ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Hopeful Starting Point

Water Governance Reform

The Mihir Shah Committee report demands a paradigm shift, bringing the ecosystems perspective to the ways water is governed in India. This article argues that these governance reforms, though essential, are not enough to enable the paradigm shift necessary for sustainability and ecological justice. But it may be a great place to begin. 

“The water crisis is mainly a crisis of governance” (GWP 2000). This opening quote precedes the introduction to an overview paper on irrigation management transfer (IMT) (FAO, INPIM 2001). It is an unfortunate expression of the prevalent framing of water, and our attempts to govern it. The Report of the Committee on Restructuring the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Commission (CGWB) (CRCC 2016) presents an institutional framework for water governance in India. It recommends a new organisation for water governance—a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model combining the administration of groundwater and surface water, new capacities, knowledge, skills, rules and norms, and river basin-based location-specific participatory mechanisms for water decisions. The report demands a paradigm shift, bringing the ecosystems perspective to the ways water is governed in India. This article argues that these governance reforms, though absolutely essential, are not enough to enable the paradigm shift that is necessary for sustainability and ecological justice. It may be a great starting point—a toenail in the wall of the prevalent institutional framework—that may (in some not too distant future) create the space for a change in the paradigm.

The established institutions or accepted rules, norms, and patterns of behaviour, and the organisations that are governed by them today, are outdated. According to this Veblenian understanding, we legitimately need to reform water governance as we know it. While this gives us hope that institutional change and governance reform are inevitable, it also gives us the responsibility of shaping progressive institutions, avoiding regressive ones, and building deliberative capacities among all (individual citizens, communities, scientists, policymakers, and producers/service providers in all walks of life). The most crucial are institutional changes—from seeing water as an economic good to be extracted and supplied to seeing it as an essential and inextricable part of ecosystems where humans are the most disruptive component. Governance reforms that bring management institutions into the ecosystems perspective of water are needed. Bringing ecosystems perspectives into water governance will always remain a poor add-on, not causing the fundamental shift in knowledge, policy, and practice that is central to any paradigmatic change.

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