Water is the most precious resource on earth still it remains a myth to our existence, being one of the most abundant resources on earth but less than 1 percent of the total supply is reliably available for human consumption. Portable-water is essential for human survival but water-related illnesses are the most common health threat in the developing world. An estimated 25, 000 people die every day as a result of water-related diseases Human existence depends on water. Water interacts with solar energy to determine climate and it transforms and transports the physical and chemical substances necessary for all life on earth. Competition among agriculture, industry and cities for limited water supplies is already constraining development efforts in many countries including India. As populations expand and economies grow, the competition for limited supplies is most likely to intensify, resulting in potential conflict situation among water users in days to come. Despite shortages of water, its misuse is widespread, be it in small communities or large cities, farmers or industries, developing countries or industrialized economies everywhere the mismanagement of water resources is evident. Surface water quality is deteriorating in key basins from urban and industrial wastes. 
Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, in January 2012, released a draft National Water Policy for the consideration and opinion of state governments and other stakeholders. The need for a holistic national policy has its genesis in the changing patterns of water use across India – both personal and industrial use. This includes the imperatives of providing both clean drinking water and adequate resources for irrigation; the move to look at renewable sources of energy like hydro power; and natural disaster management and rehabilitation following devastating floods and drought. The policy also seeks to offer economic incentives and penalties to reduce pollution and wastage. For reversing the usual approach of projecting a future demand and bringing about a supply-side response to meet that demand, we must start from the fact that the availability of fresh water in nature is finite, and learn to manage our water needs within that availability. This means a restraint on the growth of ‘demand’ for water (other than basic needs) which will be difficult and will involve painful adjustments; but this has become inevitable. So, to have a more equitable and inclusive water resources management, the primacy has to shift from large, centralized, capital-intensive ‘water resource development’ (WRD) projects with big dams and reservoirs and canal systems, to small, decentralized, local, community-led, water-harvesting and watershed-development programs, with the big projects being regarded as projects of the last resort; and the exploitation of groundwater will have to be severely restrained in the interest of resource-conservation as well as equity.

India is poised to play a major role in the community of nations in the twenty-first century. In order to achieve our potential it is necessary that we eliminate poverty, provide full employment and adequate purchasing power to the people and generate self-confidence among them. The optimum utilization of our water, land and natural resources is extremely important in achieving these objectives. On April 1, 2002 the National Water Resources council met under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister and adopted the National Water Policy 2002, a revised version of the earlier policy of 1987. The new policy does have a number of positive elements that were not there in the earlier policy. But, in our view, it does not go far enough in preparing the nation for the optimum management of water resources in the 21st century. Also, since water is a state subject, the States are required to formulate their own water policies on the guidelines provided by the national policy and to prepare an operational action plan within two years.

The New Draft Policy, 2012 has been quite more effective, in terms of covering institutional mechanism and enhances its holistic approach towards water management. There has been a set of new guidelines which has considered “water” as an economic good.  It also proposed for privatization of water.

New Draft Policy 2012: A Perspective

A new consortium of business and inter-national finance is systematically trying to influence how the world’s water will be allocated in future. The consortium seeks to promote policies that will treat water primarily as an economic good to be bought and sold, rather than a fundamental right. Because the consortium works directly with governments, or its office-holders, its initiatives are proceeding without much public awareness or attention. The latest example of this is India’s Draft National Water Policy (NWP) circulated by the Ministry of Water Resources in January 2012 to water experts as part of its consultation procedures. It was available for public comments till February 29, 2012.[i]

At first glance it appears as if the policy takes a holistic approach to water resources management, with a clear recognition of India’s water woes. It accords preemptive priority for safe and clean drinking water and sanitation for all, and prioritizes meeting water requirements for ecosystems. Recycling and reuse of water is incentivized. The policy stresses water use efficiency improvements across sectors—in agriculture, industry and urban domestic sector, and improvements in rural water supply, waste water treatment and re-use of treated waste water. However, a closer look at the policy shows some serious missing pieces. First and foremost, water is articulated strongly enough as a fundamental human right. This is despite India voting in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution on the Right to Water in 2010. In fact, while the draft water policy suggests that “water for such human needs should have a pre-emptive priority over all other uses,” it does not give any clear guidelines stipulating either quantity and quality of water or other parameters that mandate specific service standards. Without any safeguards and legally binding mechanisms for ensuring that water supply systems are accountable and effective, there is very little chance that this preemptive prioritization will result in ensuring access to water for all in India. We can learn a lesson from the previous National Water Policy (2002). The 2002 policy, too, had emphasized ecosystem needs, and stated that minimum flows will be maintained in rivers. However, in the absence of legally binding mechanisms or safeguards to protect the minimum flows over the last ten years, the situation has, if anything, worsened: Rivers have turned into sewers and aquifers depleted at a higher rate; wetlands and other water bodies have been encroached upon; riverbeds have been mined for sand, reducing the rate of water percolation into aquifers.

While India’s new draft water policy proposes few institutional mechanisms to support the prioritization of basic human needs and ecosystem needs, it does suggest various institutional mechanisms to strengthen the current treatment of water as an economic good. This is in line with what John Briscoe, who was World Bank’s senior water advisor for over a decade advocated for India. In fact, he not only advocated for an economic valuation of water but also effectively advocated that the state renege on its responsibilities to its people to supply water. For example, in India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future (2005), he argued that “[…]the role of the Indian water state must change from that of builder and controller to creator of an enabling environment, and facilitator of the actions of water users, large and small.”[ii]

As if heeding this advice, the draft national water policy proposes a limited role for the state in public services. While other parts of the world are bringing water services back into the public realm due to negative experiences with privatization, India’s proposed new policy is heading in the opposition direction by suggesting that the state should function simply as a regulator or facilitator, and that service delivery should be handed over to local communities or private sector, instead of exploring how to make 24/7 delivery possible by strengthening the capacity of the public sector. This push for privatization is not new. What is new is that these policies are justified in the name of dealing with water crisis and in the name of conservation. The draft policy recommends “full cost recovery” of water used as the means for achieving efficient use of water. For example, as a means for reducing water use in agricultural sector, it proposes doing away with the irrigation subsidy.

This totally disregards the possible impacts of this approach on local food security or rural livelihoods. While full cost recovery will in general help meet the costs of water delivery, it does not deter water use amongst those who can afford to pay. In that sense, full cost recovery works particularly against lower-income groups, and groups that use water for activities that have low economic returns, such as subsistence agriculture. Full cost recovery needs to be accompanied by protection of the right to water for basic needs, including that for basic livelihood strategies.

Moreover, in the area of water quality conservation, the important “polluter pays principle” has disappeared. It has been replaced with “incentives” for effluent treatment and reuse of water. While reclaiming wastewater is necessary to bridge the water deficit, in the absence of strong regulations to limit polluting activities, such incentives to polluters (to treat effluents), might work as a perverse incentive to pollute more. Such a tech-fix approach is symptomatic of the industrialized societies that squander away their resources. These are also opportunities for some of the worst water polluters to profiteer: Companies such as Dow Chemicals are developing patented water purification technology.

If these policies are unlikely to protect the basic right to water, it begs the question: Who are the advocates and beneficiaries of these policies?

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, national level  consultations had been going on for almost two years, involving many water experts and NGOs. However, for it to be a real democratic, participatory process (proposed in the draft NWP as essential for successful implementation of the water management measures), involvement of Panchayati Raj Institutions (from village level onwards), should have been the cornerstone of this process. Instead their involvement was minimal. Rich public discussions that have been going on in this period are not reflected in the draft NWP either.[iii]

Going by reports in the media, this seems to be a broadly shared public sentiment.[iv] So, who are the political power players behind India’s draft water policy? A recent report, National Water Resources Framework Study: Roadmaps for Reforms, offers some clues.[v] There are striking convergences between sections of this report and parts of the draft water policy.

This report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), was commissioned at the request of the Planning Commission of India to the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), towards the development of the India’s 12Th  Five-Year plan (2012–2017).

In many ways India’s draft national water policy epitomizes not only what is being advocated in the area of water governance, but also the problems with the initiatives being pursued around the world. Multi-nationals are no longer content with profiteering from their traditional areas of businesses: They want to play a larger role in allocation of world’s natural resources, which have so far been in the public realm. The actual water users and their representatives are marginalized.

Presently in a post government transition scenario, the election manifesto of the ruling party shows that high emphasis is given to water.  Especially with regards taking care of sacred river, Ganga has been expressly mentioned and they have initiated their work with sheer aggression to deliver results. It also has given significance for portable water to reach every home. So we hope that rather making more and more policies, the government will act and implement the existing regulation till the grass root.


[i] Ministry of Water Resources, India, Draft National Water Policy, at http://wrmin.nic.in/writereaddata/linkimages/DraftNWP2012_English9353289094.pd.

[ii] India’s water economy: bracing for a turbulent future,

http://www.wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2008/06/25/000333037_20080625020800/Rendered/PDF/443760PUB0IN0W1Box0327398B01PUBLIC1.pdf.  Accessed October 1, 2014.

[iii] Lokgariwar, Chicu, Responsible, harmonious, just and wise: Will this be true of India’s new National Water

policy?, India Water Portal, February 1, 2012, http://www.indiawaterportal.org/blog/chicu/23115. Accessed

October 1, 2014.

[iv] Bharat Lal Seth, National Water policy, 2012 silent on priorities, February 10, 2012, http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/35952. Accessed October 6, 2014.

[v] National Water Resources Framework Study: Roadmaps for Reforms, http://ceew.in/pdf/CEEWWRG10Oct11.pdf. Accessed October 6, 2014.

By Ashish Jacob Mathew, School of Legal Studies, Cochin University of Science And Technology (C.U.S.A.T.) Kochi, Kerala.