On 14 June 2018, the NITI Aayog released its report titled “Composite Water Management Index”. Somewhat incongruous with the plainness of its title, the report has got huge media attention. Most of the media has highlighted the shocking revelations of the report “that 600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress in the country. About three-fourth of the households in the country do not have drinking water at their premise. With nearly 70% of water being contaminated, India is placed at 120  amongst 122 countries in the water quality index”. These are indeed very serious findings, and indicate the extent and depth of the water crisis that has gripped the country.

The report itself begins with the dire warning that “India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat”, and presents the above facts to underscore the gravity of the situation.  It then posits the report and the Index (the Composite Water Management Index) as being developed “to enable effective water management in Indian states in the face of this growing crisis.”  Against this background, and the glowing terms in which the report describes itself  – “a landmark achievement in the context of India’s water management”, high expectations have been raised.

Unfortunately, the report itself is quite disappointing, measured against these expectations and the challenges that it has itself outlined. A realistic assessment of the Index shows that it is useful, but far removed from the hyperbole that is sought to be created around it  - Amitabh Kant, NITI CEO in Economic Times of 25 June 2018 calls it a “a giant step towards data-based decision-making for water” . The report and the Index that it introduces can be described a good initiative that can provide a useful tool, that would need to be used in combination with several other measures, to address some of the elements of the water crisis. It also has several critical gaps and its utility will depend on how these gaps are addressed.

Important initiative

The good part of the report is the initiative to create an index that can measure progress made in managing water resources by different states. As is said, what you can’t measure, you can’t manage. Indeed, one can say that the strength of this Index lies much more in its process than in its content – at least, as of now, till some of the issues related to the parameters it measures are addressed.

The Index measures 28 indicators in 9 themes and comes up with a single, final score. It also provides separate scores for the different themes.  Certainly, data and measurements are not being used for the first time by Governments; no past or present government could have managed water resources without the use of data. Moreover, past governments, through the Water Resource Information System (WRIS) have also taken initiative to put data and information in public domain. So these elements are not new in the Index. What is new is the combining of several parameters to provide a rounded assessment though one single number, the final score, as well as the thematic scores.

The other, possibly the biggest strength of the Index is that the “conceptualization, development, and operationalization of this Index has involved close collaboration between several levels of national, state, and local policymakers and government officers.” Since water is a state subject, states are the major collectors and repositories of data related to water. States are often reluctant to share data or collaborate in generating data. This is particularly true in cases where inter-state river disputes exist. Given this, any process that brings together the centre and the states to collaborate in putting together data and information in an integrated manner is most welcome.

Having said that, it should be pointed out that in terms of the actual parameters and indicators, there are some important gaps.

Gaps in the indicators

Most of the indicators chosen are indeed important. Some such indicators are those that measure the extent of restoration of water bodies, areas covered under groundwater recharging, total irrigated area in the state, extent of urban and rural water supply, urban waste water treatment capacity etc. Indeed, it is what is left out that is more of a concern.

The report itself stresses that “the Index is expected to… ensure sustainable and effective management of water resources”, yet, it does not include many parameters related to sustainability. Indeed, the problem lies in very framework for understanding sustainability. For example, one of the indicators is “total number of major and medium irrigation projects in the state”, and the more there are, the higher the score. Now major and medium projects essentially mean large dams. The impacts of such large dams are very well known. Many large dams on a river will effectively kill the river and its ecology and such development can hardly be called sustainable. Yet, the report counts  more major projects as better water management, unconditionally and in an unqualified way. No wonder then, that Gujarat  - with the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada gets the highest score, notwithstanding the fact that most the Narmada river downstream of the dam has become desiccated and has seen large scale ingress of salinity, creating a host of problems.  This problem created by the dam is not picked up by any indicator.

Similarly, there are no indicators for measuring water quality and pollution, for measuring whether rivers are flowing and alive (the so called environmental flow), no indicators to measure whether water is being distributed equitably in the state, no indicators on livelihoods other than irrigated agriculture that water sustains – for example, fishing, and so on. All this means that the Index hardly captures real sustainable management; it most remains an indicator of conventional management of water resources, something that has failed the country and is responsible for many of the ills that beset our water resources today.

Even in the indicators selected, there are problems of measurement. For example, to measure “Source Augmentation (groundwater)”, one indicator is “Number of overexploited and critical assessment units that have experienced a rise in water table in pre-monsoon 2016…” But this can depend not only recharge measures, but on the quantum of rainfall in the earlier year. So it cannot provide a correct measure of resource augmentation.

A very surprising finding of the report is that most states have displayed an excellent performance in terms of crops planted as per agro-climatic zoning. It is seen that when irrigation is introduced in an area, farmers often shift to water-intensive crops. Often, these crops are not as per the local agro-climatic character and hence the crops use water inefficiently and use larger amounts of water than those crops grown in conditions where they are the natural crop. Growing of rice in the dry areas of Punjab is a well-known case. In fact, growing crops that are not aligned with the agro-climatic zone is considered as one of the important reasons for the large consumption of water for irrigation. Yet, the report indicates that in most part of the country, crops are grown in alignment with the agro-climatic conditions.  This finding seems difficult to believe. For example, for Maharashtra, the report says that the area cultivated by adopting standard cropping pattern as per agro-climatic zoning is 99%! Whereas the report itself notes that water-intensive sugarcane being grown in the drought-prone areas of Maharashtra is a known example of crops misaligned to the agro-climatic zones.

In a larger sense, if, as the report says, most of the crops in the country are in alignment with the agro-climatic zones, then it is difficult to see why there should be “unchecked extraction of groundwater by farmers … driving the country’s groundwater crisis, with 54% of wells declining in levels due to extraction rates exceeding recharge rate”, another finding of the report itself.

There are several other such anomalies that indicate the need to look more carefully at the measurements of the selected indicators and to subject them to better cross-checking and verification.

The data being reported

It is ironical that the findings of the report that made some of the biggest media splash are actually not its own findings. In fact, these are facts that have been included in the report more as a background to provide the context.  So the fact highlighted by the report that “600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water” is actually taken from WRI Aqueduct and WHO Global Health Observatory as per the footnote in the report. That up to 70% of our water supply is likely to be contaminated is also taken from WHO Global Health Observatory.

This is not to say that facts should not be taken from such reports of other agencies nor do we want to cast any aspersions on the authenticity of these studies. But when the country’s premier think tank has to rely on reports from foreign and international agencies for highlighting such critical issues of our own water resources, it raises important questions: Are our own agencies not coming out with such assessments? Do the publications of our official agencies lack credibility? Is it that our official agencies are afraid to put out assessments that are critical of the current situation?

What is more difficult to understand is that some very important statements in the report are based on newspaper reports. For example, that “54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater as soon as 2020, affecting ~100 million people” is taken from the WRI, and a World Bank Report, but as quoted in Hindustan Times and The Hindu. It is rather odd that an official publication should refer to newspapers and online news portals for referencing such important facts; these should be taken from either official reports or academic publications.

The referencing in the report is ad-hoc and completely unacceptable for a report of this nature and level. The references given in the footnotes do not mention the year of publication or any other details, nor is there a list of a list of references at the end where the details of references given in the footnotes are presented.

In conclusion

Given all this, it is clear that the Composite Water Management Index is a useful and welcome initiative, but there are a number of gaps and shortcomings that need to be addressed to be able to realise its potential.  To address these gaps, it will be important for the NITI Aayog to get feedback and input from a much larger group of stakeholders, including people who have been critically studying the water sector in the country.