Can Outdated Water Institutes Steer India Out of Water Crisis?

Himanshu Thakkar ( is Coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People and J Harsha ( is Director, Central Water Commission.
27 February 2019

There is an institutional vaccum in the Indian water sector which is ill-equipped at the moment to overcome present-day water challenges.

India is facing a dire water crisis, even the NITI Aayog (2018) acknowledged this in a report which was published in June last year. The water crisis is likely to get worse. A 2006 report titled “India’s Turbulent Water Future” had also predicted this. It becomes imperative to take stock of our institutions and to ask if they are capable taking us out of this crisis, especially when they are likely at the root of this crisis.

The government and the NITI Aayog, in the June 2018 report, by not pointing the finger at our water institutes as the root of our crisis, seem happy to manage our water resources with organisations that were created in British era[1]. In the last seven decades, the objectives and goals of water resources development have become vastly different. For example, building dams and canal irrigation was seen as a necessity when India was riddled with prospects of widespread famine, agricultural yields and irrigation development was low. In 1945, India had less than 350 dams compared to 5,700 dams today. As lifestyles have consistently changed and the demand for water has increased sharply, water conflicts between competing users have increased.

Water quality declined across India’s rivers and aquifers and continued to decline post passage of Water Pollution Act, 1974 and setting up of Central and State Pollution Control Boards, which are also essentially modelled on centralised, non-participatory Central Water Commission. This calls for definitive institutional reforms. Most reforms to the CWC were not implemented, suggestions by the Mihir Shah Committee were also rejected (Parsai 2016). The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), set up under the Supreme Court’s orders to regulate groundwater, was given the status of a licensing body, resulting in the creation of an institutional vacuum in managing the multidisciplinary challenges of water sector (SANDRP 2018). 

Poor Functioning of Water Organisations 

The CWC mission statement reads:

“To promote integrated and sustainable development and management of India’s water resources by using state-of-the-art technology and competency and by coordinating all stakeholders. 

The CGWB mission statement reads: 

“Sustainable development and management of ground water resources of the country,” [2]

The three national water policies (1987, 2002 and 2012) devised by the CWC in association with CGWB declared that there should be an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to the planning and formulation of projects; planning, development and management of water resources based on hydrological unit, integrating water resources institutions among other things (PIB 2012). However, the manner in which civil engineers are inducted into central water engineering service is flawed and runs contrary to all that is stated in water policies and mission statements. The exam questions are not water specific [3]. As challenges and the conceptual understandings of the water sector have evolved, the CWC has failed to catch up. Today, there is a need for different skills which can slow down dam work and manage water resources as ecosystems.

What happens when candidates who have not been trained in sustainable development and management of water resources take up jobs in the organisation? Can we put civil engineers who have no real understanding of the ecosystem in which water embedded to promote integration and sustainable development of water resources? 

CWC: An Advisory Body for States? 

Moving beyond the questions of participatory management and accountability, transparency in the CWC leaves much to be desired. For example, CWC, so far, has hesitated to put the criteria of arriving at the “benefit–cost ratio” of thousands of dam projects and their methodologies and assessments in public domain. Benefit–cost ratio of the various water resources projects is the crucial parameter based on which large dams and canals have been approved across India. Any assessment remains unscientific and arbitrary if it does not factor in social and environmental costs. A lack of clear leadership has created a confusing situation where civil engineers from the CWC can remove the burden of accountability by stating that water is a state subject or that the CWC is merely an advisory body. 

It is imperative to question the scope of such an advisory body in light of the recent floods in Kerala when the CWC protected dam operators by stating that dams had a minor role in the floods without revealing the nature of application of rule curves by dam operators, and without explaining as to why there was no initiative of flood and inflow forecasting in Kerala even after 70 years (Central Water Commission 2018). In another instance, when Bihar requested an assessment of silt and role of Farakka in the flood disaster that it repeatedly faces, the CWC appointees in the committee failed to disclose in public domain, the scientific assessment of basin-wide silt deposited in Ganga basin including tributaries of Ganga, the plan form dynamics, the avulsion threshold of Ganga river and its tributaries and their channel migration, the type of hydro-dynamic model such as 1D, 2D, and the model limitations (Khan 2018). 
If we examine the case of the Dam Safety Bill introduced in the Parliament in December 2018, 32 years after the CWC first noted the need for such a bill proposes a close club of people to remain in dam safety mechanisms, which in fact require independent people. While the CWC could see a conflict of interest in the state government being on the dam safety regulatory mechanism, it should have also seen the conflict of interest in the CWC itself taken on the dam safety authority portfolio too. 

What India Needs 

India with its diverse and dire water challenges needs fresh institutions infused with a new multidisciplinary paradigm in order to avert cataclysmic consequences due to mismanagement, inability to deal with ecosystem functions of water resources, dealing with water scarcity, water conflicts, floods and droughts and failure of water governance. Today there is an institutional vacuum in water sector of India to overcome these 21st century water challenges.
This is because water organisations across union, state and local governments need to be reoriented and reinvented in order to realise that dams and canal engineering alone cannot solve the complex water challenges of 21st century. The union government has to take a lead by replacing the outdated uni-disciplinary civil engineering dominated Central Water Commission and scientist dominated Central Ground Water Board as these organisations have now transformed into stumbling block for efficient water management. 

Views expressed are personal.

Himanshu Thakkar ( is Coordinator at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People and J Harsha ( is Director, Central Water Commission.
27 February 2019