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By Shilpa Singh

The literature shows that water policies and reforms in India have evolved slowly from custom, religion, and written codes. The Laws of Manu in Hinduism provide indications of the water laws from ancient history. Water was considered indivisible. Kings were supposed to protect public waters and collect fees for crossing waters. Destruction of embankments was illegal. Diversion or obstruction of waters was discouraged and the laws imposed punishments on those responsible for polluting, stealing, or diverting the water. Water bodies were considered as boundaries between villages to ensure that as many villages as possible had access to water. A water controller was in-charge of water administration.

‘Water’ has always been playing a central role in policy reform initiatives. But there still does not exist any formal water law framework which can be adopted at the national level. The reason behind this can be its unpredictable nature in terms of quantitative distribution for various purposes, level of safe quality for consumption, pricing, etc. This has led to poor management of water resources and thereby increasing the challenges for future generations. There is a need to reexamine the institutional structures and their functioning. Water laws are a concern at the state as well as union level. It has its components included in health as well as environmental laws. And these reasons make it complicated when it comes to making decisions for successful water reforms implementation. Further, the division of tasks between various governing actors and levels is unclear.

As per the subsidiarity principle – ‘management and the service delivery should take place at the lowest appropriate level. The delivery by agencies that are far away from users leads sometimes to the creation of unsustainable schemes that are, more often than not, unsuited to meeting the requirements of those whom they are designed to serve and, therefore, unsustainable’.

The recent trends in the water management sector explain the unsustainable and inefficient uses of water. To address this issue, the idea of “water as an economic good” should be the first fundamental principle in the reform process to start with. The various water-related services like sanitation, irrigation, and drainage should be gradually financed. This should be based and followed by the principle of full cost-recovery. A significant policy reversal is required wherein subsidized domestic water and irrigation water is provided.

While distributing water resources, the uniformity of the geographical area and its contours should be focused upon. Adequate infrastructure is necessary to connect the source of water supply to the various distribution points in the cities. Water-related infrastructural investments can be encouraged through tax benefits.

Databases of the quantity and quality of water and the consumption patterns of the various sectoral users are necessary to make effective decisions. Adequate information flows are not available because the bodies administering the water resources seldom have the financial resources necessary for undertaking the exercise of collection and analysis of a large amount of data.

Incentivization should be promoted. The taxes imposed on the industries can be reduced for treating effluents and improving water quality. While on the other side, heavy taxes can be imposed on industries responsible for polluting and discharging untreated wastewater and chemicals.

Strengthening the institutions and their functioning, capacity building, ratio of staff to the number of connections, training, and recruitment of efficient staff in the department with clear allocation of responsibilities are some of the efforts that can be taken for better institutional setup and functioning. For instance, water regulatory authorities have been set up to redefine the role of the government in the water sector. Andhra Pradesh was the first state to adopt this by a Water Resources Development Corporation Act which was adopted in 1997. Under this Act, the existing governmental powers were transferred to a new institutional structure with the mandate of encouraging water sector reforms.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing government, Ministry of Jal Shakti has been setup. Under this initiative, the state governments have been asked to bring a model law on water resources regulatory mechanisms as the onus of replenishing water resources falls squarely in the states’ domain. An example can be one of the successful initiatives of Maharashtra government wherein the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) has been set up since 2005. The main function of these authorities will be water audits as it helps in knowing the consumption requirements and patterns of the users. The model law under the regulatory authorities will cover issues on dispute resolution, regulation of water supply during the water crisis, water entitlement rights, and regulation of bulk users. The legal provisions will also include mandatory processes for recycling and reuse of water.

About the Author
Shilpa Singh is an Urban Planner and a Water Management expert. She has completed her post-graduation in ‘Water Policy and Governance’ from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai.

She is currently working as a Smart City Fellow with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India under the India Smart Cities Fellowship Programme. She has been working with her team on developing a ‘Digital Water Balance Tool’ which aims towards achieving water security in Smart Cities under the leadership and guidance of Joint Secretary and Mission Director, MoHUA, Govt of India. She was previously associated with Tata Trusts and Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoW&CD) as District Lead – Swasth Bharat Prerak for the implementation of National Nutrition Mission under POSHAN Abhiyaan. She looks ahead to explore her interest areas of urban planning, water management, climate change, transportation, and housing.

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