Monthly Archives: July 2006

A Review: Right to Water: Human Rights, State Legislation and Civil Society Initiatives in India

Researcher: Priya Sangameswaran


This study is basically a desk-top review of the rights discourse in the context of water, based on academic and popular literature on rights and civil society initiatives as well as government documents regarding water and related subjects. The study has two broad motivations. Firstly, engagement with the idea of rights (and the right to water) helps to bring questions of social justice and equity to the forefront. Secondly, a study linking rights and water provides a bridge between different discourses (economics, legal pluralism, development studies, human rights, natural resource management) and different groups of actors (lawyers and activists dealing with human rights, social scientists dealing with the question of ‘development’), thereby opening up possibilities of synergies between them.

There are four parts to the study. The first part reviews the different rights-based concepts which are relevant to water – human rights, right to water, water rights, right to development, rights-based approach to development, and entitlements. This helps to clarify the distinctions between these different concepts and to understand what is at stake in each of them – for instance, for the role of the state, as well as for different dimensions of a right to water. Further, the debates that are found in different versions of rights, be it human rights or rights-based approaches or the right to development (the relative importance of legal versus non-legal aspects, the role of the state, the implications of power inequalities at various levels) are relevant to issues of water too. Rights could be also a useful strategic instrument, especially in negotiations with governments and donors. However, one must also bear in mind the pitfalls of using over-simplified versions of rights. Finally, the discussion of rights, entitlements and endowments gives a theoretical foundation for linking a rights-based framework to equity.

The second part clarifies the content of the right to water by unpacking its different dimensions. The different possible dimensions to the right to water include the precise nature of the rights/entitlements, the unit to which the right should be assigned, what kind of needs should be considered within the ambit of the right (drinking, household needs, livelihood requirements), the quantity and quality requirements for each of these, questions of accessibility and affordability of water, the responsibilities of the state and of right-holders, ownership of water resources, the kind of system put in place for water delivery, pricing of water, participation, the relation of the right to water to other rights such as right to housing or right to development, and the impact of globalisation on various aspects of the right to water. This discussion brings out the inter-connections between different dimensions and reinforces the fact that even defining what a right to water is complex and context-specific (let alone realising it).

The third part discusses the extent to which legislation and policies at different levels support various elements of the right to water. While there are a number of different discourses at the international level that have influenced water, the right to water has been most often discussed in the human literature. While there is support for such a right, the most important statement to date – the General Comment 15 of the United Nations, leaves a lot of issues undefined. At the India-level, the legal status of ‘right to water’ is discussed by focusing on constitutional support for the right to water, followed by an analysis of how the contours of such a right are actually shaped by water-related policies, legislation and judicial judgments. But while a basis for a right to water has been found in the Indian constitution under a fundamental right viz. right to life, neither the judiciary, nor the government has engaged with the General Comment in particular, or the human rights discourse in general (at least in the context of a right to water), which, in turn, is an indication of the hegemony of other water discourses. The specific discussion of different dimensions of water shows, on the whole, that from the point of view of a meaningful right to water, there are several lacunae in central-level policies and legislation, particularly in the form that current changes in the irrigation and drinking water sector have taken. This results in limitations in the working of the right to water at the state level. Further, the division of labor between the centre and the state means that some of the recommendations made by the centre are non-statutory in nature, and not necessarily followed by the state governments.

While there is some recognition of right to water in international human rights as well as in the Indian constitution, at the level of state legislation and policies in India, different dimensions of the right to water do not get much support. This is true even of cases like Maharashtra, where a particular version of rights (viz. entitlements to water) has been put forward in the context of Participatory Irrigation Management. On the one hand, the recent reforms undertaken in the realm of Maharashtra indicate the influence that central-level policies and legislation have on the states, even though water is technically a state subject. On the other hand, while the changes in Maharashtra have potential in increasing the rights of some groups (like WUAs), the nature of these rights are limited; in fact, they are more in line with a narrow, tradable permits version of water rights.

The fourth part discusses the kind of civil society initiatives being undertaken in water, including differences in the actors involved, the particular dimensions of water that they deal with, and the strategies they adopt. Two cases at the India-level – the anti-Coke struggles at Plachimada in Kerala and the agitations against the privatisation of the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh, are discussed in some detail, along with civil society initiatives in water in the specific case of Maharashtra. These initiatives have engaged with more dimensions of the right than the human rights discourse and state legislation. For instance, the idea of water for livelihoods and the relation between water and development has been an important part of at least some of these struggles. But more importantly, the use of rights language and efforts to engage with the state indicate the potential for synergies between different domains.

Published as: Technical Report, CISED, 2007




Bridging the GAP in Kanpur Ganga: Failure of Monitoring Agencies Causes Pollution Disaster in Village

Researcher: Praveen Singh 

The study looks at the conflict between the Jajmau villages (in Kanpur) and the UP Jal Nigam (UPJN) which is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) installations; between the Leather Industries (LI) on the one side, and the UPJN and the UP Pollution Control Board on the other side; and indirectly between the villages and the LIs.

After tracing the environmental disaster brewing in the villages for the past two decades, it discusses how the implementation of GAP has failed to ameliorate the situation. Instead it has further increased the vulnerability of the people of these villages through the influx of toxic chemicals in the eco-system. Despite efforts by civil society organisations and protests by the villagers to draw attention to the problem, state agencies have failed to resolve the conflict.



Protecting Drinking Water Sources: Case of Ghataprabha Sub-Basin

Research Team: S. Kolavalli and K. V. Raju

Collaborating Institution: ISEC


Ensuring universal access to safe drinking water is one of the more difficult development challenges for India as conflicting demands from various sectors commonly exceed water availability in many regions. This study examined whether the existing water institutions ensured adequate availability of drinking water. Although nearly all human habitations have been provided with “safe” sources of drinking water, access is limited and quantities are inadequate since these water sources are also under pressure from other demands. Depletion of groundwater aquifers and water pollution further threaten continued availability of drinking water.

This study looked at how existing institutions worked to protect drinking water from being diverted to other uses, and identified the difficulties in operationalising policies that seeks to protect drinking water. This was done by reviewing the literature and information from a 2001 rapid case study of the Ghataprabha sub-basin in Karnataka.  The study found that the prevailing institutions do not adequately protect drinking water, although official policies accord the highest priority to meeting human and livestock needs. However, the recently introduced drinking water protection legislation in two states, if implemented, could help in achieving this.


Questioning Modernity’s Tradition: Designs of Tank Irrigation Technology of South India in a Historical Perspective

Researcher: Esha Shah 

The pro-traditionalist arguments in India have acquired an important anti-hegemonic discursive space challenging and critiquing modernity. This space, however, is defined by a certain notion of tradition that necessarily remains an interpretation. Often this interpretation is not based on an empirically rigorous inquiry of history of traditional societies and their environmental context and knowledge systems. This study questions the interpretation of tradition – in fact, modernity's tradition. Applying the insights generated in science and technology studies and based on empirical evidences collected from the folk literature and secondary historical sources, it evaluates the social scripting of traditional tank irrigation technology in the pre-colonial historical context, challenges a romantic interpretation of traditional knowledge systems, and shows that the tank irrigation technology has survived for a thousand years because its designs were "scripted", several centuries ago, with the help of forced and coerced labor that was ideologically controlled by the elites.

The study also presents evidence to suggest that traditional irrigation technology was not environmentally suitable in pre-colonial times as is projected by the popular belief among the pro-traditionalists. From the same modernist concern about social justice and ecological adaptability, it paints a picture of tradition that is contradictory to the image that is popular among the pro-traditionalists.



Resource, Rules and Technology:Capturing Dynamics of Building Water Users’ Association

Researcher: Esha Shah

Through a case study of an irrigation association formed among farmers irrigating their land from a tank located in the Bijapur district of northern Karnataka, this paper tries to capture the dynamics of the building of civil society

The paper argues that the debate on community based natural resource management overly focuses on social relations and gives scant space to the structuring influence of ecological and technological materiality in shaping the contours of community formation. The formation of community based water users’ association is explored in order to understand the interplay between the structuring influence of ecology and newly introduced technology and farmers’ agency in strategically transforming resource, rules and technology.

Published in Vishwa Ballabh, ed., Governance of Water: Issues, Challenges, and Strategies


Water Resources and Irrigation Development in India: An Overview

Research Team: K. V. Raju, A. Narayanamoorthy, G. Gopakumar and H.K. Amaranath

Collaborating Institution: ISEC

Since independence, there has been a quantum jump in state support for the harnessing of water resources for agriculture in India. This work was carried out for the Ministry of Agriculture to review the contribution of irrigation to agricultural development over the past 50 years. Some of the important features have been the deceleration in the growth of canal irrigation, the decline in tank irrigation, and the rapid expansion in groundwater irrigation. While efforts to increase canal irrigation continue, and new financing mechanisms in the form of ‘autonomous’ corporations such as Krishna Bhagya Jala Nigam to tap financial markets have been devised, resorting to these mechanisms only amounts to bypassing the limits on state borrowing and do not resolve central issues like the recovery of irrigation fees.  

In terms of benefits to farmers, irrigation expansion has clearly led to substantial increases in agricultural productivity. But these gains are unevenly distributed across regions and within regions. Furthermore, the gains in productivity have come at the cost of increasing negative externalities, especially problems due to salinity in canal irrigation, over-exploitation of groundwater resources in groundwater-based irrigation, and (in the case of canal irrigation) cost-effectiveness.

The overview highlighted the need to reduce inter-regional and intra-regional disparities, not by increasing inter-regional transfers but by focusing on intra-regional improvements such as the rejuvenation of traditional water management structures and the promotion of more water-efficient technologies. This in turn, requires changing the institutional, fiscal and legal arrangements for water resource management. Some of the urgent changes required are reforming institutions for tank irrigation management, changing the legal regime and enforcement mechanism for regulating groundwater exploitation, and internalising the costs of large canal-based irrigation projects.  

Published as: Technical report, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.  (ExtendedAbstract)



Economics of Reprocessing of Spent Fuel

Researcher: M. V. Ramana

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) appears to be committed to constructing fast breeder reactors, which produce more fissile material than they consume, even as many other countries have suspended such programmes because of safety reasons and poor economics. These breeder reactors are to use plutonium as fuel and the DAE has adopted reprocessing as a way of dealing with spent nuclear fuel. The relative merits of reprocessing and direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel have been widely debated in Europe and the USA. An important aspect of the debate has been the economics of reprocessing. So far there have been no studies of the subject in the Indian context. This study assesses the economics of reprocessing and the cost of producing plutonium for the fast breeder reactor program. Our results suggest that the cost of reprocessing each kilogram of spent fuel would cost upwards of Rs. 20,000 even with assumptions that are favourable to reprocessing, and could be as high as Rs. 30,000/kg under other assumptions. These costs are lower than the corresponding figures for reprocessing plants in Europe, the USA, and Japan. As in their case, however, it is unlikely to be an economically viable method of waste disposal.

Outputs based on this study have been published in the following journals:

International Journal of Global Energy Issues

The Economic and Political Weekly