’’ said Shah.

“Decentralised activities of the proposed NWC will not interfere with the federal structure, as it will be a facilitating, hand-holding body, acting in response from demands of primary stakeholders, including state governments, gram panchayats and common citizens.’’

Gargi Parsai is an award-winning senior journalist based in New Delhi.