The water establishment in the country is increasingly accepting the fact that the river basin has to be the logical and rational unit for planning of water resources development. With this realisation, river basin planning - under different names - is emerging as an important part of the water bureaucracy’s vocabulary, even though action on the ground is still far from being a norm.

In a laudable step in the direction to bridge this gap, the Government of India has brought out a Draft River Basin Management Bill 2012 (Bill hereafter). In March 2012, it constituted a committee headed by Justice (Retd.) Doabia, with the terms of reference that required them to “identify main ingredients of a comprehensive river valley development plan which need to be brought under a legal framework”, suggest appropriate structure for an inter-state river valley development act and a legal framework to facilitate this, particularly to ensure that the states implement the fundamental features of the river basin planning framework without deviations.

While the initiative to enshrine the basic principles of river basin management in a legal framework and make it a mandatory approach in water resource planning is welcome, the actual Bill falls far short of what this should entail. Moreover, in the way that the Bill has been drawn up, there is a risk that it will end up further centralising decision-making in the sector.

To understand why this is so, one needs to look at the two central elements in the architecture of the Bill. First of all, it requires that all interstate river basins follow the river basin planning approach. It requires a Basin Master Plan to be prepared for the development, management and regulation of all such basins (applicable to the basins as specified in the Schedule I, a list which the Union government can add to or modify, but which unfortunately consists of only inter-state basins). Equally important, it lays down the elements that such a basin plan must consist of. This is a very significant feature, for it makes the inclusion of such features legally binding.

The river Ganga. Pic: Shubham Kumar Singh/Wikimedia

The principles are mentioned at three places. First, Chapter III outlines the Principles; then Sec 16 (2) of the Bill specifies some elements that a basin plan should have, and finally Schedule II details these elements. The elements include critical ones such as a comprehensive review of the impact of anthropogenic interventions on the status of surface water and groundwater, estimation of pollution, the identification of protected areas, social and cultural flow needs and duration, and environmental needs.

The second part of the Bill’s architecture lays down the structure through which the basin plans are to be drawn up and implemented. The Bill calls for formation of River Basin Authorities (RBA), one for each interstate basin. These authorities would comprise two tiers. One, the Governing council, will have Chief Ministers and water resource ministers of all the basin states, along with some others as members. The Executive Board will be constituted with secretary level officials and other members.

The Executive Boards will prepare the Basin Master Plans. The Governing Council will approve these plans and ensure their implementation by the states; it will also act as a dispute resolving body in case of any issues. Further, directions of the Council will be binding on all states involved. Development of the river basin will have to be done as per the Master Plan.

There are serious problems, however, with both planks of the Bill as described above.

First of all, RBAs represent a very top-down approach to basin planning. One of the central principles of river basin planning is that planning and implementation of development of the basin must start with the smallest watershed and then build upwards towards the sub-basin and basin.

The RBAs as structured in the Bill not only reserve the sequence, but there is, in fact, a complete absence of any other tiers. Thus, it is not only a top-heavy structure, but one in which the bottom levels are simply non-existent.

 •  One state, divergent demands
 •  River basin studies

Parallel to the principle of development from bottom upwards is the principle of subsidiarity, that says decisions should be made at the smallest or lowest level possible. The RBAs as structured in the Bill not only reserve the sequence, but there is, in fact, a complete absence of any other tiers. Thus, it is not only a top-heavy structure, but one in which the bottom levels are simply non-existent.

Moreover, the Union government plays a very big role in these RBAs. The CEO of the Executive Board, who will also be the member secretary of the Governing Council, is to be nominated by the central government. Moreover, Section 29 of the Bill gives the central government unfettered power to issue directions to state governments “as it may consider necessary” for effective implementation of the Act.

All these provisions will make the process top down and centralised, whereas the need is for exactly the reverse - make the existing centralised processes more decentralised. For this, RBAs need to be a part of a nested series of planning and decision-making institutions starting from the lowest watersheds, based on the principles of subsidiarity.

There are also many concerns over what the bill envisages as the principles and elements constituting river basin planning. Possibly, the most serious problem is that the Bill sees only governments as players in the preparation and implementation of the basin plans. In Chapter III that lays out the Principles governing any river basin management process, the first principle is ‘Participation,’ which states that the “basin states shall have the right to participate...”. The communities of the basin are at best to be ‘consulted’. This is the very antithesis of what a river basin planning process requires. Here, basin communities play the central role -- in planning, in developing various options for basin development, in working out environmental flows, and most importantly, in the decision-making processes.

Another issue is that intrinsically, the Bill is biased towards a project-approach; that is, basin development is still seen as river development, which means essentially large dams, hydropower projects and diversions. Developments in other parts of the basin - such as watershed development, soil-water conservation, water harvesting, starting from the smallest watershed, which form the core of the river basin approach, are not given any place. The most important reason why the Bill has turned out this way seems to be the continuing dominance of the bureaucratic approach to river development, where basin development means only river development and river development essentially means large projects.

However, the presence of some important elements such as environmental flows, the inclusion of food security, livelihoods, equitable and sustainable development as the key objectives of managing water, and indeed the very intent to enshrine river basin planning as the legally mandatory approach, gives hope that there will at least be readiness to address these serious problems with the Bill to make it a really meaningful instrument facilitating genuine river basin planning. For that, however, there is a need to drastically re-write the Bill, based on wide and extensive consultations.

Indeed, the Chairperson of the committee, Justice Doabia has recommended the very same. The current approach of the Water Resource Ministry that merely prescribes placing the Bill on its website (that too, only in English) and inviting comments within a month falls far short of what is actually needed. The Ministry should translate the document into key regional languages and carry-out wide consultations before finalising the Bill. In its failure to do so, not only will the opportunity to move towards a modern, equitable and sustainable approach to river basin management be lost, but we could end up putting in place an Act that will actually prove to be harmful and set back the sector by decades.