Water, a fundamental resource for human survival and the cornerstone of sustainable development has emerged as a central challenge in modern times. In the context of India, a country that harbors a significant portion of the global population but only a fraction of the world’s freshwater resources, the importance of effective water governance cannot be overstated. The intricate interplay of increasing water demand, inequitable distribution, and suboptimal management has magnified the water crisis in the country, necessitating a comprehensive and cohesive approach to address this critical issue.
Within the decentralised framework of water governance in India, the responsibilities for water resource development and management are entrusted to the individual states in accordance with the Constitution. While the central government plays a role in financing national-level projects, the onus of managing water resources within their administrative boundaries rests with the states. Meanwhile, interstate water distribution and management are under the jurisdiction of the Government of India. However, the evolution of water governance in the state of Punjab presents a complex narrative that highlights both successes and shortcomings in this decentralised model.
Reflecting on my role as an administrative secretary overseeing water resources, water conservation, drinking water supplies, and local self-government from 2007 to 2016, it was evident that Punjab’s water governance exhibited favourable outcomes compared to many other states. While challenges remained, such as ensuring equitable access to water, substantial progress was made in extending water sources to most villages and towns. Furthermore, the state displayed a remarkable ability to supplement surface water shortages through the utilisation of groundwater resources, albeit at the cost of their depletion.
Historically, water governance played a pivotal role in driving Punjab’s agricultural prosperity. Even in the aftermath of the traumatic partition of 1947, which resulted in the loss of three crucial western rivers of the Indus System to Pakistan, the government, at both the national and provincial levels, demonstrated a commitment to harnessing the potential of the remaining eastern rivers, namely the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi. This endeavour materialised through the construction of vital infrastructure, including dams such as Bhakra, Pong, and Ranjit Sagar, as well as reservoirs and distribution channels, all of which collectively maximised the utilisation of river water for electricity generation, agriculture, and various other uses.
However, the trajectory of Punjab’s water governance took a downturn following the trifurcation of the state in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The division of the state had significant implications for water availability, resulting in a decline in governance quality and management efficiency. The breach of basin and riparian principles in water sharing and distribution, along with the transfer of water to non-basin areas, further exacerbated inter-state water disputes. This tumultuous political landscape hindered the necessary attention and resources required for effective water governance, perpetuating the elusive pursuit of water justice.
Punjab’s water governance challenges extend to both rural and urban areas, where governance is entrusted to Panchayat Raj Institutions and district/municipal bodies, respectively. However, these governing bodies often fall short of effectively safeguarding the interests of the common populace and conserving this precious resource. Despite significant investments, state water utilities have struggled to deliver adequate water and sanitation services, disproportionately affecting marginalised communities. The disparity in water supply between affluent and disadvantaged populations not only reinforces social inequalities but also contributes to malnutrition and health disparities, particularly among children.
A prevailing culture of free water allocation further amplifies the issue of wastage and neglect of water resources. A staggering three-fourths of the water supply is distributed without any charges, perpetuating an environment where water conservation takes a backseat. Consequently, water productivity remains abysmally low, and the critical concepts of recycling and reuse of water are given inadequate attention.
Furthermore, Punjab’s water bodies grapple with alarming levels of pollution, rendering a significant portion of surface water unsafe for consumption. Groundwater, once considered a reliable source, faces contamination and depletion due to rampant and unsustainable extraction. Despite these challenges, measures to combat water pollution and enhance water treatment facilities remain woefully inadequate, leaving the population vulnerable to the adverse consequences of poor water quality.
The root causes of Punjab’s water governance woes are multi-faceted, encompassing factors such as inefficient resource management, corruption, outdated technology, inadequate funding, and inappropriate institutional structures. Additionally, the lack of synchronisation between water sector policies and other sectoral policies, such as agriculture, trade, energy, and the environment, further exacerbates the problem. The intricate web of decision-making processes involving multiple departments and agencies, coupled with interstate conflicts over water rights, complicates the landscape of effective water governance.
Punjab, despite its relatively developed status, has succumbed to the broader trends afflicting the nation’s water governance. The entrenchment of competitive politics has hindered the maintenance and advancement of water resource development and governance in the state. This predicament is compounded by the presence of archaic laws, aging infrastructure, and a complacent bureaucracy that fails to effectively address emerging challenges.
The political arena has also been a battleground for Punjab’s water rights, consuming significant governmental energies. Enduring litigations and a lack of acknowledgment of ground realities by national authorities have impeded progress in water governance. Even judicial interventions have often fallen short of delivering justice, rendering many existing laws ineffective.
In the context of global sustainability efforts, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal-6 (SDG-6) underscores the pivotal role of water governance in achieving water and sanitation objectives. Sustainable Water Management (SWM), centred on balancing water demands across diverse sectors while preserving ecological integrity, presents a comprehensive approach to address contemporary water challenges. However, this pursuit encounters roadblocks in the form of urbanisation, water scarcity, climate change, and infrastructure inadequacies.
An effective paradigm of water governance spans political, social, economic, and environmental dimensions. The intricate processes and systems governing the management, distribution, and utilisation of water resources demand both structural and philosophical enhancements. While the existing statutory framework provides a foundation, its revision is imperative to elevate water to the status of a national resource, transcending the realm of political manoeuvring and securing its prominence as a pivotal aspect of citizen well-being.
In striving for sustainable management, the principles of sustainability must be seamlessly integrated, taking into account the long-term imperatives of future generations. Concepts like Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and Adaptive Co-management emerge as contemporary strategies to tackle the multifaceted challenges of water governance. A shift from politically driven water sharing to needs-based allocation, bolstered by community participation and stakeholder engagement, represents a transformative approach. The era of water being held hostage to political agendas should yield to a future where water is regarded as an economic asset, accessible to all, particularly the vulnerable segments of society.
While strides have been taken to conserve and manage water resources in recent years, there remains substantial room for improvement in the domains of water resource management, institutional dynamics, and policy coherence. The enhancement of water governance hinges on reinforcing regulatory mechanisms, amplifying stakeholder engagement, bolstering capacity-building endeavours, and harmonising water sector policies with broader national agendas. Effective settlement mechanisms for interstate water disputes are integral to ensuring maximum water availability and preventing social and political unrest in various states. Embracing innovative techniques such as atmospheric and seasonal harvesting of water, particularly in water-stressed regions, can significantly contribute to alleviating the crisis. The extensive potential endowed by the Indus Water Treaty, a model of successful international water cooperation, remains largely untapped, symbolising an untapped reservoir of possibilities for bolstering water and electricity supplies in the affected catchment areas.
The water governance landscape in Punjab stands as both a cautionary tale and a source of inspiration. It highlights the tangible achievements that can result from strategic water management and underscores the perils of neglecting this vital resource. To fulfil the unmet promise of water security, Punjab must embark on a transformative journey that transcends political vicissitudes, institutional inertia, and policy shortcomings. By embracing forward-looking strategies, nurturing stakeholder engagement, and aligning water governance with sustainable development imperatives, Punjab can reclaim its position as a pioneer in effective water management, setting an example for the entire nation to follow. Only through such concerted efforts can the pledge of water governance evolve from a failed promise to a triumphant reality, securing the well-being of current and future generations alike.