De-bureaucratising Water Governance Policy: Mihir Shah Committee Report 2016 and the Way Forward

Mihir Shah Committee Report 2016, though a radical step forward in water governance policy, lacked an ecosystem perspective to water management.

In 2016, two noteworthy draft bills were introduced to the public, in an attempt to seriously revise the conception and practice of water governance in India. These were the National Water Framework Bill (NWFB), 2016, and the Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater, 2016. The two bills were followed by the publication of a report titled “A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India's Water Reforms,” all of which were authored by committees chaired by Mihir Shah, former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. 

Both the bill and the report called for a radical revision of the conception of water management systems, and governance, in India, by way of “de-bureaucratisation of water.” Though these were radical steps forward in India’s water governance policies, all efforts were eventually stalled, and the recommendations of the report were viewed rather critically. For instance, the Central Water Commission (which the report called for restructuring) referred to the Shah Committee’s approach as “anti-dam” and “anti-development.” 

In late 2019, however, the union water resources ministry again called upon a committee, chaired by Mihir Shah, to draft a new National Water Policy (NWP). The committee will be producing its report in the coming months of 2020, and can be expected to largely follow Shah’s ideology of de-bureaucratising India’s hydro-schizophrenic water management systems. 

These developments, though bureaucratic in nature, become increasingly importantly when viewed from the wider lens of climate change. As per the United Nations World Water Development Report 2020, though mitigation efforts for climate change made up 93.8% of climate financing in 2016, water projects consisted only of a fraction of 1% of that sum. Given this, coupled with the vulnerability of already water-stressed locations and its exacerbation by climate change, the brunt of the situation will be felt by women and indigenous population. In such an atmosphere, systemic strength and efficient governance becomes pivotal in ensuring future water security. 

In light of this, we explore EPW’s Special Series on water governance policy in India, especially with respect to the Mihir Shah Committee 2016 and highlight it’s major points as well as deficiencies. 

The Mihir Shah Committee and a 21st Century Re-envisioning of Water Governance

The Mihir Shah Committee’s report published in July 2016, titled “A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms,” recommended the setting up of the National Water Commission (NWC) as the nation’s apex organisation dealing with water policy, data and governance. Recommending the restructuring of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the Shah-led Committee had suggested that the NWC act as a single unit, subsuming both the CWC and CGWB. The urgent overhaul of the water management systems was to be done keeping in mind the fact that both, the CWC and CGWB, are weighed down by highly specialised and narrow skill structures, and have remained unreformed ever since their inception. Additionally, both organisations are mired with dysfunctional bureaucratic structures, which includes a “quagmire” of hundreds of different designations, limited capacities and narrow viewing of responsibilities. The Mihir Shah Committee then advised the restructuring of the two monoliths in order to prepare for a new age, progressive, agile, and compact organisation which could face up to the water governance challenges faced by India without having to be boggled by the cobwebs of bureaucracy. 

The committee also viewed this restructuring an opportune moment to re-envision water governance itself. That is, the report called for a more holistic approach to water systems and governance, which was to include opening up of water policy to disciplines beyond engineering and hydrogeology, not viewing groundwater and surface water in silos, and looking beyond the economic value of water as the only ground for saving it. It thus recommended a shift towards a more participatory, inclusive and a clear-cut approach towards water governance. 

Both the CWC and CGWB are lacking in the capacities essential for responding to the needs of the water sector in 21st century India. Civil engineers (the discipline overwhelmingly present in the CWC) and hydrogeologists (the main discipline in the CGWB) are crucial for effective water management. But they alone cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of the new mandate. There is an acute lack of professionals from a large number of disciplines, without which these bodies will continue to underperform. These disciplines include, most importantly, the social sciences and management, without which we cannot expect programmes such as participatory irrigation management and participatory groundwater management to succeed; agronomy, without which crop water budgeting cannot happen and water-use efficiency will not improve; ecological economics, without which we will not gain an accurate understanding of the value of ecosystem services, which need to be protected in river systems; and river ecology, which is essential to the central mandate of river rejuvenation.

Neo-Malthusian Thinking and the Lack of Focus on Urban Water Management

Nilanjan Ghosh and Jayanta Bandyopadhyay note that the draft bills of 2016 did not have an early effect on government policy and outlook until the Mihir Shah Committee (which had also drafted the earlier bills) published their report in July 2016. The central framework of the report was to make water governance systems in India efficient and effective, which meant shedding the extra weight of bureaucracy wherever possible and reducing red tape as much as possible. 

Though the authors observe that the Mihir Shah Committee was a step in the right direction, they question whether the prescribed steps are enough, given the severity of water stress challenges India faces. In particular, Ghosh and Bandyopadhyay assert that both, the bill and the report, reflected a neo-Malthusian thinking, as a result of which the nature of the water crisis in the country was articulated as separate from the degradation of the aquatic ecosystem processes and services (both surface and groundwater). This gap, they note, would be essential in driving how the future of water governance is internalised and executed on the policy level. To this effect, the authors suggest that the recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee did not pay enough attention to urban water management, which remains an essential link in the chain.

There is a need to promote integrated urban water management to close the water loop. This would encompass catchment and source protection (waterbodies and aquifers), managing water supply, treatment, recycling and reuse of waste water. Such an approach would help cities become self-reliant for water and reduce their dependence on external water supplies.

A Water Management System Centred on Dams

P S Vijayshankar writes that the recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee report continued the government’s heritage of paying scant attention to maintaining the health of rivers, their catchments and aquifer systems. Instead, since Independence, the focus has been on intensifying utilisation of water through building more and more dams on rivers or extracting groundwater through wells and tube wells. Consequently, India extracts approximately 251 billion cubic metres of groundwater annually, and has constructed more than 4,400 major and medium-sized dams. Naturally, this has meant that elaborate sums of money have been spent on constructing the infrastructure for so many dams. However, the benefits accrued to farmers, in whose names these dams have been constructed in the first place, have been severely inadequate. Groundwater levels and quality have continued to fall alarmingly, and most farmers in ecologically vulnerable locations continue to face a heavy cocktail of droughts and floods every year. 

... [There is a] need to bring an ecosystem perspective to our water management and governance. This perspective recognises that water is a finite substance in nature, capable of both degradation and overuse. Human interventions leading to over-extraction and pollution can have harmful effects on the quantity and quality of water available, thereby adversely affecting drinking water and livelihood security among a large number of people. This alternative framework sees water in its natural state as essentially in the common pool, to be shared equitably by all.

Reporting Contradictions

Though the Mihir Shah Committee performed a “valiant job” of envisioning a smarter and progressive approach to water governance in the 21st century, Rohini Nilekani concedes that it falls into the same trappings of “hydro-schizophrenia” that it hopes to rid the system of. For instance, the report accepts that the capacities of existing personnel were inadequate to face the challenges of the water sector. However, in the latter sections of the report, it accepts that, in practice, the existing personnel would have to be redeployed into the various divisions of the newly recommended National Water Commission. Moreover, though it makes its recommendations keeping in mind the ideal of decentralisation, its practice still hinges entirely on increased government oversight. In essence, the committee was able to cogently express the urgency and criticality of thinking up new systems of water governance; However, in practice, it was unable to live up to its ideals.

The Shah Committee speaks of decentralisation and a ground-up governance infrastructure, but ends up recommending a system that is unlikely to be horizontally accountable to the third tier of government. It speaks eloquently about the need to adopt best practices from around the world, and to build partnerships with all manner of academic and civil society institutions, but fails to acknowledge that government departments work in silos and find it hard to collaborate. It is not clear why the proposed NWC [National Water Commission] would be different.

Towards An Ecosystem Perspective of Water Crises

Broadening her scope to address the system of water governance in general, Rajeswari S Raina asserts that governance reform, no matter how radical, cannot help solve the current water crisis, as it does not engage with the diverse stakes and ways of knowing water. Most essentially, Raina raises a rather theoretically centred argument wherein she states that the impediment to confronting the current crisis is the “wall or monolith” of the institutional framing of water. This monolithic architecture legitimises, and makes the crisis a function of, “extraction and use.” That is, water continues to be viewed just as a resource to be used to further economic growth, a means to an end. This creates the flawed (and narrow) viewing of the problem as one that is a governance problem, to be solved within the nation-state framework. Instead, the current water-stress levels and impending crisis should be seen as a knowledge crisis, so that diverse ways of knowing complex water systems can be looked into. In taking such a position, the relative unpredictability and uncertainty of water systems, causal relations and behaviour leaves scope and expertise to engage in diverse valuations of subsystems as well as of different values in treating water. 

In a post-normal institutional framework, there is acknowledgement that the water crisis is primarily a crisis of knowledge. There is a clear understanding that the 20th century view of the sciences (natural and social) as “speaking truth to power” has to give way to 21st century scientific knowledge as “making sense together,” opening multiple spaces and processes for public dialogue, and decision-making, which are simultaneously inclusive and responsible (Hoppe 1999). Recommendations for the proposed National Water Commission to ensure “partnerships with knowledge institutions and practitioners in the water space, in areas where in-house expertise may be lacking” take us back to the 20th century where the socialisation of expertise and scientific authority was not even acknowledged. For a genuinely democratic and sustainable future, we need the equal participation of all stakeholders, not just where in-house expertise is lacking but where it does exist. Water, an integral part of natural and social systems, cannot be governed by expertise and administrative prowess alone—it needs people, and direct democratic participation of people in an ongoing dialogue.

Read More:

New Structures of Governance Needed | Vinod K Gaur, 2016

Can Outdated Water Institutes Steer India Out of Water Crisis? | Himanshu Thakkar and J Harsha, 2019

Merits Undeniable despite Drawbacks | Nirmal Sengupta, 2016

Comment on the Proposed National Water Commission | Pradip Khandwalla, 2016

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