The Ganga, viewed from Delhi

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

Delhi lifts 100 million gallons a day from the Ganga river. Unable to meet the growing demand, the Delhi Jal Board plans to increase water tariffs, cut down on operational losses and restrict demand. But is this the best solution for Delhi's water woes?

India is incomplete without reference to the Ganga . The story of the Ganga from source to sea, wrote India 's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Discovery of India, from old times to new, is the story of India 's civilisation and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of the richness and fulfilment of life as well as its denial and renunciation. Nehru's writings echoed the feelings of most Indians for whom the Ganga holds a special significance, from birth until death.

Paradox of purity
More than the source of life, the Ganga enjoys a mystical presence in every Indian's psyche. Myth has it that the goddess Ganga descended to earth in the form of a river, to purify the souls of the 60,000 sons of the ancient ruler King Sagara, who had been burned to ashes by an enraged ascetic. Today, the river symbolises purification to millions of Hindus the world over who believe that drinking or bathing in its waters will lead to moksha, or salvation.

If Ganga originally came down to bring salvation to Sagara's sons, the poor goddess has ended up with a burden 10,000 times greater than she bargained for. Supporting a staggering 440 million people along its 2,525 km course, the Ganga forms the most populous river basin in the world, with over 1,000 people per square kilometre. T he Ganga basin is the largest in the country, occupying about one-fourth of the total land area.

Technically, the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin is considered one basin. But neighbouring Bangladesh doesn't share this view: for them these are three basins that have a common terminus. Despite differences in perception, the basins of these three major Himalayan rivers constitute South Asia 's so-called 'poverty square', which has a total catchment area of 1,376 million square kilometres. More people live in these basins than in all of sub-Saharan Africa , co-existing with severe water quality problems amidst a changing spectre of abundance and scarcity.

The Ganga basin distinguishes itself as the world's largest river basin as well as its most populous. However, this distinction only adds up to trouble for the river's waters. Within India itself there are over 692 cities and towns, and thousands of villages, along the Ganga 's banks, depositing nearly all their sewage -- more than 1.5 billion litres a day -- directly into the river. Industrial discharge is no less significant.

Of its tributaries, the river Yamuna is perhaps the most polluted, carrying the entire sewage flow of Delhi -- an estimated 350 million litres every day. The Ganga itself carries an additional 260 million litres of industrial waste from the hundreds of factories along its banks. All this waste enters the river largely untreated. To the raw sewage and factory effluents is added the runoff from over 6 million tonnes of chemical fertilisers and some 9,000 tonnes of pesticides applied by farmers in the fertile Indo-Gangetic plain.

This incredible pollution load notwithstanding, the Ganga serves as the final resting place for thousands of Hindus, whose cremated remains or half-burned corpses are put into the river for spiritual rebirth.

The result is deeply ironic; this ancient symbol of purity and cleansing has become a great open sewer along much of its length. When the 15 th-century poet Kabir wrote of the Ganga , "Hell flows along that river, with rotten men and beasts," few would have believed that his impious lament would one day prove so prophetic.

Under the 21st century's pressures of burgeoning population and industrial growth, the Ganga 's incredible cleansing capacity seems to be coming to an end. Today, in this basin of over half-a-billion souls, purification and pollution swim together in unholy wedlock.

Pressures of population
An estimated 43% of India 's population lives in the Ganga basin and is dependant, either directly or indirectly, on the river. Both in terms of population and catchment area, Uttar Pradesh (including Uttaranchal) contributes a significant share of the total. Whether or not that has any bearing on proportionate share of the Ganga 's waters remains doubtful. But it is clear that water share is a direct reflection of the political power exerted by stakeholders!

The Ganga basin
State Share of catchment and population in the Ganga basin


Population 2001 Population 2051
(% of total) (in millions)
Uttar Pradesh (undivided) 34.2 174.6 337.0
Madhya Pradesh 23.1 60.0 100.0
Bihar (undivided) 109.8 109.8 188.0
Rajasthan 13.0 56.0 80.0
West Bengal 8.3 80.2 121.9
Punjab and Haryana 4.0 35.0 55.0
Himachal Pradesh 0.5 6.0 8.0
Delhi 0.2 13.8 25.0
Source: India 's Water Wealth; Census 2001; standard projections

Although Delhi contributes the least to the Ganga 's flow, its extraction from the river is nevertheless growing. In the 1960s, when Delhi 's population was around 3 million, the Ganga was more a place of pilgrimage. An increase in the city's population over the last few decades has brought about a significant change in that perception. For today's national capital region, the Ganga is a reservoir from which to extract water to meet the city's increasing potable and industrial water demands.

Unable to meet these demands from existing sources, including the river Yamuna, Delhi now imports water from the Ganga to cover the shortfall in city supply. According to Census 2001 figures, Delhi ferries water from the upper Ganga canal via a pipeline from Murad Nagar in Uttar Pradesh. This amounts to 100 million gallons per day, or 180 million cubic metres per year. Since the water comes via pipeline there is negligible evaporation loss. This is significant as losses in the canal transfer of water to Delhi from the Bhakra system are as high as 30%.

Delhi 's current shortfall in supply is estimated at around 2,000 million litres a day. However this figure, which according to the Delhi Jal (Water) Board is an accurate assessment of the city's "lack of water", should be under scrutiny considering the high percentage of leakage (at least 30-35%) in the delivery network and significantly high proportion of evaporation loss (estimated at 30%) in surface water transfer. Tragically, inefficiencies in the delivery system have not only been underplayed but are often taken for granted.

Conversely, the shortfall in supply that the Delhi Jal Board considers an accurate assessment is met through mass water transfers rather than improving the efficiency of the delivery and recovery system. Even if delivery inefficiencies are ignored, the shortfall itself presents an unrealistic picture of supply, as there is gross unevenness in the distribution of water in Delhi . A report reveals that the outskirt regions of Mehrauli and Nerala survive on 30 litres of daily per capita supply, whereas Lutyen's Delhi gets as much as 462 litres of water.

Even if an average recommended per capita daily supply of 150 litres were to be ensured for the entire population of Delhi , the shortfall would more than double in the present context. Therefore, even if the present shortfall is covered through the diversion of water from the Ganga , the city will be short in supply should the per capita yardstick be applied across various regions of the capital. Whatever the consideration, potable water is likely to be in short supply in the coming years, in the wake of the projected population growth in the city. With demand expected to double with the near-doubling of population in the next 50 years, and with most present sources already milked to capacity, the onus will be on the Ganga to sustain water supplies.

Sourcing Delhi 's water
Source Current supply (mgd) for 13.8 million Future withdrawal for 25 million in 2051
Yamuna 210 Already fully extracted
Ganga 100 A potential future resource
Bhakra storage 200 Punjab is opposed to water transfer
Government tubewells 120 Groundwater is already critical
Private tubewells 274 Legislation restricts withdrawal
Total 904  

Already, a project to enhance Delhi 's current water withdrawal from the Ganga is under construction. The project is designed to transfer 635 million litres of water every day from the upper Ganga canal, one of the oldest irrigation canals for the entire western Uttar Pradesh. However, this project may cover only one-third of the capital's current water shortfall. With no long-term plans in the offing, the future demand-supply situation of potable water may drive Delhi to virtual urban genocide.

Delhi 's water demand is a factor of its numbers as well as the improving economic status of its increasing populace. A survey conducted by India Today indicates that Delhi 's per capita annual income has shown an upward climb. At Rs 26,616 (USD 605) per capita per annum, a growth rate of 3.35% during the 1990s may indeed play a crucial role in enhancing demand for water by improving living standards. Growing economies are known to place demands on resources, water being the key resource.

How this rising demand is met or rationalised is a matter of serious conjecture. Whether or not tariff increases should be used to rationalise demand is under serious examination. Unable to meet the growing demand or, alternatively, control the wasteful consumption of water, the Delhi Jal Board has already made plans to increase water tariffs, cut down on operational losses and restrict demand. But will curtailing demand have a positive impact on equitable distribution?

Experts have already expressed doubts over curtailing demand by revising water tariffs. Though a two-part tariff and a 'lifeline' tariff are being proposed to enhance revenue, 1,600 unauthorised colonies and 1,100 slums will not be contributing, as these have yet to be covered by the piped water network. Even if covered, will the poor and the underprivileged pay for the 'formal' supply? Or will they continue to rely on 'informal' extraction from the city's supply?

Needless to say, Delhi presents an inequitable model of water distribution that is loaded in favour of the privileged. At the cost of improving tariff collection and enhancing delivery efficiency, the Delhi Jal Board is proposing better services at higher cost to the already serviced population. While it debars people from digging new groundwater wells in south Delhi , it is studying the feasibility of a 24x7 supply system in some areas of the city. This inequity in supply is a sure recipe for social unrest.

Rising demand notwithstanding, attention is being diverted from the core issue of inefficiency to an exaggerated water-scarce scenario. While the issue of mass transfers from the Ganga basin features heavily in all water-related discussions, the issue of cutting down on potable water wastage (approximately 30% of the entire supply, or an estimated 195 million gallons a day) to flush out human waste rarely gets the prominence it deserves. Delhi 's supply and demand management is in murky waters, and until the issue gets dispassionately discussed it will continue to exert pressure on resources that the capital city may not have any legitimate rights over!

Pushing out the plough
How Delhi handles its water demand will have serious implications for the rest of the country. When some 5,000 farmers from western Uttar Pradesh gathered at Murad Nagar on August 9, 2002 , to protest the unilateral decision to transfer Ganga water to the capital city, it became clear that Delhi 's approach to handling its water crisis had triggered a hitherto lesser-known rural-urban divide.

The farmers who gathered in the village of Bhanera were not bothered about which company was awarded the contract to execute the project. They were worried because a trend was being set to divert irrigation water towards human consumption. Their major concern was that any diversion from the upper Ganga canal, carrying 10,500 cusecs of Ganga water, would impact its command area of 9.3 lakh hectares in western Uttar Pradesh.

The daily diversion of 635 million litres of water would result in a critical reduction in food crop production in the region. Estimates by the Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology indicate that the proposed diversion of water would translate to a net annual loss of 1.4 million tonnes of crop harvest. In the context of meeting food security for a rising population, this projected annual loss in crop harvest could indeed prove crucial. So, the key question is: Should irrigation efficiency be improved to meet the inefficiently managed urban water demand?

The agrarian boom triggered by runaway growth in tubewell irrigation in western Uttar Pradesh and the adjoining states of Haryana and Punjab , has been subject to receding water tables due to overdraft, forcing farmers to depend more on surface irrigation projects. Consequently, the much publicised ' Ganga : the perpetual water machine' (meaning, groundwater recharge in the basin exceeds withdrawal) seems to have outlived its relevance in western regions of the Ganga basin.

The Ganga basin has long been considered a region where judicious pumping of groundwater is balanced by the corresponding recharge of aquifers. While that may still be relevant in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar , the western part of the basin has been stretched beyond its limits. Through private tubewells, groundwater irrigates close to 70% of arable land in Uttar Pradesh; canal irrigation remains the mainstay of small and marginal farmers in over 2.9 million hectares.

Although reasonably reliable, groundwater extraction is proving expensive as water tables drop in western regions of the Ganga basin. Consequently, small and marginal farmers depend either on canal waters or the burgeoning water market. Recent research stresses the development of groundwater economies in the basin for efficient utilisation, though the rate of aquifer recharge in the Ganga basin by the surface flow of the river and its tributaries has yet to be scientifically studied.

Interestingly, Punjab has learnt significant lessons from the overexploitation of water, both surface and ground. It is now encouraging farmers to use water more efficiently through crop diversification. Some 90,000 hectares of land have been diverted from water-guzzling rice-wheat rotation to less water consuming crops. In addition to saving the soil from waterlogging and over-extraction, the water saved can be diverted to other productive uses.

Though it will be some time before the results of this significant shift are known, crop diversification does offer a potent solution to rationalising demand for irrigation on the one hand and meeting competing human demands on the other. However, whether or not water-use efficiency -- more crops per drop -- is given preference in endowed regions of the basin remains a matter for conjecture.

One thing is undoubtedly clear. Farmers are becoming increasingly aware of the value of water in the face of scarcity and emerging forms of water governance. Consequently, they see any diversion of their legitimate share as an infringement on their traditional rights over water. With more water diversion envisaged to meet the growing demand for potable water in Delhi and other cities in the Ganga basin, the battle lines between farmers and urban consumers have been drawn.

Perils of privatisation
If farmer unrest is beginning to be felt around Delhi , the internal calm within the city is an uneasy one. Delhi 's water shortage is encouraging the privatisation of water, both for production as well as for distribution. With mass water transfers becoming an accepted reality, urban centres are expanding without any thought being given to proximity to a water source. It might surprise many that the much-publicised Dwarka township in southwest Delhi , expected to accommodate some 1.4 million people, has been planned without any consideration to a water source. So has been the case in most of the Ganga basin.

No wonder then that the Delhi government invited private parties to look at the possibility of providing water to the whole of Dwarka through a private contract. However, due to the lack of reliable information on the area's groundwater potential, the approached private party backed out.

Such omissions on the part of the planners put undue pressure on the Delhi Jal Board, which is left with little choice but to seek private sector involvement in water management.

To wriggle out of the situation, the board is advocating rooftop rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge. Studies indicate that the annual recharge potential, whether harvested over a roof or underground, is no more than 150 million cubic metres, against annual groundwater extraction of 450 million cubic metres. So, even in the best of situations, rainwater harvesting will be unable to compensate for excessive groundwater extraction. The Delhi Jal Board is aware of the problem, but has no long-term plans to solve it. Instead, it is considering the option of mass transfer of water through private sector engagement.

Another reason why water transfer from the upper Ganga canal is being contested is because of the direct involvement of a multinational company, under a 10-year BOT (build-operate-transfer) contract.

The fact that Delhi 's water shortage is encouraging the privatisation of Ganga waters is causing concern in many quarters. The Ganga evokes the popular sentiment, hence the slogan: 'Mother Ganga is not for sale'. Activists see a serious threat to the sovereignty of the country's natural resources.

There is something seriously amiss in the manner in which the water sector functions. Mismanagement and poor cost recovery have made the Delhi Jal Board poorer by all standards. Against an annual spending of US$ 125 million, the board is able to recover only about US$ 48 million. Such a loss-making public water utility could find it hard to sustain itself when a cash-strapped government stops subsidising it.

The contract to lay a giant 3.25-metre-diametre pipeline to bring water from the river Ganga to the Sonia Vihar Water Treatment Plant in east Delhi is being seen as the emerging spectre of privatisation. The project has been contracted out to Suez-Ondeo Degremont of France by the government of Delhi , at a cost of US$ 50 million. While Delhites are on the verge of a tariff revision to recover losses as well as rising costs, farmers in western Uttar Pradesh are likely to lose out on seepage from the canals, which are being lined to bring about greater efficiency in the system.

The inevitability of privatisation notwithstanding, the fact that it is being pushed through without taking the people into confidence makes the whole deal look dubious. Already, doubts about the manner in which contracts are being awarded have surfaced in the media. The tragedy is that as scarcity becomes critical, communities are driven further away from playing any major role in water governance. The inevitability of water supply privatisation in the city is brewing into a controversy that will blow up in the coming years.

Plundering the pious
Over-dependence on the Ganga to meet Delhi 's future water demands could run into rough weather if the present snowline reduction trend in the Garhwal Himalaya is any indication. Over the past 40 years, the Gangotri glacier has retreated up the valley by 1.25 km. In the last 200 years, the most watched glacier in India and the source of the mighty Ganga has lost over 2 kilometres of its effective length.

Researchers at the Geological Survey of India and Garhwal University say if you are lucky during a typical summer day you can hear the sound of huge blocks of ice detaching from the main body of the glacial cave. This, researchers say, is the sound of climate changing that often gets drowned in the gurgle and babble that builds up to a crescendo as water cascades down the glacier's snout.

Glacier's plight
Glacier Period Snout retreat (m) Average retreat (m/y)
Gangotri 1977-1990 364 28.0
Pindari 1845-1966 2,840 135.2
Milan 1909-1984 990 13.2
Ponting 1906-1957 262 5.1
Source: Dr A K Naithani, Garhwal University , Srinagar (Uttaranchal)

The Gangotri, one of the largest Himalayan glaciers, seems to be on the verge of extinction. Gaumukh's retreat, the Gangotri's snout from where the river Bhagirathi (that becomes the Ganga once it enters the plains) originates, is significant given the fact that during the last phase of glacier advance, some 200-300 years ago, the glacier receded 2 kilometres beyond the present snout. The pace of recession has increased during the past four decades.

Gaumukh, with its 35-metre-wide opening at the snout, presents one of the most amazing spectacles of nature's creativity, one that attracts thousands of pilgrims, tourists and mountaineers each year. Perched at 4,120 metres above sea level, the glacier and its mystical snout hold a special spiritual significance for millions of people on the sub-continent.

But, going by what they have observed since 1996, researchers are worried about the future of this spectacle. After analysing data from the past 61 years, and monitoring the snout since 1996, it was concluded that not only the snout but the entire 30.2-km-long glacier itself had retreated by about a kilometre over the past three decades, compared to 2 kilometres in the last 200 years.

Equally alarming is the fact that other important glaciers -- Chaturangi and Meru -- that feed into the river have also retreated by over 250 metres to 1.75 km during the same period. Interestingly, Gangotri and its associated glaciers could be following the global trend of shrinking ice caps. The Pindari, Milan and Ponting glaciers in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalaya are also shrinking.

The Delhi government and the newly formed state government in Dehra Dun have yet to wake up to this imminent threat. Conversely, the approach has been to contribute to nature's fury by bringing in man-made developmental interventions in the form of hydroelectric power projects in the Himalaya.

Milking power
Project River Capacity (MW) Status
Maneri Bhali-1 Bhagirathi 90 Completed
Tehri Stage-1 Bhagirathi 1,000 Nearing completion
Tehri Pump Storage Bhagirathi 1,000 Under construction
Koteshwar Bhagirathi 400 Progressing
Maneri Bhali-2 Bhagirathi 304 Progressing
Bharon Ghati 1 and 2 Bhagirathi 524 Proposed
Loharinagpala Bhagirathi 620 Proposed
Palamaneri Bhagirathi 460 Proposed
Vishnu Prayag Alaknanda 400 Proposed
Srinagar Alaknanda 330 Proposed

Following large-scale infrastructure development along the Bhagirathi and its tributary the Alaknanda, the number of landslides in the region has increased. The vulnerability of mountain slopes has been enhanced by such interventions. Not only does the rivers' silt load increase due to landslides, the active life of water reservoirs has shown a significant decline. The government so far hasn't displayed any seriousness in addressing the impending disaster.

The storage and runoff river projects in the mountains impact the flow regime of rivers and their groundwater dynamics. Critically, both factors reduce flow in the Ganga ; many tributaries and marginal rivers may virtually dry up. The fact that attention has shifted to the main river leaves many marginal rivers and small tributaries high and dry.

Promoting policies
Delhi 's relationship with the Ganga exists at the policy level too. At the launch of the National Water Policy 2002, the Indian prime minister said: "The policy should recognise that the community is the rightful custodian of water. Exclusive control by the government machinery...cannot help us to make the paradigm shift to participation, essentially local management of water resources."

The prime minister went further in sending out a powerful message that harnessing every drop of rainwater was a national priority, and that emphasis must be placed on localised, decentralised harnessing of water resources. However, much of what happened following the adoption of the water policy is indication enough that the prime minister's words find little place in the 'top-down' planning approach advocated in the policy.

The present policy has been a distinct departure from the 'pious declaration of intent' of the 1987 Water Policy, exposing the usual secretiveness of governments and their reluctance to share documents or hold consultations with people and outside institutions. No wonder the policy document presents a bundle of contradictions in what it intends to say and what can actually be deduced from it.

The critical question is whether or not the new policy, or actions thereof, will contribute significantly to the current malaise in the water sector. If use of the terms 'privatisation' and 'projects' in the policy document are anything to go by, the policy may end up further aggravating the situation. Isn't it a fact that at around the time the policy was being framed, a stretch of the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh was being handed over to a private company?

Should we be surprised then by the privatisation of transfer and treatment of water from the Ganga to Delhi ? Given the fact that privatisation has indeed been reflected in the policy statement, the issue at stake is whether it can be contested within the legal framework of water ownership and rights.

Since policies take time to evolve -- it was 15 years before the previous water policy was reworked -- it may be critical to examine some of the implications.

While the 1987 policy talked about planning on the basis of a hydrological unit such as a basin or a sub-basin, the present one emphasises 'projects' without any reference to hydrological units. This departure rationalises many of the current initiatives that are justified as 'projects', and as hydrological units have not been stressed in the current policy, the mass transfer of water gets easily legitimised. No wonder inter-basin transfer is a reality, with its mega-version of interlinking rivers on the cards.

The new water policy gives the impression that it is greatly influenced by the dominant policies of international organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that lay emphasis on full cost recovery on the one hand, and reduced public control over resources on the other. The proposed tariff revisions and on-going privatisation in Delhi are clear indications of the shape of things to come.

In the emerging water scarcity scenario the central issue remains that of redefining water governance. Unless alternative institutional and policy arrangements are examined, the situation is only going to become worse. In the context of groundwater, the real issue is creating management principles that address ecological, equity and sustainability concerns.

In 1996, alarmed by widespread groundwater depletion, the Supreme Court, in a momentous judgment, empowered the Central Groundwater Board as the Central Groundwater Authority charged with the task of controlling groundwater depletion. Eight years on, nothing has changed beyond the launch of a limited regulatory programme in the union territory of Delhi . Lack of operational bureaucracy has hindered the implementation of these regulations.

Further, there is a need to identify and strengthen local institutions that ensure equitable and sustainable use of water within the ecological confines. Unless institutional reforms are carefully handled to determine differential water pricing and promote decentralised water conservation, the present and emerging situation of water scarcity and the conflicts brewing therein will never be resolved.

Delayed promises
Although of immense cultural significance, the Ganga continues to be viewed entirely from a quantity-delivery perspective. Water policies, if any, have only presented a broad framework that has not necessarily influenced implementation on the ground. The conflict situation brewing in the Ganga basin has its roots in the absence of a basin-wide policy. Ten Five-Year Plans have gone by, but water resources management continues to centre on promoting engineering solutions to meet demand on the basis of available quantity.

'Basin planning' is an old idea that has hardly been practised in India . Even the 1987 Water Policy emphasised planning at the basin or sub-basin level. But the states were resistant to the idea because most rivers are inter-state, and the creation of a basin authority would essentially usurp the constitutional right of the state over stretches of rivers within their territory. The Ganga Basin Master Plan was one such attempt that was scuttled by states involved in the basin. The plan was neither inter-disciplinary nor a perfect effort at planning at the basin level. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction that, if adopted, could have made basin planning the tool for overall water management. Further, it is said that the plan was kept under lock and key because of certain negotiations with Bangladesh . While there is no Ganga Basin Authority, there is a Ganga Flood Control Commission (with its headquarters in Patna ) that has been charged with the responsibility of conducting basin-wide studies with the objective of managing floods.

However, at the core of the issue is a tug-of-war between the water bureaucracy at the central government level and corresponding departments at the state level, with the former trying to enlarge its role and the latter trying to whittle it down. Water Policy 2002 is a clear reflection of this. Even though decentralisation was constitutionally mandated in the form of the 73rd and 74th amendments that give powers to panchayats and municipalities, the water policy reflected further centralisation. Interestingly, even the states did not question the gross neglect of this third tier of democracy in managing water resources.

Dissatisfaction has often been expressed with the existing structure of entries relating to water in the Constitution. Given the nature, extent and uncertain future of inter-state disputes relating to the sharing of river waters, it has often been argued that water should feature in the concurrent list of the Constitution. However, such an amendment would be very difficult given the nature of coalition politics. Though the Centre can exercise its power, under entry 56 in the Union list, to legislate on water in the event of such a dispute, it hasn't had the political will to exercise it even once.

Most rivers being inter-state in nature, river water sharing is becoming more and more contentious with the Ganga being no exception. Inter-state disputes have been further fuelled by the July 2004 enactment of the Punjab Termination of Agreements Bill, 2004, that annuls all previous water sharing agreements involving Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Though Haryana and Rajasthan have taken the issue to the Supreme Court for their share of the Ravi-Beas waters, the matter may prompt other donor states to resort to similar legislative tactics!

The story doesn't end here. To put pressure on Delhi to get its act together, Haryana has threatened to divert water from the Yamuna much before it enters the country's capital. Whether or not this actually happens will be apparent in the months and years ahead. It is evident that the issue of river water sharing is much more serious than it appears on paper.

The water bureaucracy at the Centre has been caught unawares. Worse, it still does not see the threats being precipitated by its inaction. Even now it is seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. The Indian Parliament enacted the River Boards Act as early as 1956 to pre-empt such a possibility. However, the Act has remained a dead letter, as no river board of any kind has been established under it. The Brahmaputra River Board was established under a separate enactment. That too has been largely ineffective.

Although legal tools do exist, the political will to implement them remains elusive. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956, amended in 1986, empowers the Centre to resolve inter-state river water sharing disputes. Again, such provisions are viewed within the narrow domain of quantity-delivery. Given the fact that demand for water is fast outpacing supply, alongside a changing flow-regime pattern in all our major rivers, the policies to meet these growing challenges are found wanting.

Instead of a more holistic policy, the central government has proposed interlinking India 's Himalayan rivers with its peninsular rivers. Notwithstanding existing and emerging inter-state water sharing disputes, this gigantic scheme was proposed without taking into account the constitutional provision of water being a state subject. A subsequent change in government at the Centre in May 2004 diluted the vigour with which the proposal was being pursued by the previous government.

Still, the threat remains, as our obsession with 'big' hasn't really diminished. If the recent move by Punjab is any indication, the states haven't shown any respect for the dominant viewpoint. In fact, the politicisation of water through this mega-project is a critical issue that will have far-reaching consequences on access to water and the price people will have to pay to get it. Clearly, narrow political gains have taken the issue of inter-basin transfer of water out of the technical domain into the political arena. This is a dangerous trend.

In the process, the ongoing focus on basin wide planning takes a back seat. As political forces put forward the bait of inter-basin water transfer to garner electoral support, the water bureaucracy at the Centre and the states finds itself in a virtual no man's land. As political contradictions and conflicts begin to surface on account of proposed transfers from so-called 'surplus' states to 'deficit' states in the peninsular region, a new facet of water governance is being thrown up that proposes to undermine the constitutional validity of water as a state subject.

While the social, economic and ecological impact of the proposed interlinking of rivers project have been debated at length, the significant policy shift from basin wide planning to inter-basin mass transfer of water has been left unattended. It serves the interests of the ruling elite to promise water amidst the spectre of water scarcity; vested interests justify the mega-project on the basis of unaccounted profits that will flow once the project gets underway.

It is apparent that when it comes to electoral gain, governments are able to conveniently transcend basins. They remain unconcerned about whether or not inter-basin water movement fuels conflicts over water. Disregarding inter-state contradictions in sharing river waters, the interlinking of rivers proposal promises to ease contentions in the existing Indo-Bangladesh Treaty on Sharing of Ganges Waters. Though the claims of the proposed interlinking, in light of the Indo-Bangladesh treaty, have been questioned, it is apparent that the water establishment of the country is evading the core issues by resorting to stopgap arrangements. This non-visionary approach to managing trans-boundary and inter-state rivers will soon become the nemesis of our country's policymakers.

No wonder then that the Ganga doesn't appear to enjoy any special status in the minds of Indian planners and politicians. Given the prevailing policy thrust, it is apparent that the river, despite its special presence in the socio-cultural life of Indians, is considered a resource whose proximity to the capital city and the state determines the manner in which it will be treated. The Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi river is a clear reflection of what the river means to Delhi .

Paradoxically, the Ganga basin is both the breadbasket of the country as well as a region of abject poverty. Given its vastness, its ecological positioning on the sub-continent and its value to the millions who depend on it for sustenance, the Ganga could be an excellent provider and deserves a lot more respect. But given the growing inequities within the basin states and the prevailing contradictions that are being allowed to fester, the Ganga basin could also become the harbinger of conflict, as demand and pressure on this most precious resource grows in the years ahead.

Government of India , National Water Policy, 1987 and 2002, Ministry of Water Resources, Delhi

Iyer Ramaswamy, 2003, Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns, Sage Publications, Delhi

Naithani AK , Nainwal HC, Sati KK and Prasad C, 2001, Geomorphological evidences of retreat of Gangotri glacier and its characteristics, Current Science, 80(1), 87-94

Ruet J, V S Saravanan, Marie-Helene Zerah, 2002, The Water & Sanitation Scenario in Indian Metropolitan Cities, CSH -- French Research Institutes in India, New Delhi
Sharma Sudhirendar, 2003, Paddy, wheat and the Punjab state, Himal, Oct 2003, Kathmandu

(This paper was published as a chapter in the book Disputes Over the Ganga -- A Look at Potential Water-Related Conflicts in South Asia , 2004, Panos Institute South Asia , Kathmandu , Nepal )

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005