November 01, 2020
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Turbulent Waters

Why are several ministries including Water Resources and Finance strongly endorsing re-engagement with the World Bank in the full-range of water-related issues?

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Turbulent Waters
Had several ministries including Water Resources and Finance not strongly endorsed re-engagement with the World Bank in the full-range of water-related issues, its report India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future could have been easily ignored. Though the World Bank triggered Delhi’s water privatisation plan has been in hot waters, its lending portfolio imitates the sensex curve. With over four-fold rise in its lending (over the previous three years) to an impressive $ 3.2 billion for 2005-08, the Bank has clearly taken to the steering for driving significant changes in water governance.

Banking upon a set of commissioned studies by a handful of Indian experts, the report concludes that the country needs as much World Bank’s money as its knowledge to build water-secure future. It’s no secret that the apex bank’s knowledge comes in attractive package - buy one get one free. First piece of knowledge: increase per capita water storage from a dismal 200 cubic meters to match that of growing economies like China whose storage is as much as 2500 cubic meters. The only way to do that is to build large dams and extensive irrigation networks. But haven’t this been heard before?

Dissecting the country’s water sector with clinical precision the report unfolds its malignant tissues: endemic corruption, lack of accountability, poor tariff collection and paucity of cash. Using its controversial scissor of reforms, the World Bank advocates a business model built on high-reward/high-risk hydraulic infrastructure that mobilizes public and private financing to ensure efficiency, equity and sustainability in the water sector. Knowing well that water resources is an intensely political process, the report doesn’t miss to hang a carrot: reforms provide returns to politicians who are willing to make changes.

The report and the prescriptions contained therein have been hailed by politicians of every hue. Not without reason though. As fiscal deficit mounts, political leaderships need budgets that could be spent on personnel and on subsidized public services. Though the report has been critical of an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance of existing infrastructure that reflects water machinery’s gross inefficiency and lack of accountability, its prescription for increased lending to rebuild infrastructure to pull this beleaguered machinery out of the current abyss defies logic.

The report seems highly motivated as it acknowledges research that it deems supportive of its prime argument. It conveniently ignores the fact that India is losing over 36 billion cubic meters of existing storage capacity every year due to siltation and associated reasons. The report craftily escapes the unresolved issue of displacement due to submergence of large tracts of inhabited lands. Clearly, in its 60th year of existence the World Bank is reinventing itself to rid past the turbulent history of its presence in India’s water sector thus far.

There is no denying of the fact that water storage facilities need to improve to account for temporal and spatial variations in rainfall pattern in the country. The report does acknowledge that `all water is local and each place is different’ and that `one size will not fit all’ but ends up advocating monoculture of engineering infrastructure that are rarely site-specific. The core of the argument relates to the fact that 50 per cent of precipitation falls in just 15 days and over 90 per cent of river flows occurs in just four months in the country.

There are no two opinions that storage capacity ought to improve in the days ahead. How indeed this is put into practice is the question. Should it be at the cost of displacing millions of poor through submergence of fertile lands or should it be through engagement of the communities in reviving water bodies across the country? Should water continue to be monopolized by few at the cost of large majority of population that is deprived of its legitimate entitlement to water for survival as well as for securing livelihoods?

The report offers a bundle of such self-contradicting arguments. Though it acknowledges that the `era of the individual coping strategies’ has been remarkably successful and that communities are the country’s greatest `assets’, its prescription continues to ignore both. The report argues in favor of reforming the water sector but doesn’t acknowledge the need for institution building at the local level to bring about paradigm shift in water governance. Isn’t hyping India’s Turbulent Water Future serving the hidden agenda of those who gain from the implementation of the crises management strategies?

Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert and is attached with the Delhi-based the Ecological Foundation.

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