New Delhi: The focus of public procurement on predominantly wheat and rice dates back to the early years of the Green Revolution, and this is what enabled India to build a large buffer stock of grain.
However, there is no doubt that this overwhelming focus on just wheat and rice has played a key role in aggravating India’s water crisis, water policy expert Mihir Shah, who headed the 11-member high-level committee that drafted the National Water Policy (NWP) 2020, told ThePrint in an interview.
The Shah-led committee was constituted by the ministry in November 2019 to update the current NWP, which was last drafted in 2012. The committee submitted the draft NWP report to the Union Jal Shakti ministry last December.
The ministry is currently going through the draft policy before it is approved by the National Water Resources Council, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and includes all Chief Ministers as members.
“Water-intensive crops are grown even in relatively water-short regions because these are the only crops for which farmers are assured a steady market, thanks to government procurement operations,” Shah said, adding that crop diversification in line with local agro-ecology, without endangering national food security, is the NWP’s single most important step in resolving the country’s water crisis.
To enable this, Shah said, we need to diversify crop procurement operations in a carefully calibrated manner, to include nutri-cereals, pulses and oilseeds. “As this diversity of crops finds a growing place in public procurement operations, farmers will also gradually diversify their cropping patterns to align with this new structure of incentives. This will lead to a huge saving in water,” Shah noted.
In India, the agricultural sector consumes about 80-90 per cent water in India. Of this, 80 per cent water is consumed by just three crops — rice, wheat and sugarcane.
Shah, a former member of the Planning Commission during the UPA government, said the previous NWPs (in 1987, 2002, 2012) had many good features. “What we have tried to do is to place those ideas within a more coherent structure, provide greater clarity on how to take these ideas forward, flesh out more clearly links of water policy to policies in other sectors and suggest many new ideas that more accurately reflect the changing needs of the time and the latest understanding of water, as well as the new options available,” he said.
Need for independent panels, graded fee system
Besides recommending crop diversification, the draft NWP has also recommended setting up of Independent Water Resources Regulatory Authorities (IWRRAs) in all states and UTs.
IWRRAs would decide on bulk water fees on the basis of cost determination and cost apportionment across different uses as per an agreed set of criteria. While the individual user charges or retail charges will be decided by the utilities and local self governments, within the upper bound conditions set by the IWRRAs, Shah said.
“Graded fees system needs to be adopted. Basic service should be provided to everybody at an affordable cost, at a level that meets O&M costs. The economic service (like commercial agriculture, industrial and commercial use) should be charged at an economic cost where the Operation & Maintenance (O&M) costs and part of the capital cost would be the basis for the water service fees,” Shah added.
However, Shah has advocated for concessional rates for vulnerable social sections. “Care should be taken not to price out the poor from basic water service,” he said.
The problem so far has been our inability to communicate effectively that water found in its natural form in the streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and aquifers is very different from water available in a household tap, an irrigation channel or a factory, Shah noted.
“It takes physical infrastructure and management systems to make water a usable resource wherever and whenever one wants it. It involves costs. So it is important to generate a social consensus on how this cost is to be met,” he added.
Service fees, Shah said, are a facilitator to ensure affordable water as a right to cover basic needs, while achieving financial sustainability by generating revenue through charging more for commercial and luxury uses.
“O&M costs should be fully recovered through water service fees. The capital or fixed cost should be primarily met by the state and could be also partially recovered through a higher water charge for various types of commercial users (commercial farming, industries, commercial establishments, etc),” he said.
Shah said the NWP has also recommended that payment for violations must be high enough to have a deterrent effect on polluters as Extended Producer Responsibility. “Licenses for polluting units must be temporarily suspended in cases of repeated violations, till corrective actions are taken. The NWP committee found many instances where the “polluter pays principle” was functioning as a kind of license to pollute,” he said.
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)