On September 20, Delhi resident Dharmesh died of cardiac arrest after a fight with a neighbour over the use of the local public water tap. Around the same time, across peninsular India, the epidemic of farmer suicides continued after poor rain led to multiple crop failures.

As death due to shortage of water becomes commonplace in India, water activist and winner of the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize Rajendra Singh predicts that conflict around water will worsen, in part due to plans like the interlinking of India’s major rivers. “The disputes from this interlinking are likely to be so bad that the Indian judiciary will not be able to resolve them,” he said recently at a seminar on water rights in Delhi. Instead of linking rivers to each other Singh wants people to link their hearts and minds with rivers, a philosophy that has given rise to his Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan.

The Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan is a national campaign that is asking for legislation to ensure water security across the country. Members of the movement drafted such a bill last year in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in the hope that it would be picked up by all political parties currying favour with the electorate.

The draft bill – which they call the River Conservation Bill, 2015 – is centred on conserving and reviving water bodies across India, starting with surveying, demarcating and notifying them correctly. This needs to be done by central, state and local governments, said Singh.

“We have tried to make local governments identify, demarcate and notify all the water bodies in their area with new maps,” said Singh. “If this doesn’t happen then the real estate lobby will grab the lands on which ponds and lakes are supposed to be.” In that interest, the draft bill also asks that no water body or any land that might be part of its natural function, such as a catchment, be used for industrial purpose or another activity. The draft bill also endeavours to give comprehensive and precise definitions to water-related terms to close loopholes in implementing water policies.

Comprehensive river conservation

The draft bill garnered much attention during the 2014 general election campaign after Jal Jan Jodo Abhiyan activists put pressure on political parties to listen to their demand. Since then the momentum has fizzled out.

“At the time of the 2014 election, we went to each of the party offices and circulated a Jal Jan Goshna Patra and in that scenario they included it in their manifestos,” said Singh. “But if they were really serious about it then we should have seen the provisions in the state elections, like in the present elections in Bihar. That is not happening.”

A comprehensive river conservation bill can counter India’s water deprivation in the long-term but more is needed, said Madhav Chitale, former secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources and winner of the Stockholm Water Prize in 1993.

“The bill is only a template of aspiration of the legislature. It is an intention or objective,” said Chitale, pointing out that the major problem in India was implementation of existing laws. “As of today you want to translate your intention into action and that can be in the form of a Water Code. There has to be a discussion on what is the unit of management. Should it be 500 square kilometres or 1,000 square kilometres? That is the building block for our management of our river basin.”

Singh acknowledges the problem with proposing a new law to protect the environment at a time when the government seems to be weakening existing protections. “We have seen how they have denotified forests and such and they are doing all this for industry,” he remarked. “This government has only industry as a priority.”