On Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to Indians to start a mass movement to conserve water. The appeal could well be turned around: the government must stop damaging the country’s water conservation efforts.
As Scroll.in reported last week, the Modi government reversed two decades of carefully crafted policies advocating an ecological approach to water conservation, replacing them with a narrow focus on farm irrigation.
One year into office, in July 2015, it launched a new farm irrigation scheme called the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. The existing water conservation scheme called the Integrated Watershed Management Programme was merged into this new scheme.
Experts say this is disastrous. Watershed management is the globally accepted way of conserving water in dryland areas by holistically preserving soil and forests. With two-thirds of India covered by drylands, the country badly needs this approach.
Experiments with watershed management began in India as early as the 1980s. Guidelines evolved over two decades, culminating in a national programme called the Integrated Watershed Management Programme in 2009. But just when the watershed projects sanctioned by the previous government began to take shape on the ground, the Modi government shifted the focus to farm irrigation.
As a result, water conservation work around the country has been crippled by a shortage of funds, even as the government has stopped sanctioning new projects.
Simultaneously, the Modi government has diverted funds from drinking-water projects to toilet construction under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Allocations for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme saw a steep drop from nearly 80% of the budget of the erstwhile Ministry of Water and Sanitation in 2014 to just 30% in 2018.
In 2016, a parliamentary committee grilled the ministry over the lack of improvement in drinking water access. “How are we going to achieve coverage with half the money?” the secretary responded. “It is a very basic question, which we are also asking ourselves.”
The problem, however, isn’t simply about limited resources and a government forced to choose between objectives. Governance under Narendra Modi appears to be driven by slogans, not long-term strategy.
For instance, while improving sanitation through the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is a laudable goal, would toilets be usable without water? A government survey in 2017 showed six out of 10 toilets built under the programme did not have water supply.
Now, in its second term, the government wants to bring back the focus to water. It has merged two water-related ministries to create the Jal Shakti Ministry.
It had also launched the Jal Shakti Abhiyan: a campaign drawing top officials at the Centre, from ministries as diverse as petroleum and defence, into water conservation work in 255 water-stressed districts between July and September.
But campaigns cannot replace coherent policy.
Water conservation cannot proceed merely by digging farm ponds and collecting rainwater. It requires careful land-use planning and sustainable agricultural practices.
For all its implementation flaws, the Integrated Water Management Programme offered India a well-designed and scientific roadmap to tackling drought. This now stands weakened, while India’s water crisis has deepened.
If the Modi government cannot make things better, it should certainly not make things worse.