By Himanshu Thakkar* and Sabita Kaushal**
By law, rivers in India belong to the government. However, the government has no particular agency that governs our rivers. Our constitution or law does not provide any direct protection to rivers. A large number of entities at centre and state level take decisions that affect our rivers, but they do not even seem aware of such impacts. That the decisions and working of a large number of agencies affect the rivers is expected considering the landscape level existence of rivers and society’s wide-ranging needs for water and other services provided by the rivers. But the complete neglect of the rivers is certainly not expected. More importantly, people seem to have no role in governance of our rivers. There seems to be neither an understanding nor a recognition that lives and livelihoods of so many people depend on rivers, nor an understanding as to what is a river and what is its role in the ecosystem in current and future well being of society. These blind spots about our understanding of rivers get reflected in our governance of rivers.
India remains an agrarian country, and our water use practices have prioritized use of water for irrigation. Archaic water laws during the British rule looked at water as a resource to be exploited under the jurisdiction of the government. The 1873 Northern India Canal and Drainage Act, stated “use and control for public purposes of the water of all rivers and streams flowing in natural channels” as a right of the government, without any credible and democratic way of deciding what is public purpose. In the same vein the Madhya Pradesh Irrigation Act of 1931 asserted direct state control over water, which finds an echo even today in the Bihar Irrigation Act, of 1997 that stresses that all rights in surface water vest with the government. In fact, post-colonial water governance did not see any break from the past and essentially the same paradigm prevailing during colonial times continued after independence.
Water in India, as per our constitution is a state (government) subject, and by the same logic water laws in the country too are mostly state-based. Thus, the state has the constitutional power to make laws, to implement and regulate water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and hydropower. However, there is nothing in the constitution or law that shows an understanding of what is a river, what services it provides, or if there is anything worth conserving in rivers. There is no legal protection for rivers in India.
Moreover, as most of the rivers flow through more than one state, rivers become cause of major interstate disputes when they are seen as sites of big dams. Smaller projects are rarely the reason for intractable interstate disputes. Unfortunately, in post-independence India, politicians love big dams, and they are seen as most important, if not the only saleable development projects.
The centre can intervene for any interstate differences by constituting Water Disputes Tribunal for the mediation of water disputes, but only if invited to do so by the state government. It is within the Central government’s powers to regulate and develop inter-state rivers under entry 56 of the constitution, but these powers are rarely used. Entry 56 reads: “Regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest.”
Instead, many different regulatory mechanisms have been harnessed and committees formed under various ministries for water management in interstate river basins.
Let’s take a tour of the various agencies involved in governance of rivers in India.
At the Centre:
Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation:
It is the apex body at the Union level responsible for the country’s water resources, and its functions from the river perspective are:
- Rejuvenation of Ganga River and also National Ganga River Basin Authority
- To resolve differences relating to inter-state rivers
- To oversee implementation of inter-state projects occasionally
- To manage, monitor and sanction funds for centrally funded schemes like Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme, Command Area Development, Rehabilitation of Water Bodies, Bharat Nirman, etc.
- Operation of central network for flood forecasting and warning on interstate rivers (CWC task)
- Preparation of flood control master plans for the Ganga and the Brahmaputra
- Talks and negotiations on river waters with neighbouring countries
- Operation of the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, Ganga Water Treaty with Bangladesh, Mahakali, Kosi, Gandak and other treaties with Nepal, Water Cooperation with Bhutan, Exchange of Data with China under MoU, etc.
There are a plethora of offices/bodies under the water resource ministry, which work under the Ministry’s control. These include the following:
Central Water Commission (CWC): Supposed to be a premier Technical Organization, the CWC is responsible for schemes for control, conservation and utilization of all water resources for various purposes, which include flood control and irrigation, and overall planning and development of river basins. It also monitors the river water quality at 396 stations located in all the major river basins of India. It is responsible for co-ordination with states for establishing River Basin Organisations , like
- Krishna and Godavari Basin Organization, KGBO
- Brahmputra & Barak Basin Organisation (B&BBO)
- Cauvery & Southern River Organisation (CSRO)
- Indus Basin Organisation (IBO)
- Lower Ganga Basin Organisation (LGBO)
- Mahanadi & Eastern River Organisation (MERO)
- Narmada Basin Organisation (NBO)
- Central Monitoring Organisation (Mon-c)
- Narmada & Tapi Basin Organisation (NTBO)
- Upper Ganga Basin Organisation (UGBO)
- Yamuna Basin Organisation (YBO)
This gives a misleading picture that for practically every river basin there is a basin organisation. In reality, review of CWC annual reports show that there is hardly any activity of these organisations, they in any case do not work to protect the rivers.
CWC is enormously powerful and a big engineering bureaucracy that hates any sense of participatory governance and accountability. It works more like a big dam lobby, unfortunately.
Central Ground Water Board (CGWB): A multidisciplinary scientific organization for the scientific and sustainable development and management of India’s ground water resources. A Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) was set up in 1996 through a Supreme Court order with powers under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. On the face of it, CGWB and CGWA may not have any direct role in governance of rivers, the fact is they have a huge role. Firstly, destruction of rivers mean that the groundwater recharge that happens by flowing rivers would stop. CGWB and CGWA should be concerned about this, but have shown no such concern. Secondly, when there is overexploitation of groundwater, it has impact on flow of downstream rivers, particularly in lean season and in low rainfall areas.
Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS): A principal central agency that provides R&D, and deals with research, services and support pertaining to projects on water resources, energy and water borne transport including those related to rivers.
Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CMRS): It deals with field explorations, laboratory investigations and research in the field of geotechnical engineering and civil engineering materials, particularly for construction of river valley projects and safety evaluation of existing dams.
National Water Development Agency (NWDA): Set up in 1981-82, the main task of this organization is to do studies related to inter-linking of rivers. In that sense, it is an anti-river organization. An autonomous society, some of NWDA’s river-related functions include to:
- Carry out detailed surveys about the quantum of water that can be transferred to other basins/States
- Prepare feasibility report of the various components of the scheme relating to Peninsular Rivers development and Himalayan Rivers development
- Prepare detailed project report of river link proposals
- Prepare prefeasibility/feasibility report of the intra-state links
NWDA has not been confident enough to put any of its work in public domain. Some feasibility reports are out following repeated Supreme Court orders in 2002. A perusal of some of these studies shows that it has no concern for the rivers, or the services provided by the rivers. It sees all water flowing to the sea as a waste! Which means rivers are a wasteful resource! In its environment impact assessments or cost benefit analyses , there is no accounting of the services of rivers that would be destroyed if the proposed project is to go ahead.
National Institute of Hydrology (NIH): A “premier” Institute in the area of hydrology and water resources, it aids, promotes and coordinates work in the field of hydrology and water resources development. However, it is not known to stand up or speak up for rivers. Its classification of rivers leaves a lot to be desired. The non-participatory tendencies of NIH were apparent in the way it organised a workshop on Environment Flows in October 2013. NIH did not find it necessary to invite even the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for the workshop! NIH also partnered with CIFRI for a flawed assessment of e-flows for Teesta IV project, among other such studies.
Farakka Barrage Authority: It is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Farakka Barrage Project, (FBP), which regulate the flow of water to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly through the feeder canal to maintain navigability of the Kolkata Port.
National Water Academy: Earlier known as Central Training Unit, it has been established to impart in house training to water resources personnel from government organizations. Its curriculum includes watershed management, flood forecast and management, environmental management for river valley projects and workshop on River Basin Organizations.
Technical Advisory Committee (TAC): The techno-economic appraisal of irrigation, flood control and multipurpose projects proposed by the State/ Central Governments or other organisations is done by TAC of Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, for Irrigation, Flood Control and Multipurpose Projects and thereafter make appropriate recommendation. Once found acceptable by the TAC, it is recommended for investment clearance by the Planning Commission and inclusion in the Five Year Plan/Annual Plan. In the functioning of TAC, lack of transparency, participatory governance is the norm. TAC has no member from outside the government, nor does it put up its agenda or minutes of the meeings in public domain. At the initiative of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), following a letter written to the government in April 2011, minutes of some of the TAC meetings were for the first time put up in public domain, but even that has stopped since July 2012.
Interstate River Basin Boards: For several Inter State Basins, Boards have been set up for co-ordination and implementation and to deal with individual basins/ projects/ interstate disputes. Some of them are listed here:
- Bansagar Control Board for execution of Bansagar Dam on Sone river and connected works
- Betwa River Board for the execution of the Rajghat Dam Project
- Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB), which refers to the reach of Yamuna from its origin at Yamunotri to Okhla Barrage at Delhi and includes all the states in this basin.
- The Brahmaputra Board: Its objective is planning & integrated implementation of measures for control of floods and bank erosion in Brahmaputra and for matters connected therewith
- Narmada Control Authority (NCA): For proper implementation of the decisions and directions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. There are number of supporting statutory mechanisms: Environment Sub-Group of NCA, Rehabilitation Sub-Group of NCA, Review Committee of NCA, and the Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee
- The Tungabhadra Board: Regulates water for irrigation, hydro-power generation and other uses from the Tungabhadra reservoir
- Ganga Flood Conrol Commission has been set up for specific tasks related to floods in the Ganga basin, including coordination with upstream Nepal.
Public Sector Enterprises under Union Ministry of Water Resources:
Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) Limited: Provides consultancy services in Water Resources, Power and Infrastructure Sectors. The shoddy work of WAPCOS in doing environmental impact assessment and cumulative basin level impact assessment has been repeatedly highlighted by SANDRP. WAPCOS is also involved in Water projects that India funds abroad including in Afghanistan, Bhutan, etc. During a recent visit to Bhutan, SANDRP heard similar complaints about shoddy EIAs and over charging by WAPCOS and also about Bhutan government having no option, but to give the work to WAPCOS, since India as a funder was dictating the terms.
National Projects Construction Corporation Limited (NPCC): Carries out infrastructure work and other related activities for development of the nation that includes dam construction
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC):
The nodal agency that plans, promotes, co-ordinates and oversees the implementation of the country’s environmental & forestry policies and programmes, its primary concern is implementation of policies and programmes relating to conserve our natural resources that includes rivers.
The ministry also accords environment and forest clearance to hydropower projects and dams all over India. The Environment Clearnace is given by the ministry for hydropower projects above 50 MW and for irrigation projects with command area above 10 000 ha. For the environment appraisal of these projects, the ministry has set up Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydropower Projects. The functioning of the ministry and EAC on this score is most shoddy, inadequate, inconsistent and far from any concern for rivers. In fact if you pick up Environmental Impact Assessment of any project cleared by the EAC and the ministry, you would not find anything about the value of rivers in any of its reports.
The Forest Department (FD) under MoEF & CC governs rivers that flow through the forests. Since a huge about 23% of land of the country or about 76 million ha of land comes under this department a very large segment of India’s rivers come under the FD. However, there is no evidence of FD taking any action to protect the rivers or aquatic biodiversity. In fact we have been reading the FD proposals for diversion of forest land that come before the Forest Advisory Committee over the years and we see absolutely no concern or even recognition of the impact of such diversions on rivers or aquatic biodiversity, the FD does not even seem to acknowledge the existence of river and aquatic biodiversity.
The Wildlife Department (WLD) under MoEF & CC has powers under the Wildlife Act of 1972 to have their say whenever any activity or development project affects the aquatic life in protected areas or even flows into or out of any protected areas. However there is little evidence to show that WLD has used these powers to protect rivers, flows & aquatic life therein even as projects are well into implementation, without even taking consent of the Chief Wildlife Warden, State Board of Wildlife or National Board of Wildlife.
The MoEF & CC has been sitting for years over a proposal to notify River Regulation Zone for protection so that riverbeds and floodplains are protected.
It is well known how important wetlands are as part of the River Basins. However, the MoEF & CC has shown little genuine action to protect wetlands. Ramsar, International Convention for Protection of wetlands, includes rivers in the definition of the wetlands. India, in spite of being signatories, has excluded rivers from the definition of wetlands. The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 of MoEF & CC are not helpful in protecting our wetlands. India’s wetlands, remain in peril.
National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD): The name is misleading here, as it suggests it works for conservation of rivers, but its only focus is pollution. So either the name is misleading or it reflects poor understanding of the government when they equate river conservation with pollution control work. It is supposed to be governed by National River Conservation Authority, chaired by Prime Minister, but that authority has never met during the 10 years of UPA government and now almost six months of NDA government. This shows how much of a priority rivers are for the government.
Under the MoEF & CC, NRCD works for conservation of rivers, lakes and wetlands through two central schemes:
- National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) : To improve water quality of rivers through implementation of pollution abatement schemes in identified polluted stretches of rivers
- National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA): To conserve aquatic ecosystems (lakes and wetlands)
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB): A statutory organization under MoEF & CC, the CPCB sets standards and regulations for prevention and control of pollution. It also monitors water quality of all important water bodies located on 206 rivers of the country. CPCB, along with state pollution control boards and the whole pollution control machinery were set up following the 1974 water pollution control act. Forty years after setting up of this elaborate bureaucracy, we have not heard of a single success story where this machinery has achieved a clean river. However, there are large number of examples of its failure and the machinery being a den of corruption. The Supreme Court of India on October 29, 2014 said: “This is an institutional failure and your story is a complete story of failure, frustration and disaster.”
National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA): Set up in 2009 through a notification under Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, its functions include development of a Ganga River Basin Management Plan, regulation of activities aimed at prevention, control and abatement of pollution, to maintain water flow and quality and to take measures relevant to the river ecology in the Ganga basin states. So far there has been absoltely no sign of impact of functioning of this authority on the Ganga. The authority met just three times during first five years of its existence and frustrated independent members twice resigned. The NDA government at the centre that took office in May 2014 reconstituted it without either public process or even public information, in fact even the earlier members did not know they have been removed!
Water Quality Assessment Authority: Established under EPA 1986 in 2001, WQAA’s functions include issuing direction and taking measures on the following matters:
- Investigate and carry out research on problems of water pollution
- Prepare manuals, codes or guides to prevent, control and for abatement of water pollution
- Direct agencies to take measures to restore water quality of the river / water bodies
- Restrict water abstraction of treated sewage / trade effluent on land, rivers and other water bodies to mitigate crisis of water quality
- Maintain minimum discharge for sustenance of aquatic life forms in riverine system
- Utilize self-assimilation capacities at the critical river stretches to minimise cost of effluent treatment
- Review the status of quality of national water resources (both surface water & ground water) and identify “Hot Spots” for taking necessary actions
It is amazing that more than 13 years after constitution of WQAA, we see no sign of its functioning either on the state of our rivers or in governance of our rivers.
Ministry of Power(MoP)
MoP is primarily responsible for the development of electrical energy in the country and all matters relating to hydro-electric power (except small/mini/micro hydel projects of and below 25 MW capacity). It also deals with matters relating to these agencies:
Central Electricity Authority: CEA accords techno-economic clearance to hydropower projects under Electricity Act 2003. The Section 8(2) of the Act states, “The (Central Electricity) Authority shall, before concurring in any (hydropower) scheme submitted to it under sub-section (1) have particular regard to, whether or not in its opinion,- (a) the proposed river-works will prejudice the prospects for the best ultimate development of the river or its tributaries for power generation, consistent with the requirements of drinking water, irrigation, navigation, flood-control, or other public purposes, and for this purpose the Authority shall satisfy itself, after consultation with the State Government, the Central Government, or such other agencies as it may deem appropriate, that an adequate study has been made of the optimum location of dams and other river-works”.
This provision could have been used for the protection of rivers, since it requires the CEA to give concurrence to hydro-projects only after satisfying that the proposal is optimum with respect to all other uses of the rivers. Unfortunately, as the SANDRP found out through applications under the Right to Information Act, while giving concurrence to hydropower schemes under this Act, the CEA consults only two organizations, namely the Geological Society of India (GSI) and the Central Water Commission (CWC). GSI and CWC evaluate the scheme from specific parameters of geology and hydrology, but do not look at basin wide issues as required under the Act. The CEA itself is not capable of ensuring basin wide optimization that the Act requires, nor does it consult the concerned stakeholders. Thus, the Act is not being followed.
Then there are several authorities which are involved in sanctioning, developing, regulating, financing and operating hydropower projects, with direct impact on rivers. These are:
- The Damodar Valley Corporation
- The Bhakra Beas Management Board (except matters relating to irrigation)
- National Thermal Power Corporation Limited
- National Hydro-electric Power Corporation Limited
- North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited
- Tehri Hydro Development Corporation
- Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.
- Power Grid Corporation of India Limited
- Power Finance Corporation Limited
- State electricity regulatory commissions
Ministry of Agriculture (MoA)
Agriculture remains the biggest user of water in India. The MoA is the apex body for formulation and administration of the rules, regulations and laws relating to agriculture in India; its portfolio also includes research on matters relating to irrigation, flood control, anti-water-logging, drainage, soil and water conservation, watershed development and anti-erosion.
Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries: This department under MoA also looks at riverine fisheries on which more than 10 million Indians depend directly. The department or corresponding state fisheries departments in respective states have absolutely no interest in welfare of rivers, despite the fact that damming and pollution is directly affecting fish yield. We looked at the way how Maharashtra Fisheries Department functions vis-a-vis rivers and riverine fisheries and we were clearly told that rivers are not a part of their jurisdiction!
Department of Agriculture and Cooperation: It focuses on sustaining the current momentum by stabilizing food grain production to ensure food security. Its water related agenda includes increased availability of irrigation water leading to increase in the irrigated area, farm productivity and crop production.
Soil and Land Use Survey of India (SLUSI), a pivotal organisation under it carries out survey and soil conservation activities for catchment of river valley projects & flood prone rivers for demarcation of watersheds.
Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE): It coordinates and promotes agricultural research and education.
Ministry of Rural Development:
Though this nodal Ministry is mainly responsible for most of the development and welfare activities in the rural areas, water supply and sanitation schemes involve the rivers as water source or affects rivers directly or indirectly. In some areas, projects involve rivers, as in the case of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) in Madhya Pradesh, which was to revive a river in Khargone district, and increase surface flows.
Ministry of Urban Development:
The apex body for formulation and administration of the rules and regulations and laws relating to the housing and urban development, of which urban water supply and sanitation is an essential division. Increasingly, Urban areas are dependent for its water sources on rivers from farther and farther areas and they are invariably dumping mostly untreated sewage and even solid waste into the nearby rivers without any impunity. Urban areas are also destroying the water bodies in the cities and encroaching on the floodplains and even riverbeds.
National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI):
NEERI conducts research and innovations in environmental science and engineering to help find solutions to environmental pollution and natural resource problems. It has 5 zonal laboratories at Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. NEERI is also into the Environmental Impact Assessment business and some of the EIAs it has done of hydropoer projects are pretty shoddy.
State Level Agencies:
As per India’s constitution, water remains a state subject and hence state government role in the fate of rivers is also very crucial. At each state level, the involved agencies related to Rivers include the following:
Environment Department: Responsibility includes environment protection, pollution monitoring, control abatement and awareness. The department is also involved in regulating and sanctioning hydropower projects of 25-50 MW capacity and also smaller irrigation projects through State Environment Impact Assessment Agency and State Environment Appraisal Agency.
State Pollution Control Boards: SPCBs have been set up in all states under the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974. At the State level, this board is responsible for implementation of legislations relating to prevention & control of environmental pollution, and conservation of natural resources. The SPCBs are also required to give consent to establish and consent to operate for all the major projects, including dams and hydropower projects. They also conduct public hearings required under the EIA notification of Sept 2006. As mentioned earlier, we do not see a success story in functioning of any SPCB in either achieving a clean river or protection of rivers.
Water Resources (or Irrigation) Department: Aim is to regulate water resources within the State (e.g. Department of Irrigation, Government of Punjab) as per State Water Policy and to facilitate & ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilization of water resources. Some special state level agencies include the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority. Besides these, there areIrrigation Development Corporations, to accelerate the completion of irrigation projects in Maharashtra State. Such corporations have been set up in a number of states including Karnataka, Gujarat, among others.
Power Department: Responsible for generation, transmission, distribution and despatching of electric power supply, including hydropower, for example Energy & Power Department of Sikkim and Power & Electricity Department, Mizoram. Some states have also set up state level corporations for hydropower development (e.g. Himachal Pradesh Power Development Corporation).
Judiciary, Media, Religion, Civil Society and Society at large: All these agencies also have a big role in deciding the fate of our rivers and need to play that role effectively. Unfortunately, considering the state of our rivers, we can conclude that inspite of some notable exceptions in case of all these, in general, we have not succeedded in protecting our rivers.
As far as role of political parties & leaders are concerned, we do not seem to have even any positive exceptions in terms of achieving better state of our rivers.
Some rare bright lights in this scenario, apart from community efforts at coordination, communication and governance include the WRIS (Water Resources Information System of India), a joint venture between MoWR and ISRO. The site is indeed a useful reference for information about many basins in the country (although the claimed focus is on “Water Resources” and not rivers!). It also includes Watershed Atlas, River Basin Atlas of the country and individual basin profiles which look comprehensive.
Rivers are more than just a water source. We have a complex network of river systems in the country. The myriad government agencies listed here majorly affect rivers, and a close co ordination and involvement between these institutions is essential to implement any river policy or project to ensure continued existence and sustenance of rivers. River management and their judicious use encompasses a whole lot of diverse characteristics and these fall under the jurisdiction of many of the above mentioned agencies, who need to work in a together in a cohesive manner. River governance needs to be democratic and communities should have a key role in informed, participatory decision making. This is certainly possible if there is a will.
Even though humans have built homes and civilizations along river banks since time immemorial, and water has been vital for life and growth, used for drinking, irrigation, transportation and energy sources, our society and governance system seem to have failed to understand the true value of our rivers. Today, these rivers that are our lifeline seem to be more often misused than used.
The fact that a large number of entities are involved in governing the fate of the rivers should not be such a problem as long as each of them is aware that their decisions are affecting the fate of the rivers and that they are involved in governing the rivers. The second major problem is that there are no river-specific, legally-empowered coordinating agency that will ensure that rivers continue to survive and exist in a healthy state. In effect, while the government has monopoly over rivers, it is not bothered to ensure continued and healthy existence for rivers.
We may have created these techno-legal frameworks for our shortsighted priorities, but what would be a first step of help for rivers is recognition of rivers, its services, needs for their continued and sustained existence and legal protection for the same. A legally empowered and participatory coordination mechanism that is willing to understand and speak from the rivers perspective, for each river could also help. An agency that will understand and appreciate rivers, rather than see it as a simple linear source of water, power or transport system.
Even though the new NDA government at the centre since May 2014 has claimed that river rejuvenation is its priority, we see that the government so far has only indulged in tokenism and symbolism. On the contrary, in terms of deeds a large number of their actions are against the interest of sustained existence of rivers.