In 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti set up a committee of independent experts – led by Dr Mihir Shah – to draft a new National Water Policy. To examine the recommendations made by the Committee, Ashwini Kulkarni speaks with Mihir Shah, beginning with a discussion of the key issues constituting the water crisis facing India today – in terms of dichotomies such as agriculture and industry use, rural and urban issues, quality and quantity of water, and so on. Dr Shah explains how the new Policy is a shift away from a supply-centric approach involving dam construction and groundwater extraction, to the management of the demand and distribution of water. He emphasises the importance of weaving our interventions into the contours of nature, rather than having a “command and control” relationship with nature – a lesson that is especially relevant in Covid times. Within the wider context of climate change, drying rivers and falling water tables, Shah noted that the past is no longer a reliable indicator of what is to come and there is a pressing need for agility, resilience, and flexibility in water management.
The new Policy also involves teasing out interconnections with policies of other sectors such as agriculture and nutrition, an example being crop diversification in government procurement and nutrition programmes, which would create the necessary incentives for farmers to diversify cropping patterns in line with local agro-ecology. Other key features of the Committee’s recommendations are that they are based on proofs-of-concept on the ground, and a focus on the principle of subsidiarity, since water is a common pool resource, which requires users of water being central to implementing solutions. There is an effort to address the current ‘hydro-schizophrenia’ in the way government deals with different water problems by bridging the silos into which we have divided water. For urban areas, Shah highlights the blind spot of groundwater in water planning, the key role of blue-green infrastructure and the need to invest in capacity-building of urban local bodies. He also outlines the participatory process of consultations adopted by the Committee, and the plans for time-bound implementation and monitoring of the recommendations going forward. Finally, Mihir Shah contends that the new National Water Policy can support the fulfilment of India’s climate commitments – but even without the international framework, the policy is imperative for a more resilient future and sustainable development of the country.
This is the fifth edition of I4I Conversations.
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