Mihir Shah Committee Report (2016) on Water Reforms in India: A Critique

Set-up by the government of India, the Mihir Shah Committee suggested a reform strategy for the country’s water sector. The report, A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms, made several recommendations based on its diagnosis of the ailing sector.  Amongst the reform agenda was a proposed restructuring of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board of India (CGWB).

However, our analysis shows that the Committee’s recommendations are not based on any sound understanding of the federal nature of water administration in India, the performance of the water sector and the problems confronting the sector.

The scope of the problem

India’s water sector faces a dire challenge. Some of the problems in the water sector identified by the Committee are: the efficiency in public irrigation schemes is as low as 35 percent; there is a mounting gap between potential created and potential utilised in the irrigation sector to the tune of 26 m. ha; groundwater is a ‘golden goose’, which accounts for two-thirds of India’s irrigation, but its use is alarmingly unsustainable; the proportion of area irrigated by canals is declining fast; and, there is no scope for further development of surface water in the country, particularly in view of the fact that most highly-developed rivers in peninsular India are facing severe environmental water stress.

Managing water today is no longer about only developing new sources through conventional means such as the construction of reservoirs, digging wells, and laying canals and pipelines. Today’s water-management challenge is about finding new sources of water and allocating the limited water amongst various competitive uses while protecting the hydrological integrity of our catchments, rivers, lakes, and aquifers.

We feel that the report’s recommendations are misguided and not entirely based on evidence or the current realities of water-sector reform.

Moratorium on large dams

The report argues that the era of dam building in India is over; returns from continued public investments in irrigation projects have been negative during the past few decades primarily due to incredibly low irrigation efficiencies (25-35 percent) and low utilisation of the newly-created potential.

The argument is flawed in equating delivery efficiency of the irrigation infrastructure—water received at a farm and water released from a reservoir—to water-use efficiency. If one assesses these efficiency parameters at the basin scale, the efficiency in public irrigation is far higher than what is reported. International agencies have long been using the concept of basin water-use efficiency. A mere 25-35 percent efficiency in public irrigation schemes, as noted by the Committee, means nearly 70 percent of the water released from the reservoirs or diversion systems would be lost.

This loss works out to be around 280 BCM of water annually. This ‘wastage’ should end up in the natural sink: the rivers and the oceans. If we acknowledge the fact that most of the large irrigation systems are located in the water-scarce states of India (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana), most of this water should appear at the last drainage point of the rivers in these states.

However, this doesn’t happen. Most of these rivers have no significant amount of water draining out in normal years, as noted even by the Committee. Hence, the efficiency argument is completely flawed.

The National Water Commission—a viable option?

The Committee suggests that CWC and CGWB work under a single umbrella body, the National Water Commission; the present chairpersons of the CWC and CGWB be members and a bureaucrat head of the NWC. The assumption is that such an institution can promote Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) planning at the basin level, for both surface water and groundwater.

However, the reason for the lack of integrated planning at the basin level is not the lack of coordination and data sharing; instead, the concerned state departments, which control the development of the resource, lack the ability to foresee how future development of the resource is going to take place in different sectors.

Can the two central agencies—CWC and CGWB—be held responsible for the poor state of affairs in the water sector and also be held accountable for implementing the new water management paradigm? The report doesn’t provide any analytical base to establish the link between the two.

The report recommendations miss the real problem; that the line agencies in the water sector at the state level—such as the water resources department, water supply department, watershed management agency, State Pollution Control Board—lack the incentive to perform due to the inherent problems with institutional design.

These institutional design problems are the following: a single agency performing multiple functions; fragmented, sectoral and a supply-side approach to water management; poor water resource monitoring and assessment; and, the centralised nature of institutions and lack of well-defined water rights. This flawed design also serves to reduce the transparency and the accountability in the functioning of these agencies.

Participatory aquifer mapping versus groundwater management

It is a well-established fact that the two major reasons for over-exploitation of aquifers are the absence of well-defined water rights in groundwater and inefficient pricing of electricity supplied in the farm sector. The problem is not due to lack of sufficient information about the occurrence of groundwater and its flows. The farmers, as well as official agencies, know well that the resource is fast depleting in many pockets.

The suggestion of participatory aquifer mapping can do nothing to halt this ongoing menace.
While we can invest some more resources in refining the current assessment methodology, we already have sufficient information to start initiating management actions in the problem areas. But, those actions are going to be institutional in nature, and what we lack is the political will from the state governments to do it.

This lack of will is quite obvious from the lack of enforcement of groundwater Acts in many states. The Maharashtra Groundwater Development and Management Act, 2009, enacted on 3 December 2013, is one such example.

The experience of developed countries such as the United States, Australia, Mexico and Spain, in dealing with groundwater management issues clearly shows that the solution lies in creating robust institutions; interventions that can clearly define water rights of individual users and enforce them or put a tax on groundwater use based on volumetric withdrawal.

These institutions have to be supported by an appropriate legal framework, which defines, recognises and enforce uses the rights of individual water users or water user groups in volumetric terms.

Rhetoric on twenty-first century institutional architecture

The report has a lot of rhetoric about IWRM but does not suggest any reform measures to operationalise the concept. The IWRM is a complex model of water governance and management; water of varying quality is demanded by multiple sectors and in varying quantities by multiple users within a catchment. Allocating this water amongst various stakeholders involve trade-offs.

Invariably, domestic and industrial sectors have the first call on available water. These sectors mainly contaminate more water than what they consume; unlike agricultural sectors where water is evaporated or lost to saline aquifers. Therefore, the appropriate treatment of water used by domestic and industrial sectors will enable the reuse of water by another sector.

The report is vociferous about integrated development of surface water and groundwater at the basin level for optimal resource use and water resources management, but it is silent on the institutional mechanisms to achieve it. The critical point is that various line agencies at the state level—water resources department, groundwater departments, the watershed management agency, and local municipalities and corporations—are not confronted with an opportunity cost of over-appropriating the resource or polluting water.

When an irrigation department over-appropriates water from a catchment, it does not have to compensate for the damages caused by environmental water stress downstream. Further, when different sectors are competing for water, how can the allocation of water across competing sectors be achieved at the basin-scale without proper water entitlements? What will be the rules for allocation? Who defines those rules and entitlements, and who enforces them?

In conclusion, water-resource management requires an application of ecological sciences, ecological economics and environmental economics. It is quite obvious that our water sector institutions have to be equipped with better-qualified manpower from multiple disciplines. In missing this reality, the Committee’s suggestions are lacking in facts and direction.

This article is based on a paper by the Institute for Resource Analysis and Policy.  

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