Allocate water rights; aid conservation

Monday, 21 February 2005
Parth Shah and H B Soumya
Financial Express

Do we have enough water for the future? With water being demanded for domestic consumption, industrial use and irrigation, there is often a tussle between the three regarding their share of water. There are many instances of water being over-used by agricultural belts in some regions of India, and of water being diverted for industrial purposes at the cost of the needs of local domestic use.

There is also a problem regarding water sharing between riparian states. The national environment policy (NEP) 2004 has placed on record the problem of over-use and skewed distribution of river water.

It correctly identifies that these problems have been perpetuated due to policy and regulatory regimes: tariff policies for irrigation and industrial use — that have resulted in excessive use of water; and non-generation of adequate revenue for maintenance works. The NEP brings out these issues lucidly but falls short of proposing how to solve the problem.

A logical way to solve any problem is to examine why the problem occurs in the first place. Any environmental problem is an example of the tragedy of the collective. Garret Hardin popularised this idea in an article called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin logically pointed out that it was the absence of any definite owner that led to environmental degradation, what we label as the problem of ‘open access’. Since resources belong to everyone, and thus de facto to no one, everyone uses them, but no one has an incentive to conserve them, in spite of knowing that such non-discretionary use would leave nothing for the future. This is because wise use by one person does not guarantee similar behaviour by others, nor does it guarantee returns for such good behaviour tomorrow. This implies that a viable solution to the problem of water use would be to legally identify a body of people who are responsible for the use and maintenance of water bodies. This is generally regarded as a tricky exercise, since everyone is dependent on water for his or her survival. Also, the uses of river water are several and the users even more so.

As per common law, every riparian owner is entitled to continued water flow of a natural stream in its natural condition, without any obstruction or pollution and undiminished in quantity and quality. This can be evoked to solve the problem of riparian owners, but not to establish claims of those living in the interiors.

• Firm up system of project allocation used by government today
• Create long term water use plan to ensure efficient distribution
• Provide free quota for poor people, paid for by others

A way to establish water rights is to firm up the system of project allocations used by the government today. Project authorities generally enter into long-term contracts with municipal and other government authorities for the supply of fixed quantities of water for various purposes. These quantitative allocations can be converted into legally enforceable proportional allocations of tradeable water rights. Water user associations can be given the responsibility of operating and managing delivery systems, either as cooperatives or by contracting out. This approach does not create any new claimants, but simply firms up existing claims, thereby creating a long-term water use plan.

The delivery of water can be done by communities and water user groups in rural areas, and by companies in urban areas. In rural areas, there already exist community-managed systems. For instance, water management gram sabhas (different from panchayati raj gram sabhas) in villages of Alwar district, and the Arvari Sansad, an inter-village body comprising of representatives of villages on the catchment area of the Arvari river, are very active in regulating the use of water among villages and villagers for irrigation and domestic consumption. However, these informal bodies are fragile, since they have no legal support to protect their claim to the use of the river water, which could be diverted to any other use at any time. In fact, in many places in India, there is a constant tussle between commercial establishments and local indigenous people on the sharing of water. The system of allocation of rights would solve such a conflict, since it gives specific claims to different groups of people, which are legally binding and enforceable. With their share secure, rural communities would be secure about their share of water, and develop their management systems to deliver water to villages for domestic and agricultural use.

As regards urban areas, privatisation at the ward level can be carried out. Each ward level water user group can contract with a private company to deliver water in the ward. This would create a contestable market in water delivery with multiple companies. To take into account those who cannot pay, free allocation on a per-person or per-family basis can be decided, which would be paid out of general tax revenue. The charges for water consumed above that amount would have to be paid for. Alternatively, identify the poor and subsidise them, either fully or partially, and make the rich pay for every drop.

Similarly, inter-state water sharing can be solved by making permanent allocations, just as in the cases of project water allocations. This would end the seemingly never-ending squabble between riparian states. An institutional framework that creates incentives for efficient and optimal water use is the need of the hour. A properly defined and enforceable water rights system guarantees people their stake and creates incentive for wise use. The task of delivery and maintenance should be vested as closely as possible in the hands of those who are directly affected by the distribution—the rights holders.

The genuine tragedy is the nationalisation of the commons. And denationalisation—legal establishment of water rights and decentralisation of delivery — is the only answer.