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Viewing National Water Policies through a Gendered Lens

Tanusree Paul ( is at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan.

Despite the international recognition accorded to the key role played by women in issues around water, the extent to which India’s national water policies accommodate gender concerns remains to be examined. Based on an in-depth content analysis of the three nwps—of 1987, 2002, and 2012—this paper argues that incorporation of women in the planning, provisioning, and management of water resources continues to be disregarded. Women’s concerns in the water sector are articulated around their domestic roles and subsumed under notions of “household” and “social equity.” The larger questions of water rights of women, both in terms of access and control over decision-making, remain unaddressed.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the National Seminar on Environment and Development organised by the West Bengal State University in 2016. I am thankful to the participants for their comments.

The erratic nature of the monsoon in India and the consequent drought that engulfed nearly half the area of the country for successive years have repositioned water crisis-related issues at the centre of policymaking concerns. While much discussion has focused on the impending water scarcity and appropriate water management techniques, the question of gender continues to remain unaddressed. This is despite robust international advocacy that women suffer the most from water scarcity. In India, as in other developing countries of the world, the responsibility of collecting water and managing this scarce resource to meet diverse household needs rests with women. In addition to household uses, their requirement of water as cultivators is as important as that of the men’s and yet, this is seldom recognised not only by policymakers but also donors and academics. Even as agriculturists, women have different needs in terms of water uses other than irrigating the main crop, for instance, for watering livestock, irrigating the homestead or for domestic purposes (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998; Zwarteveen 1994, 1997). Empirical evidence suggests that women not only make optimum use of water in meeting multiple needs, they also have precious knowledge about the location, reliability, and quality of local water resources. However, this knowledge is systematically marginalised by planners and policymakers on the pretext of being ad hoc and “unscientific” (Agarwal 1994). Women’s participation is neither sought in planning and implementing water programmes, nor are they represented in users’ groups to ventilate their problems and challenges.

A significant body of research by feminist scholars highlighted the gender-blindness inherent in water-related policies. This lead to an apparently increased consciousness regarding the central role of women in the provisioning, management, and safeguarding of water resources way back in 1977 at the United Nations (UN) Water Conference at Mar del Plata. Since then, several initiatives—such as the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981–90) and the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in Dublin (January 1992)—advocated the involvement of women’s concerns in water-related issues and policies. The Dublin Statement on Water and the Environment adopted, and stated in Principle No 3:

Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water … Acceptance and implementation of this principle requires positive policies to address women’s specific needs and to equip and empower women to participate at all levels in water resources programmes, including decision-making and implementation, in ways defined by them. (ICWE 1992: 4)

Other initiatives with a similar focus include Agenda 21 (paragraph 18.70.f) and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation 2 (paragraph 25). The World Water II Forum held at the Hague in 2000 pledged to enhance the visibility of gender in thinking about water by funding the Gender and Water Alliance (Lahiri-Dutt 2015). Following this, several other initiatives were also taken up to address this cause, for instance, the constitution of the Interagency Gender and Water Task Force (GWTF) in 2003, the inclusion of a gender component in the “Water-for-Life” Decade, 2005–15, led by UN–Water.

In South Asia in general and in India in particular, the following issues specifically need to be addressed in the context of gender and water. First, the issue of inadequate accessibility and availability of water, which compels women to travel long distances in rural areas as well as spend long hours in urban areas for fetching water. The poor quality of water further aggravates their ordeal because they have to spend a major portion of their lives caring for ailing family members, especially children. Second, given that water is central to women’s lives and women play a central role in the collection and management of water, women’s participation in water planning and management must be accorded utmost emphasis. However, empirical evidence indicates that their participation in this context is abysmally low. Third, it is evident that equitable access to water for productive uses can empower women and also address the root causes of poverty and gender inequality. However, lack of access to (ownership), and de facto control of land constitute a major challenge to women’s access to water and a key reason for the greater poverty of female-headed households. Fourth, the issue of affordability has emerged as a critical concern given that water is increasingly being viewed as an economic good rather than a social good due to recent trends of privatisation of water.

The Indian government has framed three national water policies (NWPs) to date, in 1987, 2002, and 2012. To what extent are the NWPs committed towards addressing these aforementioned gender concerns in water is the question with which this paper proposes to engage. In doing so, it has undertaken a critical content analysis of the NWP documents as well as a review of the academic and grey literature available on the subject of gender and water, basically to elucidate the policy analysis with empirical evidence. Specifically, it seeks answers to the following questions: do the policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability? How do the policies address the question of accessibility of water by women? To what extent do the policies foster gender-inclusive participation in planning and the management of water resources? To what extent do the policies entail adequate water rights for women?

This paper starts with a brief overview of the NWPs, followed by a discussion on the question of availability and accessibility. An attempt is made to understand participation in water resource management through a gendered lens, followed by a discussion on gender concerns regarding privatisation and pricing of water, and gender issues pertaining to the collection of information and data on water resources. Finally, India’s National Water Mission (NWM) is discussed.

The NWPs: An Overview

A comparative picture of the focus of the three NWPs is presented in Table 1. The light-shaded areas signify (common) areas of emphasis in each of the NWPs. The dark-shaded areas indicate indirect policy thrusts. While a detailed critical analysis of these policies would be undertaken later in this paper, a few key points in the context of gender merit attention at this juncture.

First, the NWP, 1987 resorted to an allocation priority-based principle for water, highlighting different sectors such as drinking water, irrigation, hydel power, navigation, industrial use, etc. This approach was continued in the NWP, 2002, but dropped in the latest policy. Instead, multiple uses of water and increasing water-use efficiency were prioritised. It mentions that “availability of water for utilisation needs to be augmented to meet increasing demands of water” (Ministry of Water Resources 2012: 5). Clearly, it fails to explicitly prioritise women’s differential needs and uses of water.

Second, the NWP, 2002, for the first time, emphasised the ecological and environmental aspects of water allocation highlighting the socio-economic aspects and issues such as environmental sustainability, appropriate resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people and livestock, public health concerns of water impoundment, dam safety, etc.

Third, the policies suggest that water is an economic good, the efficient use of which must be ensured through pricing. In this context, while the NWP, 2002 explicitly invoked private sector participation, the NWP, 2012 tacitly avoided direct allusion to privatisation following huge mass protests. However, it did encourage the public–private partnership (PPP) model by stating that water, after meeting the basic needs of drinking and sanitation, should be subjected to allocation and pricing on economic principles to avoid wastage. It also advocates a system to evolve benchmarks for water uses for different purposes, that is, water footprints and water auditing should be developed to promote and incentivise the efficient use of water.

Fourth, both the NWPs, 2002 and 2012, call upon active participation of farmers and voluntary agencies, especially the Water Users Associations (WUAs), in the planning and management of water resources.

Fifth, a unique feature of the NWP, 2012 is that it emphasised the formulation of a water framework law (WFL) and concerns regarding adaptation to climate change. The gender sensitivity of such a legal framework can be questioned though (a discussion of this follows).

Sixth, the NWP, 2012 also marks a shift in the role of the state, from service provider to that of regulator of services. Water-related services have been encouraged to be transferred to the community and/or the private sector.

Notwithstanding these unique attributes, what is more interesting is a clear-cut paradigm shift implicit in these policies. The NWP, 1987 focused on supply-side factors such as appropriate water infrastructure and services at the community and project level: promoting their financial and social sustainability; improving the performance of irrigation; and water supply and sanitation projects, including spatial and social equity in access to project benefits. The latter two policies, especially the NWP, 2012, mark an aggressive promotion of demand-based integrated water resources management (IWRM), a demand-side focus, water pricing beyond survival needs, multiple use-based water management, and participatory water resources management practices. It observes that IWRM with an “emphasis on finding reasonable and generally acceptable solutions for most of the stakeholders should be followed for planning and management of water resources projects” (Ministry of Water Resources 2012: 8–9). “Generally acceptable solutions” evidently do not have any room for gender-specific interventions. The following sections provide a critical analysis of the NWPs through a gendered lens.

Availability and Accessibility: Tracing Gender Concerns

As mentioned earlier, the NWP, 2012 marks a shift away from a multisectoral approach for water allocation to augmenting water supply to meet multiple uses. This indeed is a welcome change as it has been found that the poor in general and poor women in particular often make use of irrigation water for non-irrigation purposes while drinking water is used for irrigating homesteads and for other daily water needs. Thus, the 2012 NWP’s emphasis on multiple uses is expected to allocate water among all the stakeholders and users more optimally thereby promoting poverty alleviation. Such designs also increase the chances of gender equity and negotiated cooperation at both the household and community levels. Thus, this could be a gender-responsive step indeed!

All the NWPs since 1987 have focused on scaling up water availability through proper resource planning but completely undermined the question of access. The scarcity of water may not only be a function of lesser availability but also of poor accessibility (Shah and van Koppen 2006).1 The question of gender positions itself as one of the central concerns in the context of access. Ray (2007) pointed out that there is a positive correlation between low achievement along the Gender Development Index (GDI) and low water coverage/access. Thus, “accessibility” is an important concern alongside availability. There are several issues so far as access is concerned when viewed through a gendered lens.

First, the lack of access to an improved water source, or even difficult or unreliable conditions of access, compels women to travel long distances, taking them two hours a day in the Konkan region of Maharashtra to six hours a day in the desert district of Banaskantha, to then carry heavy loads of water back (James et al 2002; Joy and Paranjape 2005). In urban areas, long-winding queues for long hours around roadside taps or water lorries are a common phenomenon in which a lot of the women’s time gets wasted. This leaves them with much less time for other important activities such as attending school (given that younger girls are often towed along for fetching water), childcare, farming, or other income-generating activities. A study on the value of the time spent collecting water from wells versus more accessible kiosks in rural Kenya suggested that women placed a high value on the opportunity cost of their time (Whittington et al 1991). The 2006 Human Development Report also notes that there is a high trade-off between time spent in school and time spent collecting water. Unfortunately, although the NWPs talk about increasing the availability of water, they do not pay even tacit attention to these issues. Only the NWP, 2012 observes that

[t]he Centre, the States and the local bodies (governance institutions) must ensure access to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all its citizens, available within easy reach of the household.

Second, women’s special concerns related to water remain subsumed under that of the “household” which is the officially recognised social unit in all the NWP documents. The fundamental assumptions of such a unitary model of households are that: (i) it is a homogeneous unit that allocates resources equitably among the members; (ii) men best represent water-related interests and needs of the household; and (iii) there is a complete congruence of interests between men and women in matters related to water needs and usage (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998; Ray 2007). Plenty of literature has shown how systematic and socially constructed gender differences skew the distribution and use of resources in favour of men both within the household (Haddad et al 1997; Hart 1995) as well as at the community level (Agarwal 1997). This is particularly true in the case of irrigation because traditional gender-role expectations lead to the perception that drinking water belongs to the women’s domain, but irrigation water is within the men’s domain (Athukorala 1996; Ray 2007; Zwarteveen 1997). Such perceptions in effect reinforce gender inequalities by emphasising the role of women as homemakers and mothers ignoring their productive role (Zwarteveen 1997). Women are also productive farmers and efficient irrigators (Quisumbing 1996; Udry et al 1995; Upadhyay 2003; van Koppen 2002). For example, the Sukhomajri irrigation project in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, despite being an equity-oriented community irrigation project, was actually gender-blind in nature because it provided rights to irrigation water to all households in the village, including the landless. Thus, it gave “primacy to the assumption that women’s reproductive labour complements men’s productive labour to create a unified set of values” (Bhattacharyya 2004: 19). Besides, “women” cannot be considered a homogeneous category in terms of their interests and resource needs (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998).

Despite this received knowledge from the literature, the NWPs are replete with rampant use of the terms such as “families” and “households,” particularly in the context of irrigation and project planning. For instance, the NWP, 2012 observes that “water resources projects should be planned considering social and environmental aspects also in addition to techno-economic considerations in consultation with project affected and beneficiary families” (p 8). The NWP, 1987 (p 7) and NWP, 2002 (p 5) state that “[t]he irrigation intensity should be such as to extend the benefits of irrigation to as large a number of farm families as possible.” Irrigation bureaucracies rarely consider women as farmers in their own right and assume that women will automatically benefit from water allocated to their households. Thus, conceptualising the “farmer” in the “household” as the male owner of the land and not the labour is also problematic. It marginalises not only landless men but also the women who perform the vast majority of the labour involved in the practices of farming. This brings us to the issue of women and water rights.

The lack of access to water resources is also a function of a lack of water rights. Landownership patterns directly weaken women’s water rights (Ray 2007). Based on a number of canal irrigation studies in Asia and Africa, van Koppen (1998) concludes that the poor in general and poor women in particular can be given access to irrigation if water rights are vested in land users rather than just land. In India, there are several constitutional and legislative provisions as well as judicial decrees that envisage people’s entitlement to water (Pant 2003). A major discrepancy in Indian law is that while the ownership of surface water rests with the state, that of groundwater rests with individuals. The NWP, 2012 introduced the concept of a WFL as an “umbrella statement of general principles governing the exercise of legislative and/or executive (or devolved) powers by the Centre, the states and the local governing bodies” (p 4). The possibility of incorporating the right to clean water as promoted by the Supreme Court through a series of judgments must also be considered in the NWPs (TERI 2014). Nevertheless, the WFL is only expected to facilitate essential legislation on water governance in every state of the union and the devolution of necessary authority to the lower tiers of government to deal with the local water situation. The issue of water rights of women continues to remain unaddressed even in the progressive WFLs.

Access to groundwater is an important concern here because it has come to occupy a dominant role in agriculture and food security in India. It is not surprising, therefore, that groundwater has captured considerable attention in all the NWPs, especially such factors as groundwater potential, efficient use, integrated and coordinated development of groundwater and surface water, etc. In addition, the NWP, 1987 (p 6) and NWP, 2002 (p 4) also mention that “exploitation of groundwater resources should be so regulated as not to exceed the recharging possibilities, as also to ensure social equity.” However, the NWP, 2012, primarily focusing on increasing groundwater availability through hydrogeological interventions, fails to make even a perfunctory reference to social equity concerns in this context, let alone talk about gender. Empirical evidence from India suggests that women’s limited access to groundwater is further complicated by the development of informal groundwater markets in India for the sale of irrigation water, and of urban markets for the distribution of domestic water (Sarkar 2011). Given that women do not have property rights/de facto control over property, and lack the ability to pay, they remain in a marginalised position.

Fourth, the social positioning also matters in questions related to access. A recurrent theme in all the NWPs has been the principle of equity and social justice although in a rather tokenistic manner. A remarkable lack of due recognition of the complex sociocultural milieu, of the Indian social fabric, and especially gender concerns, is palpable. For instance, while addressing social equity, the NWPs of 1987 (p 5) and 2002 (p 4) only mention that

Special efforts should be made to investigate and formulate projects either in, or for the benefit of, areas inhabited by tribal or other specially disadvantaged groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

A reflexive inclusion: However, NWP, 2012 manages to incorporate the term “women” among other weaker sections of the society in this context although in a rather reflexive way. Notwithstanding this single instance, even the latest policy document is replete with multiple instances of the use of generic terms such as “human,” “community,” “development-for-all,” etc. For instance:

Planning, development, and management of water resources need to be governed by common integrated perspectives considering local, regional, and national context, having an environmentally sound basis, keeping in view the human, social, and economic needs … Water should be managed as a “common pool community resource” to achieve food security, support livelihood, and ensure equitable and sustainable development for all. (Ministry of Water Resources 2012: 3) Inter-basin transfers are not merely for increasing production but also for meeting basic human need and achieving equity and social justice. (Ministry of Water Resources 2012: 6)

The above excerpts amply testify to the fact that the concerns of social equity in general and gender concerns in particular remain indeterminately articulated across the policies.

Understanding Participation

The Ministry of Water Resources (2002) called for management of water resources to accommodate diverse and competing uses through a participatory approach by involving various stakeholders from governmental agencies, industries, and communities (Ministry of Water Resources 2006). WUAs were construed as an effective mechanism of involving farmers in the decision-making process. With the shifting thrust of the NWPs to IWRM, such participatory practices have received much importance. Participation takes many forms: donating labour or perhaps attending meetings without speaking up at low levels of power, or active involvement in decisions about water-related technologies and priorities as well as the ability to ensure action on these priorities at higher levels of power (Ray 2007). For democratic and transparent water management, both men and women must have equal participation at all levels.

The manner in which participation by stakeholders has been invoked in the NWPs has changed remarkably since 1987. The first NWP talked about “involving the farmers” and educating them in efficient water use and water management. That the farmer is essentially conceived of as male in the Indian context has already been discussed. The NWP, 2002 appears to be a landmark in this context in the sense that for various aspects of planning, design, development and management of water resources, it emphasises that “necessary legal and institutional changes should be made at various levels ... duly ensuring [an] appropriate role for women” (p 5). The participation of the “community” has been invoked in the NWP, 2012 in matters of water conservation, floods, droughts, and groundwater management, with special focus on IWRM as the main principle for the planning, development, and management of water resources. However, the NWP, 2012 does not explicitly call for women’s participation. This may have serious implications as empirical evidence suggests that men and women experience participation differently and that women’s participation remains confined within a “thus-far-and-no-farther” framework. This is, perhaps, the reason why women could successfully participate in the case of cooperatives and microcredit programmes, for example Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which deal with the creation of new assets, while in the context of natural resources, women’s participation remain palpably proscribed since it entails sharing of property rights over existing resources (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998).

Also constraining are the sociocultural constructs that not only govern women’s “ideal” behaviour even as they participate in the community but also shape intra-community power differences. Much empirical evidence points to the fact that to facilitate the success of participatory irrigation management (PIM), the chief engineers and other officials of the Department of Irrigation must encourage free communication and interaction with the farmer–client. That a farmer is not necessarily a man is often missed out. Also, female farmers may have difficulty in communicating with bureaucratic officials, who tend to be mostly male, given their sociocultural encodings within a certain frame of femininity and also asymmetrical gendered power relations. In this context, the question of capacity-building, training and awareness generation of government functionaries, WUA members, etc, need to be underscored. All three NWPs recognise the importance of providing adequate training for information systems, sector planning, project planning and formulation, project management, operation of projects, systems and the management, etc. The recipients of such training have been envisaged to be “all the categories of personnel involved in these activities as also the farmers” (Ministry of Water Resources 1987: 11, 2002: 9). The NWP, 2012 mentions that “a retraining and quality improvement programme for water planners and managers at all levels in India, both in private and public sectors, needs to be undertaken” (p 12). It further mentions that

To meet the need of the skilled manpower in the water sector, regular training and academic courses in water management should be promoted … A national campaign for water literacy needs to be started for capacity building of different stakeholders in the water sector. (p 13)

Thus, none of the NWPs talk about training and sensitising the bureaucrats so as to enable them to address the challenges that women face in participating in the community. Nor do these explicitly emphasise the need to strengthen the capacities of female stakeholders.

Most of the mainstream literature on water resource management, especially irrigation, mentions gender differences only in the form of the occasional obligatory statements. Nor do they differentiate between male and female users. Mentions of women are, at best, made as users and seldom as managers and decision-makers (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998). According to Bhattacharyya (2004: 20)

Programmes and the project-level experience of involving women in government and donor-assisted drinking water schemes in India indicate that women have been seen mostly as beneficiaries rather than as partners. Women’s participation is often reduced to “labour utilisation” (particularly in drought relief work). “Consultation with communities” always means consultation with men as heads of households and community leaders.

Women’s participation as decision-makers and users: It has been argued that women’s presence in high-level governing or policymaking bodies act as an enabling environment towards voicing the concerns of grass-roots women (Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water 2005–15). Since 1990, India has had only one female minister of state—Bijoya Chakravarty (2000–04)—in the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (which ran as the Department of Drinking Water until 2011) and one cabinet minister, Uma Bharti (presently), who was earlier in the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (the Department of Irrigation, earlier subsumed under the Ministry of Irrigation and Power, was reconstituted as the Ministry of Water Resources). While the appointment of female ministers in water- and environment-related ministries may be reckoned as a positive start, a critical reading of the water policies reveals that the incorporation of gender remains a far cry. Empowerment of women as water managers at the grass-roots level is also crucial and must be explicitly recognised by policymakers in policy documents.

At the implementation level as well, very few programmes and projects aim at gradual scaling down to women, the ones who are responsible for the operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation. Often, the bureaucrats are trained to deliver water, not empowerment. They have little understanding of the functioning and use of local resources, pay no attention to socio-economic conditions, and work within a system that has begun to favour privatisation and markets. Targeting women for training and capacity-building is critical to the sustainability of water and sanitation initiatives, particularly in technical and managerial roles to ensure their presence in the decision-making process (Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water 2005–15).

In this context, mention must be made of the WUAs which have also been prioritised in the water policies, especially in the NWP, 2012. The latter assigns statutory powers to WUAs “to collect and retain a portion of water charges, manage the volumetric quantum of water allotted to them, and maintain the distribution system in their jurisdiction” (p 7). Thus, the NWP, 2012 envisaged WUAs as key functionaries of water resource planning and management. Notwithstanding that the WUAs have been euphorically applauded by several scholars and policymakers, these are actually extralegal, inequitable socially, and unsustainable ecologically. Evidence from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and India shows that female participation in WUAs is low despite high participation in irrigated agriculture and related decision-making (Bhattacharyya 2004; Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998). The reasons follow. First, formal membership criteria of WUAs often stipulate that members must be either the head of the household (for example, in Nepal) or those with formal right to irrigated land (for example, in Sri Lanka). Besides, several informal norms such as gender roles and social stereotypes regarding appropriate male and female behaviour also play a decisive role in shaping women’s participation (Bruins and Heijmans 1993; Institute of Resource Development and Social Management 1993; Kome 1997; warteveen and Neupane 1996). In addition to these formal and informal criteria that affect membership directly, often the pre-constructed notion of the planners as to who would be the prospective users (typically male) as well as the processes of organising and mobilising them yield gendered management transfer programmes that restrict women’s participation indirectly (Kome 1997).

Second, the work of community-managing adds to the already existing dual burden of women of carrying out their productive and reproductive roles (Moser 1989). Thus, participation in WUAs may increase their burden as the opportunity cost of time to attend meetings and do other work for the organisations is much higher for women (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998). Several studies in South Asia have revealed that the timing and location of WUA meetings may also impose a higher cost on women and prevent their participation (Kome 1997).

Third, as the inconvenience of time, the venue of public meetings, and mobility constraints lead to a lack of formal representation of women in the WUAs, therefore, facilitating women’s participation in WUAs must involve a revalorisation of female identity and work, and rejecting norms and regulations that tie women to specific roles. It would also imply struggling to occupy spaces previously reserved for men (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998). Some documented evidence highlightsthat women engage informally and carve out manoeuvring spaces of collective action (Adams et al 1997; Athukorala and Zwarteveen 1994; Long 1989; Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998; Pradhan 1989; Rao et al 1991). Although such informal involvement with WUAs may provide women entry points in an otherwise male-dominated arena, yet considering such informal engagements as indicative of participation grossly undermines the gender-strategic needs.

Fourth, it is often argued that women do not have the capabilities in terms of education, negotiating and communication skills, etc, to contribute meaningfully as office-bearers in such meetings (Zwarteveen and Neupane 1996). However, such arguments also undermine the traditional knowledge that women have in terms of water use, availability, and quality. Nevertheless, the aforementioned studies amply indicate that by co-opting WUAs as foot-soldiers of decentralised water resources planning and management without adequate provision for social inclusion and sensitisation of both decision-makers and users, the NWPs have opened up sufficient room for marginalising gender concerns in participatory management of water resources.

Privatisation and Water Pricing

The Ninth Plan (1997–2002) articulated the shift from perceiving water as a social good to water as a scarce economic resource that should be provided according to the standard of service that users are willing to maintain, operate, and finance. Accordingly, the community would be fully responsible for operation and maintenance through panchayati raj institutions and/or water committees. Such an approach is perfectly aligned with the overall global policy environment—pushing for structural adjustment programmes and promotion of free trade in services, including water, through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The NWPs, especially the latter two, clearly conform to such principles.

The NWP, 2002 openly invoked private sector participation in the planning and management of water resources. It mentions “depending upon the specific situations, various combinations of private sector participation, in building, owning, operating, leasing and transferring of water resources facilities, may be considered” (Ministry of Water Resources 2002: 6). This resulted in massive protests, for example, over the privatisation of stretches of the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh, violent protests against Coca Cola plants on the Vaitarana river in Kudus village, Thane, and in Plachimada in Kerala. Following such protests, the NWP, 2012 shunned direct allusion to private sector participation and instead invoked a PPP model in water management, in line with the WB–IMF policy prescriptions. The state was assigned the role of a facilitator and not service provider. According to this policy, efficient use of water must be achieved through the differential pricing of water over and above the pre-emptive use of drinking water and sanitation. The use of water markets as an institutional arrangement for promoting economically efficient use has been lauded by several academics and practitioners (Kumar and Singh 2001; Mohanty and Gupta 2002; TERI 2014).2 However, as pointed out by Poddar et al (2014: 1083), water markets require a well-defined structure of water rights, a clear and comprehensive set of rules for trading, entities to manage water delivery, and a judicial body to oversee trading activities and resolve disputes in order to function effectively. Given the clear-cut absence of an enabling legal framework and water rights, such mechanisms would yield disastrous results, especially for women.

Gender inequity and the asymmetrical power relations deprive women of financial resources and limit their ability to pay. Yet, analyses based on willingness to pay by users overlook their ability to pay and completely disregard the choices that poor women have to make. Domestic or “reproductive” uses of water do not generate income directly, so benefits are not captured in traditional economic indicators. Besides, corporatisation of water has led to the emergence of pani panchayats or user groups comprising members who will pay for water-related services provided by the private sector. According to Ruchi Pant (2003), this is going to have serious implications for small and marginal farmers as they will be forced to grow commercial crops, which comes with its own set of negative consequences for marginalised sections of the rural population. Thus, water pricing further intensifies women’s marginal position in the water market.

Information and Data

The Gender Water Alliance 2003 mentions that the gender and water sector is “handicapped by a lack of reliable disaggregated data on outputs and impacts.” The lack of gender concerns in policy may be attributed to the lack of gender-disaggregated data that fail to divulge the nuanced issues. In India, the Census and National Sample Survey Office (especially the 69th Round, 2012) provide some data on drinking water sources. Other sources such as the Central Pollution Control Board provide data on water quality. Yet, there is a conspicuous dearth of gender-disaggregated data, particularly related to PIM, gendered use of water, health hazards, impact of climate change on gender and water, etc. Although the importance of collecting appropriate information on water availability, quality, and actual use has been emphasised in all the three NWPs, even the latest one fails to prioritise the need to collect gender-disaggregated data. According to the NWP, 2012, importance has been given to “all water-related data, like rainfall, snowfall, geomorphological, climatic, geological, surface water, groundwater, water quality, ecological, water extraction and use, irrigated area, glaciers, etc” (p 12).

National Water Mission’s Blindness

The NWM of India is one of the eight missions created under the National Action Plan for Climate Change in 2011. The objective of the NWM is conservation of water, minimising wastage, and ensuring its more equitable distribution both across and within states through IWRM. The NWM reiterates, among other things, the need for sensitisation of the local communities, community leaders, and public representatives of overexploited areas on dimensions of the problem. It suggests an increase of 20% in water-use efficiency by 2017. Five identified goals of the NWM are: (i) comprehensive water database in the public domain and assessment of the impact of climate change on water resources; (ii) promotion of citizen and state action for water, conservation, augmentation, and preservation; (iii) focused attention on vulnerable areas, including overexploited areas; (iv) increasing water-use efficiency by 20% by 2017; and (v) promotion of basin-level IWRM. In the context of this paper, the second goal merits attention.

In order to fulfil the goal of promoting citizen and state action, the NWM puts forth the following action points. First, the empowerment and involvement of panchayats, urban local bodies, WUAs, and primary stakeholders in management of water resources through interactive sessions with policymakers, capacity-building for organisations associated with water resources development, and promotion of do-it-yourself action by citizens through intensive social communication. Second, promoting PIM through the Command Area Development and Water Management Programme and legislating an appropriate PIM Act. It is, thus, evident that even the NWM fails to recognise gender concerns in the water sector, especially in development and management of water resources. In fact, the words, “women” and “gender” do not appear even once in the two volumes of the NWM reports.


It is evident that the NWPs do not accord any importance to gender concerns. This is despite the fact that a sufficiently large number of empirical examples from India—like the Swayam Shikshan Prayog,3 Tarun Bharat Sangh,4 SEWA,5 and Decentralised Water Alternatives in Gujarat,6 to name a few—indicate that formal and informal women’s organisations and networks can play stimulating roles in mobilising resources for sustainable and equitable water and land management projects. This, in turn, has positive spread effects on social welfare. Yet, women’s concerns remain subsumed under the rubric of “households” or “social equity.” In several policy briefs and reports, women and water concerns remain articulated, if at all, through an instrumental logic. For instance, while the toiling experiences of women in collecting water over long distances do get recognised by policymakers and analysts, the urgency to provide water within accessible limits of each “household” is advocated on the ground that this would save a lot of women’s time so that they can return to their household work or other productive work. Some researchers have argued that easier access to water is desirable not just for economic reasons but for overall quality of life, regardless of how the extra time is spent (Carr and Sandhu 1988; Wodon and Blackden 2006; Ray 2007). Further, the burden of carrying heavy headloads of water leads to health concerns, such as early ageing of the vertebral column, chronic fatigue, and spinal and pelvic deformities. Besides, regular contact with water makes women vulnerable to diseases like schistosomiasis (bilharzia), onchocerciasis, and dracunculiasis (Ray 2007). Yet, while emphasising the need to provide safe water to all households, the water policies only give importance to water-borne diseases, paying absolutely no attention to these diseases that women contract for being the main providers of water for the household. Women’s intrinsic well-being remains completely mislaid in all the three policies.

At the risk of digression, this is an opportune point to recount here the different gendered approaches to development in general and natural resources in particular. This is because “the way in which the role of women within development is conceptualised determines, often implicitly rather than explicitly, why access to water is considered important and in which ways access should be sought” (Ray 2007: 425). Approaches that incorporate gender concerns in water because it would enhance efficiency and economic productivity along with sustainable development conform to the Women in Development (WID) framework. Another set of approaches, called Women, Environment and Development (WED), emerged in the 1980s as a critique of the efficiency argument of the WID. WED proponents argue that women have a special relationship with, and thus expert knowledge about the environment. Thus, those voices that seek to incorporate women’s concerns and participation in water-related issues on the ground of increasing efficiency because women have special knowledge are inspired by both WID and WED (Ray 2007). The most recent framework which mainstreams gender in development is the Gender and Development (GAD) framework, which questions gendered power relations and seeks to address gender strategic needs. Thus, those approaches that call for examining how both women and men use and negotiate over water resources, which emphasises the positive impact of water on the overall well-being of women’s lives through control over water resources, underscore a GAD approach.

That said, what is the orientation of the NWPs in India? While a few instances of “add-women-and-stir” may be noted where the term “women” has been incorporated in an obligatory way, these policies are gender-neutral at best. Although the latest policy underscores demand-based IWRM and fosters community participation in development and the management of water resources, it does not recognise the crucial role of women in agriculture, livestock, and fisheries and their demand for water for productive uses. It does not accord any importance to women’s water rights under the WFA, and does not provide for an equitable environment to facilitate women’s community participation in water management that would take care of their practical and strategic needs, and strengthen their capacities to fruitfully participate. Given the raised awareness regarding the lack of appropriate gender-segregated data in the water sector, none of the policies mandate collecting information on men’s and women’s roles, access, needs, priorities, and perspectives on water-related issues. Thus, the NWPs appear to be completely non-responsive to gender concerns.


1 Shah and van Koppen (2006) have observed that there is no direct correlation between water availability and access. Water poverty is more a function of the level and maturity of the economic development of a country. They argue that the real indicator of water poverty is the “Water Access Poverty (WAP)” sub-component of the WPI, suggestive of the levels of “water welfare” achieved. However, the correlation between the WAP index and water resource endowments too was found to be low. Further analyses show that while water availability has little relationship with overall socio-economic development, the WAP index is strongly related to the Human Development Index (HDI). The higher the HDI of a country, lower the water poverty, regardless of a country’s water endowments.

2 TERI, in a study undertaken during 2009 to review the existing guidelines of determination of user charges for water and sanitation services and to incorporate economic principles of pricing in urban water supply sector in India, recommended a two-part tariff structure. The latter would consist of a demand charge and variable charges, and Increasing Block Tariff (IBT) being more appropriate for domestic users, while uniform volumetric charges was recommended for non-domestic users.

3 Swayam Shikshan Prayog has facilitated the formation of over a thousand women’s savings and credit groups that have mobilised their own savings to provide loans for one another. Women started organising to address development issues such as water supply in their communities. See Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Water (2005–15).

4 Tarun Bharat Sangh, which helped villagers build or restore nearly 10,000 water harvesting structures in Alwar and neighbouring districts in the hardscrabble Aravalli hills of north-eastern Rajasthan, also contributed towards mobilising women through the creation of women’s groups in several villages. It has helped these women play a more active role in village decision-making and address social issues, such as educating their daughters, raising their voices against child marriage, and dropping the local custom of purdah.

5 SEWA initiated a water campaign called the “Water, Women, and Work Millennium Campaign” between 1995 and 2001. Women comprised 80% or more of the membership of most of the new water users committees, and committee activities revolved around issues of particular interest to women: fodder growing, nursery plantations, improved agriculture, rainwater harvesting, and capacity-building.

6 Decentralised Water Alternatives has been working in coastal Gujarat since the early 1980s on gender equity issues and community-managed water alternatives. It is mobilising women’s access to resources through self-help groups (SHGs), investing in capacity-building of women through barefoot water technicians (handpump mechanics), promoting women’s ownership of water assets such as roof water collection tanks, and creating space for the priorities of women and marginalised communities to be heard.


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Updated On : 5th Dec, 2017


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