The Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, has just made public the revised version of the Draft Water Policy 2012. It had first put out a draft of the policy in January this year, inviting comments from the public. In a pleasant development, quite unlike the experience of many other cases where Government invites comments from the public and then mostly ignores them, this revised draft shows that at least some of the important comments and some key criticisms of the earlier draft have been taken on board, and the new draft is suitably changed. Unfortunately, many problematic areas still remain.

Toning down on the push for privatisation

First, there seems to be a toning down of the push for privatisation. In the earlier draft, there was an unambiguous recommendation that "The water related services should be transferred to community and/or private sector with appropriate "Public Private Partnership" model." However, this and related provisions drew sharp criticism, including that it seemed that the Government had not learnt any lessons from the disastrous experience of privatisation in the water sector over last ten years. The revised draft now has replaced this clause with

"12.3 Water resources projects and services should be managed with community participation. Wherever the State Governments or local governing bodies so decide, the private sector can be encouraged to become a service provider in public private partnership model to meet agreed terms of service delivery, including penalties for failure."

An important change in the revised draft is that food security and livelihoods for the poor are recognised as high priority uses of water.

 •  Back-pedaling market mantra
 •  Pushing to privatise

Thus, the primacy is now for managing water projects with community participation. Privatisation is to be encouraged if the state or local governments so decide. What is equally important is that private sector involvement is required to meet agreed terms of service delivery, and penalties are to be levied for failure to do so. This is a recognition - albeit belated - that the terms of the contracts for most privatised water project in the country have been skewed in favour of the private players, with the main aim of the contracts being to ensure profits to the private companies, but not casting any contractual obligations on them to meet service quality parameters.

Of course, while this toning down of the privatisation push is welcome, privatisation in the water sector still remains on table, and this is a major problem area. It shows that the "liberalisation, privatisation" model that pushes for handling over resources to private corporate interests remains still well entrenched, and the lessons of the past years that reaffirm the need for water to firmly remain in public domain continue to be ignored.

It is also strange that while the projects are to be managed with community participation, the decision to privatise or not does not seem to require any say of the community, the state or the local governments can do it on their own.

Recognition of priorities

Another important change in the revised draft is that food security and livelihoods for the poor are recognised as high priority uses of water. The earlier version required that water uses including for "basic livelihood support to the poor and ensuring national food security" be treated as economic goods, that is, they should be (commercially) priced for "maximizing value from water". The construct of extracting maximum value is defined purely in monetary terms and thus, water would end up being diverted for those needs that generated money, but not necessarily meet the basic needs of people. (E.g. water use for golf courses could be privileged over growing food grows).

The revised version now places the needs of food security and supporting livelihood needs of the poor at the same level as water for sustaining life and ecosystem, and says that differential pricing may have to be retained for all of these. This is an important step in recognising the high priorities of these uses.

Another important point is that the new version of the policy recognises the need of water for animals (presumably domesticated cattle only, as it is put as an explanatory addition to domestic needs). This too is a welcome addition.

Qualifying river-linking

The earlier draft of the policy said that "Inter-basin transfers are not merely for increasing production but also for meeting basic human need and achieving equity and social justice. Inter-basin transfers of flood waters to recharge depleting ground waters in water stressed areas should be encouraged. If the transfer is from an open basin to a closed basin, increased water use is achieved. Such transfers need to be encouraged."

Inter basin transfers is just another name for the river linking projects. Hence, the position of the policy on this is important. The statement of the earlier policy, quoted above, had come under lot of criticism as it attributed to river linking benefits it could not possibly generate. It also reflected notions that go against a modern understanding of water resources and rivers, particularly the need to keep a river flowing and to evolve developmental choices in a basin based on its natural endowments.

The revised policy still claims that inter basin transfers will achieve equity and social justice, which is problematic, but instead of a blanket statement that inter basin transfers should be encouraged, it says that "Inter-basin transfers of water should be considered on the basis of merits of each case after evaluating the environmental, economic and social impacts of such transfers."

This is an acknowledgement that inter basin transfers are not intrinsically desirable and beneficial, that their utility cannot be assumed as given, but they need to be evaluated comprehensively to decide whether they are beneficial and/or desirable or not. This is particularly important in the context of the Supreme Court's recent observations on the river linking project which have asked the Government to push ahead with the project.

It could be argued that evaluation of social and environmental impacts is already required even now. However, currently, it is being seen mostly as a procedural step, to be carried out after the decision to go ahead with the project is taken, rather than as an input in the decision making. The statement in the new policy draft clearly states that that that these studies are a part of assessing the "merits of each case" and that such an assesment of merits needs to be done "after" carrying out the comprehensive evaluations. In other words, these studies would need to be done as a part of the decision making process of whether to have the inter basin transfer project or not.

The new draft also says that "Community should be sensitized and encouraged to adapt first to utilization of water as per local availability of waters, before providing water through long distance transfer." This partly addresses a long standing criticism of not only the river linking project but also of many urban water supply schemes where grand plans to build large projects to bring water from distant sources are prepared and projected as the only solution, ignoring completely the local resources in the process.

Many serious lacunae remain

In spite of the several useful changes, many serious problems remain in the revised policy. Some of these problems have been already mentioned above. Possibly the biggest shortcoming of the policy remains the absence of a clear and unambiguous call for water to be explicitly declared as a fundamental human right. In this aspect, the revised policy has taken two steps backwards.

The earlier draft stated that "Access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation should be regarded as a right to life essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights". Even this oblique reference to water as a basic human right has been removed from the new draft of the policy.

Other problematic areas include the recommendation to make all water resource projects multipurpose with storage - a clear push for large dams, the unqualified support for setting up Water Regulatory Authorities in each state even as the model has many drawbacks, the lack of any role for riverine communities in transboundary river issues and so on.

Towards a final draft

This latest draft has been stated to have been recommended by the National Water Board in its 14th meeting held on 7 June, 2012, and no further comments have been invited. This means that the policy is likely to go in this form to the Water Resource Council for the final approval. This would be a mistake as the policy still has many serious issues with it. The Ministry must carry out one more round of inviting and taking on board comments, carrying out the process in a more transperent manner. To begin with, even as it invites further comments, the Ministry should make public the comments and discussions in the National Water Board so that the public has a better sense of what the considerations are behind the revised draft of the policy.

The Ministry seems to have taken a good first step by including some of the key comments into the policy draft. It needs to take this process to its logical conclusion by ironing out the major problems areas of the policy.