EPW    Special Articles March 31, 2001

Water: Charting a Course for the Future – I

Ramaswamy R Iyer


In recent years there has been a growing perception of a looming water scarcity. Water has suddenly become a favoured subject for seminars and conferences all over the world. The UNDP, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are seriously concerned about the projected water scarcity. Academic institutions in several countries are engaged in research programmes on the possibilities of conflict over scarce natural resources, particularly water. There is a currently fashionable thesis that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. That is a debatable proposition, but the prognosis of acute water scarcity in the not too distant future cannot easily be disputed. Several institutions and networks have sprung up to deal with this and related matters: World Water Commission, World Water Council, Global Water Partnership, and so on. A series of ‘Water Vision 2025’ exercises were undertaken by different countries in south Asia under the auspices of the Global Water Partnership during the last three years in preparation for the World Water Forum held at the Hague in March 2000. The ‘Vision’ exercises were partly national (India Water Vision, Pakistan Water Vision, etc) and partly thematic (Water for Food, Water for Nature, etc), and these were eventually brought together into a ‘South Asia Water Vision 2025’ for presentation at the Hague Forum.

A common trend in most of the discussions (those preceding the Forum as well as those at the Forum sessions) was to proceed from projections of demand to supply-side solutions in the form of ‘water resource development’ projects; estimate the massive investment funds needed; take note of the severe limitations on the availability of financial resources with governments; point to private sector investments as the answer; and stress the need for policy changes to facilitate this.

Within India, a consciousness of the importance of the subject led to the establishment of a National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan three years ago, and it – the first National Commission on water – finished its work and submitted its report in September 1999. It covers extensive ground and makes numerous recommendations.1

The present paper is an attempt to provide a broad and compendious account of the state of affairs in India insofar as water resources are concerned, and to chart a course for the future. Many of the topics and themes referred to in the course of the paper will warrant separate papers of considerable length. A summary (but, one hopes, not imprecise or misleading) treatment is all that is possible in this kind of survey. The effort is to weave all the strands together into a total picture.

At the outset, some background material may be useful, even if this covers territory familiar to many readers. Some Fundamentals2 

Superficially, water seems over-abundant on this planet: three quarters of its area is covered by water. The 1,400 million km3 of water so present can cover the entire area of the earth to a depth of 3,000 metres. However, around 98 per cent of the water is in the oceans. Only 2.7 per cent is fresh water; of this 75 per cent lies frosen in the polar regions; 22.6 per cent is present as groundwater, some of which lies too deep; only a small fraction is to be found in rivers, lakes, atmosphere, soil, vegetation and exploitable underground aquifers, and this is what constitutes the fresh water resources of the world. Annually, 3,00,000 km3 of precipitation takes place over the oceans, and 1,00,000 km3 over land; evapo-transpiration from land is 60,000 km3, 40,000 km3 runs off from land to sea, and 3,40,000 km3 evaporate from the seas. This is the annual hydrological cycle. It is this run-off of 40,000 km3 that is said to form the fresh water resources available to us.

In this context, two points of a fundamental nature need to be kept in mind. The first is that water in all its forms (snow, rain, soil moisture, glaciers, rivers, lakes, other surface water bodies, and groundwater) constitutes a unity. The second is that there is a finite quantity of water on earth, and this is neither added to nor destroyed. We cannot create new water, and whatever quantity is used up in any manner reappears though perhaps not always in a re-usable form. Water applied to the field in irrigation either seeps through to underground aquifers, or reappears as ‘return flow’ and finds its way back to the surface (this is sometimes described as ‘regeneration’); seepages from canals recharge groundwater aquifers; industrial use of water results in effluents; domestic and municipal uses become sewage; and of course, whatever water evaporates comes back to earth as rain or snow.

The water available to us on earth today is no different in quantity from what was available thousands of years ago. That finite quantity has to be juxtaposed against increasing demands from a growing population. The population of the world, currently around 6 billion, is expected to exceed 8 billion by the year 2050. Apart from sheer numbers, the processes of urbanisation and ‘development’ are also expected to result in a vast increase in the demand for fresh water. It is this which leads to projections of water scarcity, which could be severe in some parts of the world.

However, while all this may be useful by way of background information, global figures are not of much practical significance. Water is not an internationally traded commodity like oil, and the availability of water in a distant part of the world is of no great relevance to a water-short country or region. For instance, if the US or Canada were to economise on water use and save large quantities, it will be of little help to the Indian farmer. People need sources of water close to their homes and lands. (There is a notion of trading in ‘virtual water’, i e, in commodities, say, foodgrains, grown in water-abundant countries, but there are complexities involved; it is not proposed to go into those here.)

India: Some Facts3 

With a population that is 16 per cent of the world’s, India has 2.45 per cent of the world’s land resources and 4 per cent of its water resources. The average annual precipitation by way of rain and snow over India’s landmass is 4,000 km3, but the annual water resources of the country are measured in terms of the ‘run-off’ in the river systems. This has been estimated by the National Commission as 1,953 km3. (This is supposed to include both surface and groundwater resources, on the theory – on which there could be a difference of opinion – that except for some ‘static’ groundwater, which could be trapped or fossil water, groundwater aquifers also flow and sooner or later join surface water flows to the sea, and that groundwater that finds its way direct to the sea is not of significant magnitude.) Some of the water resources of the country flow into it from beyond our borders – say, from Nepal or Tibet – and some cross our borders and go into other countries (Pakistan, Bangladesh). We have expectations of flows from the ‘upper’ countries and obligations to the ‘lower’ countries.

Turning to (dynamic) groundwater, the quantity that can be extracted annually, having regard to the rate of annual replenishment (‘recharge’) and economic considerations, is known as the ‘groundwater potential’. This has been put at 432 km3. This stands included in the figure of 1,953 km3 mentioned above. (Extraction exceeding the rate of recharge is known as ‘mining’.)

Here we must take note of one more concept that is in common use: that of ‘usable’ water resources.4  This is a vague concept, but it is clear enough that not all the ‘available’ water resources of the country are forthwith ‘usable’. It has been estimated by the National Commission that the annual ‘usable’ water resources of the country are 690 km3 of surface water and 396 km3 of groundwater, making a total of 1,086 km3. The present quantum of use is put at around 600 km3. It follows that in national terms the position is not uncomfortable at the moment. However, this will obviously change with the growth of population and the processes of urbanisation and ‘development’. The National Commission has made various assumptions in regard to these matters (high, medium and low rates of change), and come to the conclusion that by the year 2050 the total water requirement of the country will be 973 to 1,180 km3 under ‘low’ and ‘high’ demand projections, which means that supply will barely match demand. It is the Commission’s view that there will be a difficult situation but no crisis, provided that a number of measures on both the demand side and the supply-side are taken in time. (The precarious balance between supply and demand can of course tip over into a crisis if the actual developments fail to conform to the assumptions. Moreover, apart from demand putting pressure on the available supplies, the supplies themselves may also be seriously affected by the growing incidence of pollution and contamination of water sources.)

A word regarding the concept of ‘water stress’ may not be out of place here. Malin Falkenmark, the leading Swedish expert, has calculated the ‘water stress’ situation of different countries with reference to ‘Annual Water Resources per capita’ (AWR). An AWR of 1,700 m3 means that only occasional and local stress may be experienced; an AWR of less than 1,000 m3 indicates a condition of stress; and one of 500 m3 or less means a serious constraint and a threat to life. Under this categorisation, India is somewhere between categories (i) and (ii). In other words India is not among the most water-stressed countries of the world. Israel, for instance, has a much lower endowment. But this situation will change with the growth of population, and India may join the ranks of ‘water-stressed’ countries in the future if counter measures are not taken.


However, national aggregates and averages are as misleading as global figures. There are wide variations, both temporal and spatial, in the availability of water in the country. Much of the rainfall occurs within a period of a few months during the year, and even during that period the intensity is concentrated within a few weeks. Spatially, there is a wide range in precipitation – from 100 mm in Rajasthan to 11,000 mm in Cherrapunji. (Incidentally, it must be noted that despite the very heavy precipitation, Cherrapunji, known as among the wettest places on earth, suffers from an acute shortage of water in the dry months, because all the rain that falls quickly runs off the area.) Sixty per cent of the water resources of India are to be found in the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems which account for 33 per cent of the geographical area of the country; 11 per cent in the west-flowing rivers south of Tapi covering 3 per cent of the area; and the balance 29 per cent in the remaining river systems spread over 64 per cent of the land area. Broadly speaking, the Himalayan rivers are snow-fed and perennial, whereas the peninsular rivers are dependent on the monsoons and therefore seasonal; and again broadly speaking, the north and east are well endowed with water whereas the west and south are water-short. Apart from the desert areas of Rajasthan, there are arid or drought-prone areas in parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu; and of course the eastern parts of the country experience devastating floods from time to time.

The Standard Response

The standard engineering response to these temporal and spatial variations is to propose (a) the storing of river waters in reservoirs behind large dams to transfer water from the season of abundance to that of scarcity, and (b) long-distance water transfers from ‘surplus’ areas to water-short areas. To projected future demands, supply-side solutions in the form of large dam-and-reservoir projects are believed to be the proper answer; and for water-scarce areas, the answer is believed to lie in bringing in water from distant areas. Both large ‘storages’ (i e, reservoirs) and the ‘linking of rivers’ (i e, ‘inter-basin transfers’) have played an important part in the thinking of our water resource planners, and both involve major engineering interventions in the form of large projects.

A major concern of our planners has been the consideration that a significant part of India’s water resources is in the Brahmaputra and that ways and means must be found of ‘harnessing’ those resources and taking them westwards and southwards to areas that are water-short. This was the thinking behind the Indian proposal of the seventies (in the context of the Indo-Bangladesh talks over Ganga waters) for a gravity link canal between the Brahmaputra and the Ganga through Bangladesh. That proposal was strongly objected to by Bangladesh and is no longer being seriously pursued, but the idea of tapping the waters of the Brahmaputra continues to exercise the minds of our water planners. Similarly, three decades after K L Rao mooted the notion of a Ganga-Cauvery link, and Dinshaw J Dastur, a pilot, came up with the proposition of a ‘Garland Canal’, these ideas, long ago discarded as impracticable, continue to beguile the minds of the Indian public, particularly in the water-short south. For over two decades the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has been studying the resources of different basins, assessing the availability of surpluses for transfer, and identifying possibilities of storages, links and transfers. They took up the peninsular rivers first, and studied the possibility of transferring waters from the Mahanadi to the Godavari and thence to the Krishna, Pennar and the Cauvery, though it is difficult to persuade Orissa and Andhra Pradesh that there is a surplus in the Mahanadi and in the Godavari. Another idea that has been mooted is the diversion of west-flowing rivers eastwards, but there is resistance to this too. In recent years the NWDA has been studying the Himalayan rivers, but this is an even more difficult subject. When the National Commission was set up, the ‘linking of rivers’ was a major consideration in the government’s thinking, and though the Terms of Reference of the Commission were much wider in scope, ‘inter-basin transfer’ was an important element in them.

The National Commission does talk about demand management, economy in water use, resource-conservation, etc, and also devotes a whole chapter to local water harvesting and watershed development, but the thrust of the report is on large water resource ‘development’ projects which are regarded as the primary answer to the future needs of a growing population. The report also discusses the financing of projects and the contributory role of private sector participation in the massive effort that is envisaged.

Thus, both at the regional/international level and at the national level there seems to be widespread agreement (a) that to the projected water needs of the future an important (if not the major) part of the answer lies in ‘water resource development’ projects for storage and transfer over time and/or space; and (b) that considering the financial constraints and managerial limitations of governments, at least a part of that development will have to come from the private sector. However, before we consider the future course of action, we must take a clear look at the past: diagnosis must precede prescription.

Problems, Weaknesses, Failures

There is no doubt that the projects and schemes undertaken in the past (‘major/medium’ irrigation and multi-purpose projects, minor irrigation schemes based on surface water and groundwater, etc) have contributed (along with other factors) to an increase in food-production, added to hydropower capacity, provided water for domestic, municipal and industrial uses, and (to some extent) helped in flood-moderation. However, there have been many problems, weaknesses and failures, and these need to be recognised. This section will therefore be necessarily concerned with negative aspects.

Drinking Water

The National Water Policy (NWP) assigns the highest priority to drinking water, but like most statements in the NWP, this remains a mere declaration on paper. Despite five decades of planning and more than a decade of ‘Drinking Water Missions’, there are large numbers of ‘No Source’ villages (i e, those with no identified source of safe drinking water). The curious fact is that targets for covering such ‘No Source’ villages are repeatedly achieved, but the numbers grow larger rather than smaller. This must mean that some ‘covered’ villages are lapsing back into the uncovered category, and that newer villages are being added to this class.5

A significant aspect of the scarcity of water in rural areas is that the burden of bringing water from distant sources falls on women (including girl children); and yet women who are the providers and managers of water in the household have little voice in ‘water-resource planning’ in this country.

As for urban areas, most large cities are chronically short of water. A few illustrations may suffice. Chennai has been waiting for water from the Krishna under the Telugu Ganga Project (for which it has contributed large sums of money), but the partial supplies that began belatedly appear to have stopped because of some difficulties. Chennai is now trying to revive the old, abandoned Veeranam project. Bangalore is hoping for water from the distant Cauvery IV project. Delhi is repeatedly asking the neighbouring states for more water, and is waiting for the fruition of some major (and distant) projects (Tehri, Renuka) which seem unlikely to materialise in the foreseeable future.

It seems clear that ensuring access to safe drinking water to all has not been among the successes of our planning.

Drought-Prone Areas

There are many arid zones and drought-prone areas in the country: for instance, in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Droughts are a recurring feature in these areas, cause much misery to human beings and livestock, and often result in large-scale migration. Unfortunately, there is no well thought-out strategy for ‘drought-proofing’ these areas. The planners and engineers, whether at the state level or at the central level, seem to be pinning their hopes on vague notions of long-distance water-transfers. There has been no serious attempt to work out a series of area-specific answers by way of local conservation and augmentation to the maximum extent possible. The severe drought of the summer of (2000), which, incidentally, affected Pakistan as well, was not an indication of ‘water insecurity’, nor did it point to the need for big projects or long-distance water transfers. Most of the comments, analyses and prescriptions by experts that appeared in the media, whether in India or in Pakistan, recognised that the drought conditions were the result of bad water management in the past and that the answer lay in better resource management in the future. Failure to harvest rainwater, excessive extraction of groundwater, and failure to ensure the recharge of the aquifers, led to the water table falling sharply over the years, so that when a bad year came there was no groundwater reserve to draw upon. That is a broad description of what went wrong, though conditions may have differed from place to place. The correctness of that explanation is proved by the fact that in the same areas (parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat in India) lush green villages were to be found side by side with dry, brown villages: the former had practised water-harvesting and groundwater recharge for some years, the latter had not.


This is another area of an absence of policy and strategy, though the NWP had something to say on the subject, and before that, in the seventies, there was an elaborate Report by the National Flood Commission or ‘Rashtriya Barh Ayog’ (RBA). The numerous recommendations of the RBA remain largely unimplemented. Governments have tended to react spasmodically whenever floods occurred in disastrous form. The initial response to flood damage was to try to ‘control’ floods through structural means such as dams or embankments. It was found through experience these efforts were ineffective or even harmful. For instance, large dams are not often planned with flood moderation as a primary aim, and even where they are, the competing claims of irrigation and power-generation often override the flood-moderation function6 . Further, while dams may moderate flood flows to some extent under normal conditions, they may aggravate the position if (in the absence of a flood cushion) water has to be suddenly released in the interest of the safety of structures. As for embankments, they have to be repeatedly re-built at great cost; they may fail in the event of a major flood and cause greater difficulties; by jacketing the river and preventing it from spreading they may create new problems further down; by blocking drainage from the adjoining areas into the river they often lead to water-logging and ‘man-made floods’ in the ‘protected’ villages; and they deprive the farmers of the benefit of the deposit of silt by the receding floods. Thus they have often proved a remedy worse than the disease, and there is a powerful people’s movement in Bihar against them. On the other hand, while flood-moderation has been very modest, the extent of suffering, damage and economic loss caused by floods and the magnitude of government expenditure on ‘relief’ have been growing because of a number of factors7 . It is increasingly recognised that what we must learn to do is not so much to ‘control’ floods as to cope with them when they occur and minimise damage, partly through ‘flood-plain zoning’ (i e, regulation of settlement and activity in the natural flood plains of rivers) and partly through ‘disaster-preparedness’. Unfortunately, ‘flood-plain zoning’ has been found politically difficult. As for ‘disaster-preparedness’, the most important element in this is timely knowledge. Governments, local bodies and people need to know how soon a flood is likely to arrive, and what its magnitude is likely to be. They can then take appropriate measures for the prevention or minimisation of hardship, loss and damage, and for relief where necessary. Unfortunately, again, while there has been much talk of ‘flood management’ and ‘disaster-preparedness’, very little has in fact been done.


The benefits of irrigation are evident, but as a water-user it has much to answer for. As it is the largest user of water (around 80 per cent), it needs to be very efficient; unfortunately, it is in fact very inefficient. Canal-irrigation efficiency in India (around 35 to 40 per cent)8 is well below international standards. It is true that what is lost from canals through seepage is partly recovered as groundwater recharge and as ‘return flows’ further down, but that is not a reason for inefficient conveyance. In any case, it is the actual application of water on the ground in irrigation that contributes more to recharge and return flows than seepage from canals. That again is not a justification for the excessive use of water in irrigation. A reduction of water-use in agriculture, and a conscious pursuit of the objective of maximum value per unit of water (“more crop per drop”), have to be major elements in any future water planning. If there could be even a 10 per cent saving in agricultural use, a substantial quantity of water will be released for other uses.

Secondly, injudicious canal-irrigation without regard to soil conditions, over-application of water because it is virtually free, the failure to take the groundwater table into account, and inadequate attention to drainage have led to the emergence of conditions of waterlogging and salinity in many areas, resulting in valuable agricultural land going out of use. The reclamation of such lost lands is not always possible, and where feasible, it often requires large investments. A 1991 Report of a working group of the ministry of water resources estimated the extent of waterlogged land in the country at 2.46 million hectares (mha), and that of salt-affected land at 3.30 mha.

Thirdly, on an average the yields of irrigated agriculture in India have been relatively low in comparison with what has been achieved in other countries, or even in some parts of this country; and there has been inadequate attention to increasing productivity in rainfed areas. Even the National Commission’s projections for the future seem fairly modest:

(tonnes per ha)
Average Yield



Irrigated Foodcrop






Higher yields, which are surely achievable, will mean a reduction in the demand for water.

Fourthly, canal irrigation in India has been marked by a number of inequities. As waters begin to rise in the reservoir, and canal systems for taking them to the tail-end are not yet ready, the head-reach farmers have plenty of water available and tend to plant water-intensive crops. This establishes a pattern of water-use that cannot easily be changed at a later stage: by the time the full canal system is ready, much of the water stands pre-empted in the head-reach areas and there is little left for conveyance to the tail-end. This is a familiar problem in most project commands. Further, with the increasing affluence of the large farmers, their money-power begins to transform itself into political power with a potential for influencing policy-formulation and the planning, designing and location of major projects, as also their operation.

Water Resource Development Projects

Some of these represent remarkable engineering and construction achievements (in some cases under difficult conditions), and much of the heavy equipment needed has been manufactured within India. Unfortunately, there has also been a history of poor planning and implementation, and grave failures on the human, social and environmental fronts. A recent study of the Indian experience with large dam projects (for which the ‘major/medium’ category is a rough proxy) for the World Commission on Dams by a team (of which the present writer was one) brings this out clearly. (What follows draws partly upon this writer’s contribution to that study, and partly upon a Presentation made by him at a Round Table organised by the World Bank at Delhi on May 11-12, 2000.)

(i) Planning has by and large tended to proceed on the basis of discrete, individual projects. These are not conceived of as part of a truly integrated, holistic, environmentally harmonious, participatory planning for an area.

(ii) The basic criterion for the approval of projects has been the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR). The BCR as actually operated is an unsatisfactory criterion and is liable to distortion. The costs of such projects are often under-stated and the benefits over-stated to conform to the required BCR. Dissatisfaction with the manner in which irrigation and multi-purpose projects were being dealt with led to the establishment of the Nitin Desai Committee which submitted a report in 1983 making recommendations for a change-over to a better appraisal system involving a proper socio-economic cost-benefit analysis leading to the determination of an economic IRR (internal rate of return). This remains unimplemented.

(iii) Partly as a consequence of the abandonment of the earlier financial return criterion in favour of the BCR, and partly because the pricing of irrigation water in many states is so low and the recovery so poor as to make it virtually free, most ‘major/medium’ projects are loss-making propositions insofar as the state exchequer is concerned. This aggravates the resource shortage of the states.

(iv) The primary, controlling discipline in project preparation at the state level, and examination at the central level, is engineering. Other disciplines, concerns and points of view are to some extent brought in through consultations and comments, but there is no inter-disciplinary planning in the proper sense of the term.

(v) One major feature of project planning has been the dominance of irrigation. Even ‘multi-purpose projects’ often have only two components, namely, irrigation and hydroelectric power. The integration of other purposes has not been a standard feature of project planning. There could be conflicts between two different uses (e g, between irrigation/power generation and flood moderation, between irrigation and maintaining minimum flows), but these are not always explicitly recognised and built into project planning.

(vi) Project decisions do not represent carefully considered choices out of a number of possible answers to a given need or problem. Only one unique project is proposed for approval. Within the ambit of a project, there may be multiple possibilities at various stages, and some of these may be covered in the processes of project preparation, but alternatives to the project are not usually considered.

(vii) One of the factors that militate against holistic, integrated planning is the fragmentation and compartmentalisation of responsibilities at the administrative level. Even within the area of water resources proper there is a dispersal of different components or aspects such as major/medium projects; minor irrigation; command area development; groundwater; watershed development; rainwater-harvesting; water management; and so on. Different divisions/departments/agencies tend to deal with these matters with little coordination, much less integration.

(viii) The processes of appraisal and decision-making are not rigorous enough, as evidenced by the unsatisfactory investment criterion employed, and the post-clearance history of scope changes and modifications in several projects.

(ix) Civil society (in the sense of the people concerned, i e, beneficiaries and those who are likely to be adversely affected, and the community in general) plays little or no role in the planning and implementation of such projects. The activity is essentially governmental. The Irrigation Acts vest the management and control of waters in the hands of the state, and project planning and implementation are largely internal activities of the state. As the colonial state had consciously distanced itself from the people, and as that distance did not significantly narrow in the post-colonial era, a tradition of consultation of, and participation by, the people did not develop. It is only in recent years that a consciousness of the importance of ‘stakeholder participation’ has begun to emerge. Project-Affected Persons (PAPs), with the assistance of some NGOs, have become more conscious of their rights (both their fundamental rights as citizens and their traditional rights of use of river waters, forest produce and other natural resources).

(x) The hardships (‘social costs’) inflicted by such projects often fall on poor and disadvantaged sections, particularly tribal communities, whereas the benefits accrue to others – usually more prosperous people – in the command area. There are inherent difficulties in resettlement and rehabilitation: a lack of full knowledge of the numbers and categories of people likely to be affected; separation of communities from the natural resource base on which they are dependent; inadequacy of land for land-based rehabilitation; scattering of well-knit communities; resettlement in distant and unfamiliar areas; difficulties with the host communities in the resettlement areas; major transformation in ways of living, loss of old coping capabilities and the need to learn new skills and ways of living; and so on. However good and enlightened the rehabilitation policies and ‘packages’, there will inevitably be great hardship and suffering, to which the response of the governmental machinery is rarely adequate, much less imaginative.

(xi) In the absence of institutional arrangements for consultation and grievance-redressal, the processes of displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation often generate serious dissatisfactions leading in some cases to confrontationist situations. This has been a major problem area in many projects.

(xii) Some state governments have tried to provide project-affected persons (PAPs) with benefits in the command area through legislation, but while these Acts are on the statute book and contain some enlightened provisions, it cannot be said that they have been fully put into practice.

(xiii) The government of India has been trying to formulate a National Rehabilitation Policy, but this effort which has been going on for several years has not reached finality so far.

(xiv) In regard to the planning, funding and implementation of major irrigation/multi-purpose projects, four main (inter-related) dysfunctional features need to be noted:

– the thin and suboptimal spreading of resources on a large number of projects;
– the time and cost over-runs on many projects;
– the persistent problem of projects remaining forever incomplete, spilling over several Plan periods, and pre-empting Plan resources for continuance/completion, leaving hardly any funds for new projects; and
– the failure in many cases to achieve the projected benefits in full measure, thus undermining the justification for the social costs imposed by the projects.

Successive Plan documents have stressed the need for better project planning and implementation and for completing on-going projects before starting on new ones, but to little purpose. From the Sixth Plan onwards the theme has been ‘consolidation’ rather than ‘new starts’, but this has not been effective.

(xv) The monitoring system is weak, and there is no effective mechanism to ensure that wherever sanctioned costs are likely to be, or have been, exceeded, the Revised Cost Estimate (RCE) is promptly brought before the appropriate authorities for a fresh appraisal when there is still time for a review of the original decision. There is also no established system of a post-completion evaluation. Very few projects, other than those that receive World Bank assistance, are subjected to such an ex post facto reappraisal.
(xvi) The environmental impacts of such projects will of course vary from case to case, but most such projects have some common and inescapable consequences, such as violent disturbance of pristine areas; varying degrees of submergence of land including forests in some cases; impacts on flora and fauna, leading to a reduction in biodiversity; in particular, severe impacts on the fish population in the river; the stilling of flowing waters leading to temperature stratification, variations in nutrient content and dissolved oxygen, rendering the water inhospitable to aquatic life; drastic changes in the river regime downstream of the dam (reduced flows affecting aquatic life and riparian communities, reduced capacity for self-regeneration, increased pollution levels, reduced recharge of groundwater aquifers, adverse impact on estuarine conditions); and so on. Some of these effects cannot be remedied or even mitigated; and in some cases efforts at the mitigation of or compensation for environmental impacts in turn create further problems. Further, it is clear from past experience that all the consequences and ramifications arising from the damming of a river cannot really be fully foreseen and planned for. In a word, when we undertake this kind of major intervention in nature, we do not really (or at any rate fully) know what we are doing.
(xvii) Environmental concerns are still largely looked upon as an externally imposed discipline that has to be complied with. An ‘Environmental Impact Assessment’ (EIA) has no doubt been a prescribed requirement for all projects for some years and is being complied with, but EIAs are often inadequate and unreliable, and the cost-benefit analyses based on these are suspect.9 Until recently, there was no statutory requirement of a public hearing in relation to the environmental clearance of such projects. It has now been introduced but has not yet become a well-established procedure.
(xviii) The ‘political economy’ aspects of such projects cannot be adequately gone into here. It could be argued that inequities, injustices, corruption, collusion, etc, arise from the socio-political milieu and cannot be attributed to engineering structures; but (in the water sector as elsewhere) some of the inequities and ills are perhaps facilitated by or at any rate associated with big projects involving large sums of money.
(xix) The cost of creating irrigation potential through such projects has been steadily increasing: from Rs 1,200/ha in the First Plan (1951-56) to Rs 66,570/ha in 1990-92 in current prices; and from Rs 8,620/ha to Rs 29,587/ha in constant 1980-81 prices.10
(xx) There is a persistent gap between the irrigation potential11  created at such cost and the extent of its utilisation (Table 1)
Table 1: Creation and Utilisation of Irrigation Potential
(At the end of 1995-96)12
(in mha)
Ultimate Created Utilised Gap Actually Irrigated (land-use statistics)
Maj/md 58.46 32.20 27.45 4.75
Minor (surface) 17.38 12.10 10.72 1.38
Minor (grw) 64.05 44.42 40.83 3.59
Total 139.89  88.72 79.00 9.72 70.64
(xxi) Resource constraints, an unsound Plan/non-Plan distinction, and an in-built preference for new construction over the efficient running of what has been built, have together resulted in the under-provisioning and neglect of maintenance. Systems built at great cost fall into disrepair, and there is a failure to provide the planned service.

As seen in the Ravi-Beas and Cauvery Dispute cases, interstate disputes over river waters are becoming intractable, and the constitutional conflict-resolution mechanisms do not seem to be working well. Conflicts could also arise between uses, between users, between areas, between classes: these are not acute yet, but could become so. There is also the possibility of conflicts between the people and the state, as has happened in the Narmada (SSP) and Tehri cases. Further, community initiatives are hampered by the ‘eminent domain’ claimed by the state, as was experienced in Alwar (the Tarun Bharat Sangh initiative). We shall need to return to these issues.


(i) There has been over-extraction (mining) of groundwater leading to depletion in some areas, and salinity ingress in coastal zones (e g, in Gujarat). On the other hand, there is a situation of rising water tables and the emergence of waterlogging and salinity in other areas (e g, in the Sharda Sahayak command in UP).
(ii) Water markets tend to emerge in the context of groundwater extraction through tubewells and borewells, and they serve some useful purposes, but there are dangers of unsustainable extraction as also of inequitable relationships between sellers and buyers.
(iii) The answer to both (i) and (ii) above may be claimed to lie in regulation, but this has so far not been found feasible because of political factors and the legal problem of easement rights. Under the directions of the Supreme Court the Central Groundwater Authority has been established, but it is not yet clear how it will evolve and operate, what kind of regulation it will attempt, and with what success.
(iv) There are problems of pollution/contamination of aquifers (fluoride, arsenic).
(v) There is a hypothesis that there are deep aquifers under artesian conditions in the Gangetic plains, but this remains uninvestigated.

Water Quality

There are pollution control laws and institutions, but these have not been able to prevent the growing pollution and contamination of water sources and systems, which in effect makes much of the ‘available’ water resources unusable. This is in fact as great a threat (if not greater) to security as the ‘scarcity’ about which alarm bells have been ringing. What needs to be done is clear enough (prescription and continuous review of standards; their enforcement, not forgetting the cumulative impact of individual clearances and permits; making the polluter pay; adopting and moving towards clear, time-bound goals in regard to desired water quality; and so on), but not much of this has begun to happen as yet.

(Incidentally, pollution and contamination are not respecters of political boundaries. The countries of the region have to agree on common standards and on trans-boundary water quality protocols. Conflicts have arisen in the past over water-sharing; but water quality may well become the focus of even sharper conflicts in the future unless clear inter-country understandings are reached and appropriate institutional mechanisms are provided for ensuring compliance with such understandings.)

Waste of Water

There is a waste of water in every use: agricultural, industrial, municipal, domestic. There is a complete absence of a sense of scarcity, and this is aided by a gross under-charging of water, whether for irrigation or in urban water supply. The Report of the Committee on the Pricing of Irrigation Water (the Vaidyanathan Committee) set up by the Planning Commission was submitted in 1992, but its recommendations still remain unimplemented. Now the National Commission has reiterated those recommendations with some modifications and additions, and we shall have to see what the state and central governments do with this report.

Constraints, Real and Perceived

Before we proceed from diagnoses to prescriptions, it is necessary to take note of certain ‘constraints’ that are often put forward as serious impediments to the policy changes and corrective actions that are needed in response to the ills mentioned above, and indeed as partial explanations for the present situation. These ‘constraints’ represent a combination of realities and perceptions.

Constitutional Constraints?

A complaint often heard is: “Water is a state subject; the central government cannot do much; water should have been in the Concurrent list, and should now be brought into it by amending the Constitution.” This is a complex question that cannot be discussed in detail in this paper. It is indeed possible to argue that the entries relating to ‘water’ in the Constitution are flawed. If the Constitution-makers had anticipated some of the perceptions and concerns that became current later, perhaps they would have drafted a different set of entries. However, this is mere speculation: we have to go by the text of the Constitution as it exists. Even if we feel that amendments to put ‘water’ in the Concurrent list are desirable, such amendments would be enormously difficult to put through: they go counter to the trend towards greater decentralisation and federalism. The central government has in fact failed to play even the role it could have played on the basis of the existing provisions. Much can be done without wasting time and energies on pursuing the chimera of restructuring the constitutional entries relating to water. (The examination of that issue is not being ruled out; see Section V.)

Financial Constraint?

Another ‘constraint’ with which we tend to paralyse ourselves is the financial one. As mentioned earlier, the general tendency is to proceed from projections of future demand to supply-side answers in the form of large projects, estimate the magnitude of investments needed, and wring one’s hands in despair. This is both a real and a perceived constraint: real because large investment funds are indeed hard to come by, perceived because there is a failure to explore possibilities that do not call for heavy investments.

The India Water Vision 2025 exercise under GWP auspices for presentation at the Hague Forum postulated an investment of Rs 5,000 billion in 25 years, or Rs 200 billion per year. The National Commission’s rough estimates of amounts needed for completing spill-over projects are Rs 70,000 crore in the Tenth Plan and Rs 1,10,000 crore in the Eleventh Plan. Not only does this leave no scope for new major projects, but the difficulty of finding funds of this order necessitates a severe selectivity even in regard to the continuance of what are called ‘ongoing projects’. The National Commission devotes a whole chapter to the ‘prioritisation’ of these. Some very hard choices are called for: some projects may have to be accelerated, others restructured and drastically pruned, and yet others abandoned.

What we must accept in a clear-headed manner is that the actual availability of investment funds in the public sector is likely to be no more than a small fraction of the projections made. Nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that the answer lies in private sector investment. Private sector investment in this sector, if forthcoming, is likely to be marginal at best.

Environment/Rehabilitation: Constraints?

To regard environmental and human concerns as ‘constraints’ obstructing the undertaking of projects is to take a myopic view. Unfortunately, this is a fairly common tendency. Consider arguments such as the following:

Environmental concerns are all right, but they should not be carried too far; if they are, there can be no irrigation or hydro-power projects in the future. Concern for the protection of the environment should not come in the way of development.

If we keep liberalising the rehabilitation policies and packages, and insisting on more and more stringent remedial measures on the environment front, no project in the future will be economically viable.

Whatever is possible should be done to mitigate the hardship of project-affected persons (PAPs) and resettle them humanely, but the infliction of hardship on some in the interest of the development of the country as a whole is inescapable. Some have to make a sacrifice in order that the nation may benefit.

These are not imaginary observations; arguments on these lines have often enough been heard in conferences and discussions. Moreover, during the deliberations of review committees set up to go into the environmental and rehabilitation aspects of certain controversial projects, one is often told: “Yes, we can discuss all this, but we must not interfere with the progress of the project: the project must proceed apace.”13 

Without entering into an extended discussion of the fallacies involved in these arguments, the following brief and categorical statement of what seems to this writer to be the right position is offered:

– the implicit priority assigned to ‘projects’ over people and nature is untenable;
– the imposition of an involuntary ‘sacrifice’ on some groups, for the sake of ‘benefits’ which are said to be in the interest of the country as a whole but in which they have no share, is morally indefensible;
– appropriate remedial measures (environmental, human) are a necessary and legitimate charge on a project;
– if this renders the project non-viable, the project in question should not be undertaken; and
– if the project is already under implementation, and if a review reveals serious deficiencies on the environmental and rehabilitation fronts, the proposition that “the project must go on” should not be used as an argument-stopper to block the review process and corrective action.
In short, we cannot start with the project as a given and adjust the social and environmental measures to maintain its viability, or to ensure its progress.

The Right Response

Not all the difficulties mentioned above can be dismissed as ‘perceived’. It is indeed true that WRD in the conventional engineering sense has become increasingly difficult to undertake. Much of India’s ‘available water resources’ calculated in national terms are locked in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna river systems involving distant and difficult locations with the added complication of the seismicity factor. Dihang, Subansiri and Tipaimukh projects are making no headway partly because of opposition to submergence. For a number of reasons, Karnali, Pancheswar and Saptakosi projects in Nepal seem unlikely to materialise in the foreseeable future. Within the country, inter-state conflicts as well as conflicts between the state and the people arise in a particularly acute form in the context of large projects. In general, there is a growing opposition to big WRD projects. It is no longer easy to displace people. As our environmental and ecological concerns become more acute and better informed, the costs of remedial measures will certainly mount. The investment costs of such projects have already reached unaffordable magnitudes, and the necessary resources cannot easily be mobilised. Under these circumstances, very few projects will pass muster, obtain the necessary finances and actually reach the implementation stage. The right response to this is not to bemoan the ‘constraints’ but to realise that the pursuit of WRD in the form of large projects is likely to produce little useful result; that much time will be lost in this process; and that the exploration of alternatives has become an imperative.

Objectives for the Future

Policies and plans for the future must be guided by a vision of the kind of world that we would like to see. A copy of a brief statement of that nature presented by this writer at the request of the organisers at one of the seminars and workshops held in preparation for the Hague Forum is reproduced as an Annexe to this paper. Keeping that in mind, our objectives for the future can be enumerated as follows:

– Ensure access to safe drinking water to all.
– Ensure adequate availability of water for agriculture, industry, urban centres (with due regard for efficiency, economy and equity).
– Find appropriate answers for drought-prone areas, arid zones.
– Foster consciousness of scarcity, promote conservation, minimise waste.
– Improve and maintain water quality; control pollution, protect water sources.
– Protect and preserve natural environment/ecological system. Preserve integrity of rivers, maintain river regime.
– Ensure equity – between groups, between generations, between species.
– In particular, reduce burden on women and give them a voice in water planning and management.
– Minimise conflicts and hardships and provide means of resolution/redress.
Help people to cope with floods and minimise damage.

(To be Continued)


 1 The present writer was a member of the National Commission. His reservations on certain matters are indicated in a separate Note at the end of the Commission’s Report.

 2 Source: National Commission.

 3 Source: National Commission.

 4 On the concepts of ‘available’ and ‘usable’ water resources, see section V, sub-section A, third paragraph.

 5 Cf The following extract from an internal paper of the Planning Commission made available to the author:

     “In 1972, surveys revealed that out of a total of 5,80,000 revenue villages there were 1,50,000 drinking water problem villages in India. By 1980, some 94,000 villages were covered by government and 56,000 were left uncovered. But the 1980 survey revealed that the number of problem villages was actually 2,31,000 and not merely 56,000. By 1985, all but 39,000 villages were covered but the new survey revealed 1,61,722 problem villages. Again, by 1994, they were all covered leaving only 70 uncovered villages but the 1994 survey revealed 1,40,975 problem habitations. This time the number included both revenue villages as well as hamlets...”

 6 The Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) was planned for multiple functions (flood moderation, power generation, irrigation and the general development of the area), but the flood moderation achieved was not of the planned order. The functions of DVC were whittled down over the years. DVC today is mainly a power-generating body, and much of that power is ironically enough thermal power.

 7 It has been pointed out that the 1988 floods caused greater damage than the 1978 floods (Rs 4,630 crore as against Rs 1,455 crore; even in constant 1981-82 prices, the figure for 1988 is said to be one-third higher than that for 1978. Central assistance for flood/cyclone relief is also reported to have risen from Rs 838.3 crore in the VI Plan period (1980-85) to Rs 2,816.7 crore in four years of the VIII Plan period (1992-96). (R Rangachari in an article in Seminar, June 1999.)

 8 Source: National Commission.

 9 Cf This has been elaborated in the author’s ‘Water Resources Planning: Changing Perspectives’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 12, 1998:

     “EIAs are notoriously undependable... Even when a reputed external consultancy firm is engaged (as is often the practice), the thoroughness and objectivity of the study cannot be taken for granted. It needs to be recognised that the insidious pressure on the consultant to be ‘positive’ about the project could be very strong… The latter has an interest (not necessarily conscious) in coming to the conclusion that the adverse impacts of the project can be remedied or mitigated or compensated for; that the project will still remain viable; and that the overall balance of costs and benefits will be favourable to the project. A consultant who says: “The impacts of this project are too grave to be mitigated or offset: the project should not be undertaken” is unlikely to secure many assignments. It is only a disinterested examination by an independent appraisal agency, say, the ministry of environment and forests or an agency appointed by it, that could be expected to be truly neutral and objective. Even that agency could come under strong pressure from other agencies within the government to be ‘positive’ and supportive of ‘development’ ...The cost-benefit calculus is a flawed basis for decision-making because (i) it is susceptible to manipulation (costs are usually understated and benefits overstated); (ii) it is necessarily incomplete and inadequate (not every aspect or dimension can be brought within the ambit of the calculus); and (iii) it is morally blind (the infliction of misery on some people is often sought to be justified on the ground that a larger number elsewhere will be benefited)”.

10 Source: Ninth Plan Working Group on Major/ Medium Irrigation Sector.

11 ‘Irrigation potential’ is a problematic concept, but nevertheless the ‘gap’ between created and utilised potential cannot be dismissed as unreal.

12 Source: National Commission.

13 All the observations cited were actually heard by the author at various Committee and Commission meetings.

[The list of works referred to will appear at the end of the second part of the paper.]

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