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River management- Central control desirable
June, 02nd 2008

Ten of the largest rivers in the world are dying. Amongst these are the Ganga, Indus, Nile, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube that are the lifeline of millions of people. These rivers are not merely water sources but repositories of history, myths and cultural memories. And, the greatest threat to these and many other rivers is industrial pollution apart from natural sewage channels.

In India, as also in many other countries pollution of rivers has been a big problem. The developing world, particularly India and China, needs to learn from Europe 's experience of reviving and maintaining rivers. In our country, the Supreme Court has come out with a number of judgements along these lines, but effective action has yet to be taken. The projects that have been taken up are far from satisfactory. The 2006 official audit of the Ganga Action Plan has revealed that it has met only 39 per cent of its sewage treatment target. Moreover, the Plan is behind schedule by over 13 years. According to the legal counsel, Central Pollution Control Board, Vijay Panjawani, even after spending Rs. 24,000 crores, the Ganga remains as dirty as ever. The same holds true of the Yamuna Action Plan where progress is unsatisfactory.

Apart from the problem of sewage flowing into the Yamuna, the problem is largely attributed to the large-scale extraction of water in upstream Delhi for drinking and irrigation purposes, leading to negligible flow in the river after Wazirabad, as per reports of the Environment Ministry. This problem has also been witnessed in Kolkata (of the Hooghly river, an offshoot of Ganga) after the water-sharing agreement was signed between India and Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, following the directions of the apex court on August 4, 2004, a high-power committee was constituted for preparation of an integrated action plan to stop pollution of the river. Another committee was formed with representatives from the five riparian states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan to consider the issue of maintaining a universal flow of water in the Yamuna and to suggest both short and long-term measures for the same.

Keeping in view the persistent problem of pollution of these rivers, some are likely to be declared as 'national rivers'. This would facilitate the Centre's direct intervention in projects to clean up such rivers and ensure proper upkeep. Moreover, since the big rivers pass through several States and there is a multiplicity of authorities, monitoring at the central level would be better, even though it's a State subject, Ambitious projects viz Ganga and Yamuna so far are unable to achieve the desired results within a specified time frame.

The 'national rivers' concept has long been mooted and deliberated upon by the Central Water Commission (CWC) and the criteria for rivers that would fall under this head is being finalized. This exercise became necessary after States like West Bengal asked the Centre to take up river cleaning projects. It is understood that half a dozen highly polluted rivers, including Ganga, Yamuna, Krishna, Cauvery, and Teesta are likely to figure in this list.

Moreover, water sharing has led to disputes between States and consequent appointment of tribunals under the inter-State water disputes act to mediate between warring parties. Tribunals set up so far are looking into disputes over the Narmada, Ravi, Beas, Krishna, Godavari and Cauvery. Regrettably, this has given rise to a complex and highly litigious process as the States have moved the Supreme Court challenging the awards given by the tribunals in spite of these being binding on the States.

There is a high-level of vitriol in the endemic clashes between States on inter-State water issues which have grave political consequences. The intensity of these disputes and the complexity arising thereof has possibly influenced the parliamentary committee on water resources to recommend that water be put on the concurrent list from the present List II of the seventh schedule, a State subject. The move has enough justification, as it would entail Centre's control over the rivers-- maintaining these properly from the environmental point of view and ensuring regulated flow.

In the coming years, with rapid industrialization and urbanization the demand for water would increase considerably, making it necessary that control in matters pertaining to water sharing, pollution and management be exerted by Central authorities, in consultation with respective State governments, if necessary. It is in this context that the question of river interlinking has also to be considered in a judicious manner, keeping in mind, the geological, environmental, economic and practical aspects.

As is well-known, some States are already facing water crisis, both in the urban centres and rural areas, while States like Assam face floods almost every year. Besides, the 11th Plan has aimed at expanding irrigation by 2.5 million hectares a year, and, recently at a meeting of the National Development Council (NDC), most States voiced the need for additional allocation for increasing their irrigated area. In such a scenario, there is need for judicious management of water and ensuring its optimum use throughout the country. How this could be made practicable, however, remains a big challenge?

The only way in which change will take place is if reform-minded political leaders shift the balance of power between the State machinery, on the one hand, and users--farmers, industries, citizens - on the other. The State needs to surrender those tasks which it may not be fit to perform, while develop the capacity to do such things which it can and should do. Water management, let's face it, is one of the several tasks, which only the State can discharge. A monitoring mechanism at the central level may be necessary or the Central Water Commission be given additional powers. However, collaboration and consultation with the States would be necessary.

The institutional changes in building the "new Indian water state" could well be: the public sector will continue to have an important role in providing irrigation and water supply; vibrant non-governmental sector, private sector and cooperatives will too be given a role in providing formal irrigation and water supply services in a competitive manner with the State authorities; as service provided by the above improves, large number of people will move from the informal, self providing, water economy onto the formal service sector and the public sector will play an expanded role in the financing and provision of public services such as flood control, pollution control, sewage treatment etc.

In addition, the government will deliver a set of laws, policies, capacities and organizations for defining and delivering an enabling environment with special emphasis on the establishment and management of water entitlements and the regulation of services and resources. A clean flowing river thus could be of immense benefit to the country and the States.

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