Every year, as soaring temperatures of April and May scorch much of the country, newspapers start being dominated by stories of water shortages and water crisis. This time around, there is a competitor - the elections to the 15th Lok Sabha and a few state assemblies. While elections are a time for focussing on the key issues being faced by people, a counting of the columns and the sound bytes shows other stories - such as whether the Prime Minister is weak or not - hogging the headlines.

It is not that water is not an issue - stories of water problems do claim their share of space in the inside pages; and in states holding elections to the assemblies, water is a bigger concern. But at the national level, water does not seem to figure very high up in the considerations of major parties, at least as seen in their manifestoes.

BJP and the NDA

The 2004 manifesto of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP had three separate sections devoted to water under the headings of Agriculture, Rural Development and Infrastructure that detailed water related promises. In contrast, the BJP's manifesto for the current Lok Sabha elections (the NDA has not issued one) has no separate section for water. In the Agriculture section, the party promises creating additional irrigation facilities for 35 million hectares of land. It does not give any details about how this will be achieved. The manifesto also promises "Water, health, sanitation and hygiene for all families/habitations" under the section on Dalits, OBCs and economically weaker sections of society.

Though L K Advani has declared in election speeches that if elected back to power, the NDA would take up on a priority basis the ambitious river-linking scheme, it finds only a passing mention in the manifesto. It makes its appearance under the section on "Reviving the National Economy", where the party promises making "massive public sector investments in job generating infrastructure programmes, especially building of roads and highways, and linking of rivers."

One could argue that water is a state subject, but the Centre has significant influence through financial and regulatory means, and is expected to play a leadership role in several areas in the water sector.

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There are some other scattered references to water. For example, under the North East section, it is promised that the flood control in Assam and river water management will receive special attention. Possibly the most significant declaration related to water is the promise by the BJP to "make access to clean drinking water a fundamental right for all citizens." (The Congress manifesto promises to enact a Right to Food law).

It is interesting that on 21 April 2009, after votes to 124 seats had already been cast and the day on which campaigning for 141 seats came to a close, the BJP released its Infrastructure Vision. The Press note announcing this vision says that the Vision "articulates, in far greater detail than was possible in the Party's Manifesto ... our broad perspectives and plans ..." Promises for various sectors are given in separate sections and the section on water now clearly pledges "speedy implementation of the river-linking project" and completion of major irrigation and drinking water projects. It also promises construction of at least one new water conservation facility (pond, check dam, etc.) in each of the six lakh villages in the country and universalisation of rainwater harvesting in urban India. It would be interesting to know why the BJP issued this vision document so late in the election process.

Indian National Congress

The Congress Manifesto is even more taciturn on the issues related to water. It makes a rather general remark at one place that "Water security is of paramount concern to the Indian National Congress and steps will be taken to enhance it measurably for local communities," but it is not elaborated how this would be done. The Manifesto also lists among the achievement of the UPA government the Bharat Nirman program that has provided irrigation and drinking water, and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) where "work amounting to over Rs.42,000 crores is in progress", covering areas that include water supply and sanitation.

The manifesto promises to consolidate and take forward these missions and programs. There is also a promise of stepping up public investment in agriculture and infrastructure and a faster and more inclusive growth. Presumably, this includes investment in the water sector.

New, but not significantly so

The greatest role that is possibly expected from the centre is a leadership role in setting out a vision of decentralised and participatory development of water resources. However, here the manifestoes disappoint. The BJP's promise of one rain water harvesting structure in each village is a far cry from a vision of a bottom-up water management based on the development of the local resources. It is also nothing new - programs of water harvesting, conservation and watershed management have been increasingly been promoted by both the NDA and UPA in various forms, but they still remain add-ons, with the main thrust based on large, centralised projects.

The same goes for urban rain water harvesting. BJP promises to make it universal. The UPA government's JNNURM and UIDSSMT programs already require states to revise bye-laws to make rain water harvesting mandatory in all buildings and adoption of water conservation measures. Yet, local water resources are still not an integral part of planning for urban water supply.

The BJP's promise to make drinking water a fundamental right is the only significant new promise in the manifestoes of the two major parties. Yet, here too, there is no word on how it will be realised, and no indications of how possible contradictions between this and the increased role to be given to the public-private-partnerships would be resolved.

Much that the Centre can do

Thus, it seems that the two major parties - and leaders of the two coalitions, NDA and UPA, that are the primary contenders for forming the Government - have not given due importance to water issues. One could argue that water is a state subject and hence the manifestoes for a national election would have only limited engagement with it. However, this is not correct. The Central Government has significant influence through financial and regulatory means and moreover, is expected to play a leadership role in several areas in water sector.

In case of water resources and water issues spanning states, the role of the Centre becomes very important. Interstate water disputes are of course, one such area where there has always been a clamour for the Centre to play a stronger role. There have been suggestions to shift water to the Central list of the Constitution to give more powers to the central government - though this would end up with even more centralisation in the water sector whereas decentralisation is the need of the hour. Even with the powers at its disposal today, the Centre can, and is expected to play a key role in resolving inter-state water issues. Important among these are the sharing of waters of interstate rivers, and floods extending across states (or floods whose causes lie in another state - for example, the floods last year in Assam suspected to be due to the releases of water from a dam in Arunachal Pradesh).

Both the BJP and Congress appear to support privatisation in basic services. Given the many detrimental impacts of privatisation of water supply, one would have liked to see a commitment by the major parties to at least re-assess this strategy, if not reject it outright like the CPM promises.

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The massive 'inter-linking of rivers' scheme is another such interstate program where the centre is expected to play a key role. The UPA's Common Minimum Program had promised to carry out "a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility of linking the rivers of the country ... in a fully participatory manner". Not only has this not been done, but the promise seems to have been dropped from the Congress manifesto. The BJP of course wants to push the project ahead, but it would have been far better if it had also promised to re-assess it first, given the mounting evidence of its serious implications.

One would also expect the centre to play the main role in institutionalising the conservation, rejuvenation and restoration of rivers. In particular, there is an urgent need to address emerging concerns like minimum river flows. The Central Government would be the natural choice to take the initiative in establishing processes to determine what should be the limits of extraction from rivers and other water bodies and how much water needs to be maintained as assured environmental flows to keep the rivers flowing.

The Centre also has responsibility in areas where international dimensions are present. One such area is water resource planning in trans-boundary river basins like those that India shares with Nepal and Bangladesh. Another area is in the realm of international treaties and agreement. For example, the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services of the WTO), where there have been strong pressures from developed countries for India to open up its water services to international players. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) promises to keep water out of the purview of the GATS, though Congress and BJP are silent on this.

Another critical area where the Central government is expected to play a major role vis-à-vis the water sector is in assessing, combating and planning for adapting to climate change and its impact on water resources. It is critical that the implications of climate change for the viability of various projects - like the large number of hydropower dam projects planned for the Himalayan region - be evaluated urgently - a task that only the central government can carry out. Yet, neither the BJP nor Congress manifestoes mention this, though action on other aspects of climate change is promised.