Mihir Shah Committee report recommends a paradigm shift in water management

Mihir Shah Committee report recommends a paradigm shift in water management

Against the backdrop of drought that affected most states in the past 2 years, it is essential to take a look at a report on improving water governance in the country, which was submitted to the Ministry of Water Resources in July, 2016. That report, which was prepared by the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) under the chairpersonship of Dr. Mihir Shah, has mentioned that although around Rs. 4 lakh crore was invested in major and medium irrigation projects since Independence, vast quantity of water still do not reach the farmers and the marginalized.

The report entitled A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms (please click here to access) says that the gap between irrigation potential created and the potential utilized is growing. At present, the irrigation potential created in the country is 113 million hectares, whereas the potential utilized is 89 million hectares.

The average cost over-run is as high as 1,382 percent in case of major irrigation projects and 325 percent in case of medium projects.

It is actually groundwater (and neither dams nor water canals), which provides 80 percent of India’s drinking water and nearly two-thirds of country's irrigation needs. Unfortunately, there has been unsustainable use of groundwater due to which roughly 60 percent of districts in India face groundwater over-exploitation and /or serious quality issues.

In order to bridge the growing gap between irrigation potential created (IPC) and irrigation potential utilised (IPU), the report has recommended shifting the focus from construction to management and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure. Among other things, the report asks for making farmers primary stakeholders in managing command areas (like in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh) – Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT). IMT, as suggested by the Committee headed by Mihir Shah, is expected to improve equitable access to water by all farmers (har khet ko paani) and result in 20 percent savings in water use.

The report on improving water governance has suggested that states should only concentrate on technically and financially complex structures, such as main systems up to secondary canals and structures at that level. However it has recommended that tertiary level canals and below, minor structures and field channels should be handed over to Water Users Associations (WUAs) of farmers.

The report says that the country needs to move beyond the approach to water, embodied in techno-centric supply-side interventions implemented top down by fragmented bureaucracies, involving mostly technology, engineering, and public investment in water infrastructure, towards a more people-centred approach to water management that leads to rejuvenation of rivers and aquifers, so that India can sustainably meet the needs of water security of its citizens and move towards comprehensive drought-proofing.

The Committee chaired by Dr. Mihir Shah has given the following rationale for restructuring the CWC and CGWB:

• A paradigm shift is required in both surface and ground water, as also new national challenges in the 21st century, demand major reforms in the CWC and CGWB

• CWC set up in 1945 and CGWB in 1971 have continued unreformed over several decades

• Even as objective conditions on the ground, demands of the economy and society, as also our understanding of water, have all undergone a sea change

• The mandate of CWC and CGWB belongs to an old era when dam construction and tube well drilling was the prime need of the hour

• Capacities and structure reflect that mandate

• It mainly comprise civil engineers and hydro-geologists

• There is very weak presence on the ground in river basins

• There is a need to work closely together within a holistic river basin perspective

• There is a need for greater and more effective presence at river basin level

• CWC and CGWB suffer from a lack of professionals from a large number of disciplines

• The paradigm shift of moving toward Irrigation Management Transfer to ensure har khet ko paani, as also participatory groundwater management to implement National Project on Aquifer Management (NAQUIM), requires professionals from Social Sciences and Management

• If the country wants to tackle demand-side management issues and implement crop water budgeting and improve water use efficiency, it needs professionals from Agronomy

• The country needs professionals from Ecological Economics for an accurate understanding of the value of ecosystem services

• In order to attain the national goals of nirmal dhara (unpolluted flow so that the quality of river waters is not adversely affected by human activities), aviral dhara (continuous flow in time and space including maintenance of connectivity of flow in each river system), swachh kinara (clean and aesthetic river banks), the country needs professionals specializing in River Ecology

• Several state governments testified that huge delays in techno-economic appraisal by CWC had become a matter of concern

• Most large states have developed requisite expertise in the past 2 decades. IIH, Roorkee, CWPRS, Pune, IIT Roorkee, IISc, IITs and RECs have expertise which state governments can avail

• Appraisal can be a demand-based exercise, a partnership between the central and state governments

The Mihir Shah headed panel has recommended that the CWC and CGWB should be restructured and unified to form a new National Water Commission (NWC). It has suggested that:

a) a brand new NWC be established as the nation’s apex facilitation organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance;

b) NWC should be an adjunct office of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, functioning with both full autonomy and requisite accountability;

c) NWC should be headed by a Chief National Water Commissioner, a senior administrator with a stable tenure and with strong background in public and development administration, and should have full time Commissioners representing Hydrology (present Chair, CWC), Hydrogeology (present Chair, CGWB), Hydrometeorology, River Ecology, Ecological Economics, Agronomy (with focus on soil and water) and Participatory Resource Planning & Management;

d) NWC should have strong regional presence in all the major river basins of India;

e) NWC should build, institutionalise and appropriately manage an architecture of partnerships with knowledge institutions and practitioners in the water space, in areas where in-house expertise may be lacking.

According to the report submitted by the Committee on Restructuring the CWC and CGWB, the key mandate and functions of the National Water Commission (NWC) would be to:

• enable and incentivize state governments to implement all irrigation projects in reform mode, with an overarching goal of har khet ko paani and improved water resource management and water use efficiency, not just construction of large scale reservoirs, as the main objective;

• lead the national aquifer mapping and groundwater management programme;

• insulate the agrarian economy and livelihood system from pernicious impacts of drought, flood and climate change and move towards sustainable water security;

• develop a nation-wide, location-specific programme for rejuvenation of India’s rivers to effectively implement the triple mandate of nirmal dhara, aviral dhara, swachh kinara;

• create an effective promotional and regulatory mechanism that finds the right balance between the needs of development and environment, protecting ecological integrity of nation’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers, as well as coastal systems;

• promote cost effective programmes for appropriate treatment, recycling and reuse of urban and industrial waste water;

• develop and implement practical programmes for controlling point and non-point pollution of water bodies, the wetlands and aquifer systems;

• create a transparent, accessible and user-friendly system of data management on water that citizens can fruitfully use while devising solutions to their water problems;

• operate as a world-class knowledge institution available, on demand, for advice to the state governments and other stakeholders, including appraisal of projects, dam safety, interstate and international issues relating to water;

• create world-class institutions for broad-based capacity building of water professionals and knowledge management in water

The Committee has proposed that the NWC should have eight divisions, which are: Irrigation Reform Division; River Rejuvenation Division; Aquifer Mapping and Participatory Ground Water Management Division; Water Security Division; Urban and Industrial Water Division; Water Quality Division; Water Data Management and Transparency Division; and Knowledge Management and Capacity Building Division.


A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms, Report submitted by the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), set up by the Ministry of Water Resources (September 2015 to July 2016), please click here to access

For a science-based transformation of water policy -Mihir Shah, Current Science, Volume 112, Number 1, 10 January, 2017, please click here to access

The Way Forward -Mihir Shah, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. LI No. 52, 24 December, 2016, please click here to access

Smart Water Management -Mihir Shah, Business Today, 15 January, 2017, please click here to access

PRS Report Summary: Restructuring the Central Water Commission and the Central Ground Water Board, 31 August, 2016, please click here to access

Interview with Mihir Shah: Must learn from success stories, break silos, take people along -Amitabh Sinha, 29 August, 2016, The Indian Express, please click here to access

CWC staff slam Mihir Shah panel report on water reforms -Amitabh Sinha, The Indian Express, 26 August, 2016, please click here to access

Mihir Shah, water policy expert and member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, interviewed by Jacob Koshy, The Hindu, 19 August, 2016, please click here to access

Image Courtesy: Himanshu Joshi

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