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Insights into Editorial: Not many lessons learnt from water planning failures

Insights into Editorial: Not many lessons learnt from water planning failures



Following the massive water crisis across India in the summer of 2019, the Central government hurriedly launched the Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA), a time-bound, mission-mode water conservation campaign to be carried out in two phases, across the 255 districts having critical and over-exploited groundwater levels.

This campaign, however, was not intended to be a funding programme and did not create any new intervention on its own.

It only aimed to make water conservation a ‘people’s movement’ through ongoing schemes like the MGNREGA and other government programmes.


About Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA):

Due to increasing water scarcity in urban centres like Chennai, and drought in many parts of central India, the Centre government has initiated the Jal Shakti Abhiyan as a jan-andolan or people’s movement on water conservation.

The JSA aims at making water conservation a Jan Andolan through asset creation and extensive communication. The nodal agency for Urban Renewal: Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs

The JSA will run in two Phases:

  • Phase 1 from 1st July to 15th September 2019 for all States and Union Territories
  • Phase 2 from 1st October to 30th November 2019 for States and UTs receiving the retreating monsoon (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu).


Realities of water crisis by various reports:

As many as 600 million people are already estimated to face “high-to-extreme” water stress every year.

The 2030 Water Resources Group on “Charting Our Water Futures” set up by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2009 had projected that if the current demand pattern for water continues, by 2030, the available water will meet only about half of India’s demand for water.

The NITI Aayog has projected that the groundwater of 21 cities will run out by 2020 (that is, next year) and the cities include Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad.

The BBC in February 2018 listed 11 cities most likely to run out of water. This list included Bengaluru.


Inefficient Usage of Water for various activities:

  • Water scarcity in India has come about not so much from insufficient supply as from the way in which we manage the water we have.
  • Agriculture uses 78 per cent of India’s water, and uses it very inefficiently. About two-thirds of water used for irrigation comes from groundwater.
  • Huge electricity subsidies for farmers to pump groundwater and the fact that groundwater is largely unregulated have led to a steady explosion in groundwater use through tube-wells for irrigation over the past several decades.
  • Access to treated tap water is available to only 62 per cent of urban households (Census 2011).
  • This leads to increasing but unaccounted use of groundwater by extensive digging of borewells to meet the demand deficit.
  • Urban India’s inefficiency in water use arises from inadequate, old and dilapidated distribution networks, inefficient operations, inadequate metering, incomplete billing and collection, and a general state of poor governance.
  • Another source of inefficiency comes from not treating wastewater and using the recycled water for specialised uses such as horticulture, and also for flushing toilets.
  • Under-pricing of urban water also contributes to wasteful use. If something is under-priced, users will use more of it.


Wastewater, a concern:

While the focus remains on creating or renovating structures for rainwater and wastewater harvesting, one needs to put in place policy measures for regulated water use and saving measures, such as water metering and pricing.

With access to piped water supply in households, water use is expected to increase in rural areas, leading to more wastewater generation.

There is a dire need for wastewater policy both for urban and rural areas that promotes water use efficiency, recycling and reuse, while also ensuring financial viability and sustainability of water utilities.

With respect to wastewater generation, the Centre Pollution Control Board estimates that of the total 135 litres per capita per day (LPCD) water supplied in urban areas, 85 LPCD is goes back in form of sewage, which could be reused if planned efficiently.


Critical view points that need to be addressed for Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA):

  • Political and administrative boundaries of districts rarely coincide with the hydrological boundaries or aquifer boundaries.
  • Water planning should be based on hydrological units, namely river basins
  • Contrary to this principle of water management, JSA was planned based on the boundary of the districts and to be carried out under the overall supervision of a bureaucrat.
  • This resulted in the division of basins/aquifers into multiple units that followed multiple policies.
  • Groundwater recharge may happen at the cost of surface water, especially so in water stressed basins like peninsular India.
  • This is where absence of autonomous and knowledge intensive river-basin organisations is acutely felt.
  • There is no data on basin-wise rainfall, no analysis of run-off and groundwater maps were rarely used.
  • As a result, one never came to know, whether water harvested in a pond in a district was at the cost of water in the adjoining districts.
  • Most of the farm bunds built with soil can collapse within one monsoon season due to the rains and/or trespassing by farm vehicles, animals and humans.
  • There are issues like lack of proper engineering supervision of these structures.
  • There is involvement of multiple departments with less or no coordination and limited funding under Mahatma Gandhi NERGA and other schemes.



Reshaping water governance will require state governments and local governments to take coordinated action in a federal system.

What is needed is a political compact between the Centre and states to jointly address the challenges of saving India’s water, while actively involving local governments and engaging with the communities of water users.

There are also not many efforts to dissuade farmers from growing water-intensive crops such as paddy, sugarcane, and banana, when it is widely known that agriculture consumes 80% of freshwater.

Therefore, the JSA’s move to reach out to poor people and farmers, asking them to ‘save water’, appears hypocritical, particularly when district administrations blatantly allow the sewage generated from towns and cities to pollute village water sources such as tanks, ponds and wells.

The aim and intent of JSA are noble. But the assumptions are distorted. For example, it assumes that common people in rural areas are ignorant and prone to wasting water; on the contrary, they are the ones who first bear the brunt of any water crisis.