» Election » On water issues, the UPA has failed us

On water issues, the UPA has failed us

By Himanshu Thakkar
Last updated on: May 07, 2009 17:22 IST
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One of the important aspects of the general election is that it is supposed to provide an opportunity to hold the ruling coalition accountable for its performance, errors of commissions and omissions.

On water issues, the United Progressive Alliance's performance over the last five years and that of the National Democratic Alliance earlier have been quite poor. And yet, there is little possibility of holding them accountable for that track record in the election.

There are many indicators of the UPA's poor track record on water issues. The continuing spate of farmer suicides is significantly linked with irrigation issues, where the UPA's failure is clear.

A study by South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People in 2007 showed that after spending over Rs 99,610 crores (Rs 996.10 billion) on big irrigation projects up to 2004, the net area irrigated by big irrigation projects actually dropped by 3.17 million hectares.

More recent figures of the UPA years confirm this trend. These figures from the Union agriculture ministry contradicted the Union water resources ministry's claims. The water resources ministry has been claiming that the irrigation potential created and utilised has been increasing every year.

Such a claim was necessary since most of the water sector budget from the Union government goes for funding big irrigation projects. Why should such projects be funded if they are not providing any additional benefits and on the contrary, the area irrigated by such projects is declining?

So in August 2007 the ministry asked four IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) to study what it called the discrepancy between these figures and also to study the gap between the potential and utilisation as in its own figures. The final reports were submitted in December 2008 and were made publicly available in March 2009.

These reports support what the SANDRP study had shown in 2007, that indeed there is an increasing gap between the figures claimed by the ministry and the figures of actual irrigation from the agriculture ministry.

In fact, these reports also show the poor state of our record keeping in this vital area. IIM, Ahmedabad, which failed to get irrigation data from the respective states, concluded, '...either because they don't have such organised data or because, for some reason they did not like to part with their data.'

What all this means is that the UPA government's continued funding of big irrigation projects was a wrong step. A very large proportion of the water sector budget continued to go for such projects during UPA rule and the same wrong priorities continue for the ongoing 11th Five Year Plan, formulated by the UPA government.

India's real water lifeline is groundwater and whatever increase in irrigation areas and in agriculture growth that has happened over the last decade-and-a-half is largely from groundwater use. However, that lifeline is in a precarious situation with levels falling at most places and the quality deteriorating in many other places.

The UPA government failed to achieve anything significant in changing that situation. There is no progress in achieving groundwater regulation. In the second half of its tenure, the UPA government did start a project on groundwater recharge, but that remains most unimplemented and in any case does not get the priority it deserves.

The UPA government's track record in reversing the destruction of groundwater recharge systems and ensuring rivers flowing with freshwater, protection of lakes, tanks, and wetlands etc is miserable. Following a large number of agitations, more or less to take the issue away from the Opposition, the UPA government decided to create the National Ganga River Authority.

However, the notification constituting the authority shows that there is no hope from that initiative either, as it is in line with the failed attempts of the past in being top down, unaccountable, non-participatory, centralised effort, with zero role for the real stakeholders.

India still does not have a legal requirement for rivers to have freshwater flow to sustain the economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits from the flowing rivers. Indeed, our system has zero value for rivers flowing with freshwater flow.

On the controversial interlinking of rivers, the UPA government, in its Common Minimum Programme said, 'The UPA government will make a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility of linking the rivers of the country starting with the south-bound rivers. This assessment will be done in a fully consultative manner.'

The UPA government has clearly failed in this respect, there has been no comprehensive assessment 'in a fully consultative manner' or otherwise. Having been a member of the government's Committee of Experts on ILR since January 2008, I can say that this committee was not even consulted on crucial matters under its limited mandate, leave aside the question of it being a vehicle for such a consultative assessment.

In fact, members of this committee have been denied basic information about river linking proposals and it has been a struggle to ensure even inclusion of these crucial issues in the minutes of the meetings. This can only be called pathetic performance on its declared programme.

The Common Minimum Programme also claimed to give the top-most priority to providing drinking water to all, but here again, its performance is far from encouraging. One of the useful steps in this regard would have been providing a legally binding right to drinking water, which the UPA did not provide.

On the contrary, the UPA has tried to push privatisation of drinking water through the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. The number of uncovered and partially covered rural habitations under the drinking water has increased under the UPA regime.

In fact, one of the biggest factors leading to the deteriorating situation on this front is the pollution of water resources. Here again, the UPA government has completely failed to achieve any success in controlling pollution.

On the burning issue of resettlement and rehabilitation, as also the related issue of Land Acquisition Act, the UPA has achieved little improvement, in spite of its declared intentions.

The UPA government had the unique opportunity to reverse the wrong policies when it formulated the National Water Mission under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The UPA's water resources ministry, instead, has used the Mission to push for more large dams, river linking plans and long distance water transfer plans.

Here, the UPA government also had the opportunity to ensure that man-made disasters like the unprecedented floods in Surat in August 2006 due to the wrong operation of the Ukai dam, in Orissa in September 2008 due to the wrong operation of the Hirakud dam and in Bihar in August 2008 due to the criminal neglect of the Kosi embankment are not repeated and in fact the guilty are punished.

Some UPA government officials are likely to argue that water is a state subject and the Centre cannot do much. While water is indeed rightly a state subject (it would be better if water was a community subject, but the Constitution has no such category while distributing the subjects), the Centre has huge and very influential role and the UPA government has used that influence in completely wrong direction.

One should add that the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are the two positive contributions of the UPA government and both potentially have positive implications for the water sector.

In fact, in the case of the NREGA, the priority given to the rural water works is particularly welcome. The potential of this positive step can be realised if there are enabling mechanisms to provide accountability mechanisms and to provide financial, technical and other help to the rural communities.

It is also true that the performance of the previous NDA rule was worse on these issues, but that is little help for the people facing the consequences for these failures.

In spite of the glaring state of affairs, the election is of little help in either holding the UPA government (and all its partners) accountable for its failures listed above, or ensuring better performance in the future. In fact, these issues are not even at the forefront among the hot election issues.

This also shows how far we are from achieving a true democracy.

Himanshu Thakkar is founder of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People

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Himanshu Thakkar