Priorities for the Revised National Water Policy

The need for sustainable, efficient and equitable management of surface and groundwater resources (Image Source: India Water Portal)
The need for sustainable, efficient and equitable management of surface and groundwater resources (Image Source: India Water Portal)

The Department of Water Resources, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, has constituted a drafting committee on 5 November 2019 to revise the existing National Water Policy (NWP). Dr. Mihir Shah, a renowned water expert and a former member of the Planning Commission is chairing the committee. The committee has 10 principal members and it is expected that the committee produces a report within six months of its formation.

The first Indian NWP was adopted in 1987 and revised twice in 2002 and 2012. The recent report of the NITI Aayog highlights the alarming water crisis facing India where as many as 21 cities are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020 [1]. This underscores the need to evolve a NWP that not only addresses imminent challenges but also establishes a framework and pathway to sustainable, efficient and equitable management of surface and groundwater resources.

Water use in agriculture needs attention

The Revised Water Policy needs to address the following issues in the context of water use in agriculture:

After drinking water, prioritise water for ecosystem needs

The NWP 2002 prioritises water allocations for drinking, irrigation, hydropower, ecology, industries, navigation, and other uses in order [2]. The NWP 2012 prioritises water for drinking and domestic needs, irrigation and “minimum ecological needs” on an equal and ‘high priority’[3] while introducing the concept of minimum ecological needs and that these need to be given a “high priority” allocation.

After water for drinking and domestic needs, ‘water for ecology and the environment’ must be the second most important priority. The environment and its ecology is what provide the essential and crucial ‘ecosystem services’- such as water, food, fuel, wood, and fiber as well as balancing the climate – on which the survival, sustenance, and progress of the human race and civilisation itself, depend. Securing these ecosystem services is therefore of utmost importance, more so given climate change and rising global temperatures which will adversely affect India.

Limit the area under water-guzzling crops and promote less water-intensive crops

Around 90 percent of India’s water is used for agriculture [4]. Without reducing water for agriculture, we can never hope to meet India’s drinking and domestic water needs. Just three water-intensive crops – rice, wheat, and sugarcane – consume almost 80 percent of irrigation water [5]. A reduction in the area under these crops, together with crop diversification and use of micro-irrigation, can significantly contribute to alleviating water scarcity and making available additional water resources for other needs, especially in rainfed and drought-prone regions of the country.

To reduce water-guzzling crops and increase the area under “water-lite” crops such as millets, pulses, and oilseeds, the minimum support prices (MSP) of these and similar crops1 should be further increased. 

Crops such as millets (jowar, bajra, etc), pulses and locally grown crops should be introduced in the public distribution system (PDS), the Anganwadi-ICDS program, and mid-day meal schemes for school going children while simultaneously reducing the procurement of wheat and rice. Wheat and rice not only consume a lot of water but also, being confined to specific geographies, have to be transported over long distances. 

This proposition has immense potential to change the overall cropping pattern and free up water resources for other needs. The revised NWP should set a clear roadmap for this.

Re-prioritise public investments in the water and agriculture sectors to promote water use efficiency and infrastructure development

The policies resulting in huge transfers of public monies by way of loan waivers, cash transfers to farmers, subsidised/free electricity for irrigation should be reconsidered. To effectively deal with the agriculture and water crisis, there is a case for outright stopping (as in the case of free electricity) or progressively reducing subsidies/transfers in a time bound manner.

Funds thus saved could be utilised, instead, to promote long term and sustainable solutions such as increasing the MSP of rainfed and “water-lite” crops, enhancing the primary productivity of the soil, promoting water-use efficiency measures in farming (micro irrigation, precision farming, etc.) and developing the necessary infrastructure for better post-harvest management of produce and efficient value chains (godowns, warehouses, cold chains, etc).

Accelerate and augment programs for watershed, springshed and catchment development as well as in-situ soil and water conservation works

Not only do these measures increase decentralised rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge at scale across landscapes at a fraction of the costs incurred in the case of dam-based irrigation projects, but, they also result in much more equitable economic growth as benefits reach a lot more people than otherwise. Moreover, with agriculture in India being predominantly rainfed, such catchment treatment and soil conservation measures are the only feasible way in which drinking water and irrigation potential can be sustainably increased (accompanied by appropriate demand side management), while also re-charging groundwater sources, which are the mainstay of irrigation in such regions.

Moreover, while implementation of such measures is undertaken at the micro-watershed/ habitation level, planning should concurrently also be done at the sub-basinal level to account for and address upstream-downstream dependencies as well as environmental needs. The relationships between surface and groundwater hydrology should also be kept in mind and appropriate conservation and management interventions undertaken.

Need for an “Ecosystem-based Adaptation” Approach

While watershed development is still one of the key programs for water resource development particularly in rainfed regions, in the context of increasingly adverse impacts of climate change, there is an urgent need to change its approach to one that not only focuses on water harvesting but also on building resilience as well as the adaptive capacities of local communities and the local eco-system.

For this, a sub-basinal and ecosystem-based, collaborative, science-based, multi-sectoral, integrated and climate-responsive approach involving multiple stakeholders across levels should be promoted. This will help in addressing developmental, mitigation and adaptation needs. In this approach, vulnerability and risk reduction, societal co-benefits, eco-system health and inclusive governance with capacity building of communities should be integrated with watershed and water resources development interventions. In this regard, WOTR has developed a tool – “Community Driven Vulnerability Evaluation – Program Designer (Co-DriVE-PD)” – to help communities assess their risks and vulnerability to climate change on the basis of which adaptation and mitigation measures can be planned and implemented2.

Harmonise water-related policies and programs

There are important policy instruments and programs, either under drafting or implementation, such as the National Water Framework Bill, River Basin Management Bill, the Model Bill to regulate and control the development and management of the groundwater, Jal Jeevan Mission, Atal Bhujal Yojana, NAQUIM, state-specific programs on desiltation of reservoirs, river deepening and straightening, water harvesting, etc. The revised NWP should ensure that the approach and interventions under these extant policies and programs are harmonised with and aligned to the goals and outcomes envisaged in the proposed NWP so as to realise synergies and minimise conflicts.

Catchments of dams need to be developed on a priority basis

With the recent massive and devastating floods in Sangli and Kolhapur districts of Maharashtra, it is important that dam management (systematic and regular supervision and maintenance) has to be improved. In addition, emphasis on the treatment of the catchment areas of dams through soil and water conservation measures is necessary. This will ensure that in days of heavy rainfall these catchments will absorb more water, reduce the velocity of run-off, recharge groundwater aquifers and ensure advance warning and safe discharge of excess water in the dams. Considering the increasing events of erratic rainfall and changing overall monsoon patterns due to climate change, this needs priority attention in the NWP.

Groundwater to be priced

The interconnectedness of surface and groundwater hydrology has to be recognised, as both these are forms of the same resource. Hence, it is not logical to price only surface/ canal water while making groundwater a free gift for the few better-endowed farmers. Wider observations show that the absence of groundwater pricing is one of the causes of indiscriminate extraction and depletion of groundwater resources in many regions.

A system of groundwater pricing based on the area under irrigation, similar to canal water, should be introduced. To make this legally tenable in the case of groundwater, it is necessary to revise and modify the Indian Easement Act, 1882, mainly Section 7/ Clause (g)3 (and related sub-clauses) that confers exclusive private domain over what is essentially a common property resource.

Groundwater contamination should be treated as a punishable offense

To control groundwater contamination by urban sewage and industrial effluents, the “polluter pays” principle is not a sufficient deterrent; rather, it allows industries to pollute and pay. Hence, groundwater contamination should be treated as a punishable offense and enforced.

Need for inclusive local water management institutions

Community/ user group organisations such as Water Users Associations (WAUs), Village Watershed Committees, etc., in which women play a dominant role should be promoted. The managerial capacities of such bodies should be progressively built up and financial resources, as required (maintenance, infrastructure acquisition, etc) should be devolved to them. These bodies must be inclusive (and seen to be as such) in order to ensure equitable access. The Wasundhara Approach developed and successfully deployed by WOTR since several years provides a methodology for the effective and inclusive representation of different users/ stakeholders based on the principle of the socio-economic ranking of households [6].

Commission more in-depth studies on water needs for securing healthy ecosystems

There is a dearth of evidence-based studies with respect to optimum water needs of ecological niches, ecosystem and environmental flows for landscapes and rivers.

As the agro-ecological and climatic zones and subzones differ, policy formulation needs to be backed by sound geo-ecologically representative research and scientific evidence to arrive at the optimal water requirements of these natural systems, also including under conditions of a changing climate.

This is also urgently necessary as many policy documents, projects and civil society actors are promoting tools for water auditing and water budgeting at different scales in the absence of clarity on the amount of water that has to be allocated for maintaining local ecological functions and environmental flows. NWP should mention and prioritise this as an important area for in-depth study in the Indian context.

Need for adopting a “Water Stewardship” approach at the local level:

As land and water resources are local issues having transgenerational implications, local communities need to conserve them for their own needs and that of future generations. Hence, a ‘stewardship’ approach and attitude need to be fostered and adopted. While the supply side is given a lot of attention, demand-side management and water governance by communities is often limited to preparing ‘water budget’ plans with scant attention paid to their implementation.

The tragedy of successful watershed management projects in rainfed regions teaches us that the lack of attention to water management in the post-watershed period leads to skewed benefits to a few and serious threats to the sustainability of existing water resources. Hence, the urgency of measures that incentivise demand-side management of water use – appropriate cropping patterns, water use efficiency, governance of surface and subterranean water bodies, and especially those that can change the mind-set that groundwater is private property (especially changes to the Indian Easement Act, 1882) – need to be recognised and incorporated in the NWP.

This objective can be achieved by adopting a ‘Water Stewardship’ approach and practices, which sensitise communities, build a cadre of local ‘water stewards’ (jal sevaks), put in place community defined access and use rules and establish representative and effective governance mechanisms that enforce these. WOTR has piloted this approach in more than 100 villages across regions and found that the Water Stewardship approach has immense potential to address the complex issues involved in managing water at the local level [7].

Water and Aquifer Literacy

Along with NAQUIM at the macro level, promotion of water literacy based on the local hydrogeology and aquifers will help people realise that water is indeed a public and hence, a shared good. Capacity building of communities and participatory generation of local knowledge on these issues play an important role in raising awareness, facilitating increased community “ownership” and establishing inclusive and effective water governance institutions and practices locally.

Making the invisible aquifer characteristics and its relationship with surface hydrology visible has great potential for sensitising people on local water dynamics. WOTR has developed a tool for this purpose called “Community Driven Vulnerability Evaluation-Visual Integrator (Co-DriVE-VI)” that integrates surface and subsurface hydrology in a 3D model while allowing the villagers to incorporate their local knowledge [8]. This tool has been used effectively on the ground and can form part of a toolkit for the IEC component in the revised NWP.

Assessment of district-level performance of water management required

Although the NWP 2012 lays stress on demand management and water use efficiency (section 6), there is a lack of a systematic operational tool to assess the achievement of this goal. Therefore, a system is required for the periodic evaluation of the achievement of this goal and a strategic plan to address the gaps.

The Composite Water Management Index (CWMI)  developed by NITI Aayog which assesses the supply and demand side of water management, as well as governance aspects at the state level, is a welcome and timely step in this direction [9]. However, the CWMI needs to be further customised and applied to the district and eventually block levels for greater impact and utility. The periodic assessment of this index at these levels can help identify required and viable investment opportunities in the water sector.

Need for a Water Governance Standard and Certification System

In the existing version of the NWP, achieving water-use efficiency is one of the important objectives. However, there is a need for a comprehensive set of indicators to judge the success of water management at the local/village/watershed level which covers not only supply-side indicators but also demand and governance aspects.

These could form the basis to formulate a mechanism to incentivise villagers to move towards collective governance of water resources and the adoption of efficient and sustainable use practices. With this in mind, WOTR has developed a ‘Water Governance Standard and Certification System’ to assess comprehensively, together with the community, the overall water management status in the village while offering a concrete pathway to progressively improving their level of certification. This standard and certification approach offers an objective benchmark for investors, public agencies and donors to compare and decide upon villages where investments and infrastructure will likely result in relatively greater social and economic returns.

This creates an incentive for desiring villages to improve their rankings in the Water Governance Standard (WSG) if they are to attract water-related and other funding opportunities [10]. This standard is in line with the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) developed by NITI Aayog for States. Such mechanisms for incentivising rural communities for better water management practices need to be adopted and promoted in the NWP.

Cautious promotion of solar energy

The honourable Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her budget speech on Union Budget 2020, has given high importance to the promotion of solar pumps (35 lakh in total). As fallow and barren lands are proposed to be installed with solar panels, it may result in reducing the village commons which play an important role in maintaining the local ecosystem balance and village livelihoods.

Alternatively, the canals and water reservoirs may be a more appropriate choice to install solar panels as a reduction in water evaporation will be a secondary benefit. Further, many studies and experiments have shown that while solar energy can deliver additional benefits to farmers, it can have negative impacts on groundwater levels [11]. In hard rock basalt aquifers, solar pumps may result in further depleting the already precarious groundwater resource. The revised NWP needs to incorporate mitigative and remedial solutions to the risks that increasing the use of solar pumps can pose to water and land resources.

Need for identifying clear strategies and actions

All the earlier versions of the NWP had many positive propositions such as the establishment of river basin organisations, water-pricing, adaption to climate change, etc. Unfortunately, these versions were confined to setting the goals and proposing what should be achieved, without indicating a clear roadmap on how these are to be achieved and who would be responsible and accountable for doing so.

As a result, progress towards the stated goals is either patchy or mostly, non-existent. Clear guidelines on ‘who’ (fixing or allocating clear responsibilities and functions) and ‘how’ these are to be achieved together with timelines need to be specified if the new NWP is to make a difference.

The revised NWP should only include goals and outcomes that are realistic, achievable, environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Further, a clear roadmap together with a clear responsibility and accountability structure at all levels should be spelled out. Adequate resources in terms of trained human resource, finances and technologies should be provided for if the same is to be realised.

Adoption of an ecosystem-based approach and climate proofing of watersheds, promotion of “water stewardship”, the Water Governance Standard, climate-resilient agriculture and policies that incentivise increased production of rainfed crops have an immense potential to shift the “use narrative” in the water sector in India. We sincerely hope that the Committee under Dr. Mihir Shah’s leadership will take into consideration the issues we have raised and address them in the revised NWP.


All authors are associated with The WOTR Centre of Resilience Studies (W-CReS), Pune. More about W-CReS at Email for communication: This article has been republished with permission from the authors.


[1] These crops are largely grown by small farmers in the rainfed and dryland regions of India which constitute the bulk of arable lands, host the largest number of  poor in the country,  and produce over 85% of cereals, 83% of pulses, 70% of oil seeds, and even 65% of cotton (CRIDA 2011) in India. With agricultural productivity declining in “green revolution” regions, rainfed and dryland regions are potentially the next food basket of India.

[2] WOTR has designed, tested, and implemented ‘Co-DriVE-PD’ tool across the many regions. The tool examines ‘Drivers & Pressures’ that influence decisions to promote change and reduce vulnerability. More on the tool at

[3] Section 7/ (g): “The right of every owner of land to collect and dispose within his own limits of all water under the land which does not pass in a defined channel and all water on its surface which does not pass in a defined channel.”


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