Water management: Revival of farm sector, improving public health and rural economy key
The wastewater sector and wetlands protection were two missed opportunities in Budget 2017.
During his Budget 2017 speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley outlined the need to “transform, energise and clean” India. Water, a crucial natural resource, and its management should also focus on these three ideals. India’s progress hinges on access to safe and sufficient water for reviving the agricultural sector, improving public health and strengthening rural economy.
India’s future energy goals such as the ambitious 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022 target and developing ultra-supercritical coal technologies could also be constrained by availability of water. Finally, the government’s flagship scheme, Swachh Bharat, is co-dependent on access to water. The policy signals of Budget 2017 need to be analysed through the lens of water especially for three key areas: irrigation, access to drinking water and sanitation, and river basin management.
Budget 2017 has provided an impetus to irrigation in India, with 28 percent increase in budget allocation for the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY). This has been operationalised through an addition of Rs 20,000 crores to the long-term irrigation fund set up in NABARD, bringing the total corpus to Rs 40,000 crores. Though an increase in financial resources for the irrigation sector is a positive step, it is important to prioritise water provisioning and not just infrastructure creation. Shashi Shekhar, Former Secretary of MoWR, RD&GR, raised similar concerns recently calling the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus the biggest bane in India’s water sector.
This reinstates the need for providing policy stimulus for ancillary services that facilitate water provisioning. For instance, research by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) finds that access to irrigation is limited, even in water-rich states with built irrigation structure, due to poor electricity availability or poor maintenance of irrigation pumps or damaged secondary and tertiary canals etc. Ultimately, if farmers do not have access to the water the investment push fails. Given that approximately 60 percent of the work completed under MGNREGA are water-related, additional funds allocated to the scheme should be used to construct farm ponds in areas where large canals are unviable or difficult to reach.
Budget 2017 has also brought into focus demand side management strategies in the irrigation sector. Agriculture withdraws 80 percent of India’s total water resources. Therefore, more efficient irrigation methods must be adopted, especially in the water scarce regions of the country. The dedicated micro-irrigation fund that will be set up in NABARD with an initial corpus of Rs 5,000 crores to achieve the goal of ‘per drop more crop’ is a positive step, and in alignment to the goals of the National Water Mission that envisages a 20 percent increase in water use efficiency.
Drinking water and sanitation, too, received a boost in terms of financial allocation in this year’s Budget. The National Sample Survey (2012) revealed that among rural households, only 40 percent are connected to sanitation facilities and 46.1 percent have access to drinking water within premises. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) received a further boost in Budget 2017 with a 44 percent increase in the Mission’s budgetary allocation from Rs 11,300 crores to Rs 16,248 crores. SBM - Gramin is expected to allocate resources to connect open-defecation free villages with piped drinking water. Additionally, the National Rural Drinking Water Mission (NRDWM) is expected to direct its efforts in provision of safe drinking water to arsenic and fluoride affected habitations over the next four years. As a single plan for the country may be impractical given geographical complexities, SBM and NRDWM together have created an environment for the development of innovative de-centralised solutions and emergence of local entrepreneurs.
Outlays for river basin management (Namami Gange) increased by 5 percent (Rs 2,250 crores) in Budget 2017. The Ganga basin covers more than a quarter of India’s geographical area; inhabited by over 450 million people, with a majority 60 percent dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. CEEW’s study on climate risk suggests that if global carbon emissions continue to remain high, flooding in the Ganga basin could be six times more frequent, becoming a 1 in 5-year event, over the course of the century. This risk poses a grave danger to agriculture and the livelihoods of millions in the Ganga basin. River action plans pursued by policymakers need to shift their focus from sewage treatment to a more holistic management strategy and also include focus on other river basins. Groundwater, on which more than 60 percent of agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water is dependent, should also be given attention at par with surface water.
The wastewater sector and wetlands protection were two missed opportunities in Budget 2017. CEEW’s research demonstrates that direct benefits through recovered resources from wastewater could make an economically attractive case for the private sector to focus on wastewater management. Though the government has introduced policies such as GoI’s revised (electricity) tariff policy of January 2016 mandating reuse of treated water from sewage treatment plants in nearby thermal power plants, strict implementation is the key. Further, though AMRUT and Smart City missions are likely to spend Rs 9,000 crore over the next year, wetland conservation within these cities has received little attention in the budget.
Budget 2017-18 has brought a lot of positives for the water sector. It holds the potential to lay the foundation for a water secure India that could transform, energise and clean the country in years to come.
(The writers are researchers at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water – an independent not-for-profit policy research organisation based in New Delhi. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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