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This is the sixth story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

"I believe it is the collective that makes a difference."

Connected over Skype, we spent an hour talking about India's water management sector. But before that, K. J. Joy was adamant I clarify to our readers that whatever he talks about here is not just his work but the work of the coalitions and collectives that he has been lucky to have been a part of over the last 30-odd years.

In the year of 1983, after completing his master’s degree in Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Joy moved to Sangli district in Southern Maharashtra with his friend (who would later be his wife), both keen to work in rural India. With the Textile Workers' Strike in Bombay gathering steam under the leadership of trade union leader Dutta Samant, a lot of the villagers were returning to their homes. This remigration in huge numbers to the drought-prone regions of Maharashtra saw employment and water become the emotive issues of the time, with villagers scrambling for a means of livelihood, unable to survive on agriculture alone. That is when all of them began working under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), a progressive legislation in Maharashtra at the time recognising the peoples' right to work during periods of drought.

But with EGS, a lot of issues immediately started cropping up; people were not getting work on time, not getting wages on time, and EGS sites were also a breeding space for corruption. The Mukti Sangharsh Movement, of which Joy was one of the earliest members, started to mobilise workers and work on solutions to these issues. But soon it became clear that EGS, which had these people working on either road construction or breaking stones, cannot be a permanent drought-proofing solution in the long run. The movement started demanding that all works taken up under EGS should be agriculturally productive and should have some relationship with soil and water conservation. 

One of the standout features of the movement was that instead of just raising demands to the government, it showcased a pathway for the government on how to do it better. It involved people searching for scientific alternatives and then tried to force the state to implement these. The Mukti Sangharsh Movement thus became Joy’s first introduction to the water sector. 

Joy is one of the founding members of the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), an organisation working in the area of Natural Resource Management (NRM), primarily in the rural areas. He is also part of a coalition called Vikalp Sangam, which means alternative futures, a larger initiative that looks at alternate ways of meeting our growing needs and aspirations. Presently he coordinates the national level initiative, Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, a network of about 600 individuals and organisations who are interested in engaging with water conflicts in India. Joy has also published extensively on water and development issues; Alternative Futures: India Unshackled is a book he co-edited with environmentalist Ashish Kothari, which brings together 35-40 people and tries to consolidate all the alternative thinking in terms of environment and development in the country.

In this interview, the activist-researcher talks about his work in the water resource management sector and muses over solutions for India’s burgeoning water crisis.

Joy at the mullaperiyar conference - Understanding India's Water Management Woes | Nature inFocus
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Joy speaking at a conference discussing the Mullaperiyar conflict, organised by the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India. Photograph: SOPPECOM

You are one of the founding members of SOPPECOM. How did the organisation and its ideologies take shape?

During the Mukti Sangharsh Movement, around '85-'86, we had started working together with some pioneering researchers and activists. We got associated with Professor Shripad A. Dabholkar, who was doing a whole lot of experimentation with agricultural issues. He had set up an experimental network of farmers called Prayog Parivar. And, under the guidance of the eminent engineer K. R. Datye, we did a 5-year rigorous action-research to see what is the type of water requirement for different crops, what are the type of agronomical changes that can be made to bring down water requirement levels, and how to increase the productivity levels among other things.

The research gave us a whole lot of new insights about how drought can be managed and some empirical norms for when one talks about how much water is required per family to meet their livelihood needs. In 1991, after I moved back to Pune, the same group of people got together and formed SOPPECOM, basically, a space to work together and support grassroots initiatives. It is a non-profit, non-government organisation working to fight for equity, to find alternatives for dam proposals, to restructure public irrigation schemes in a more participative manner and much more.

Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) is one of the bigger success stories of SOPPECOM. Could you talk more about that?

During '86-'87, the nation's irrigation performance was at its lowest. For example, we looked at a project called the Mula Irrigation Project, which was supposed to irrigate about 80-90,000 ha. But, in reality, not even 50% of the area was irrigated. Farmers were complaining that they do not get water as per their requirements, that they got water once in two weeks or at even longer intervals. This makes crop diversification impossible, with sugarcane being the only crop that can survive such long dry spells. Farmers have no role to play in such decisions; everything is managed by the irrigation bureaucracy, which is also a space for corruption.

In a conference at the Mahatma Phule Agricultural University in Rahuri that some of these farmers had attended, we took a proposal to them, saying, if you are ready to take over the management of water, then we will negotiate with the government and see how you can form your own organisation to do this. People from one of the villages called Chanda near Ahmednagar came forward and said that they are ready to take over the management.

We had to start from scratch. We had to convince the farmers to do this as they felt that water management was the irrigation department's job. And, there was a lot of paperwork to be done because to get the legal sanction to form a Water User Association (WUA), 51% of the people who own land in the particular command area should agree to do so. Thus, the first experimental WUA was set up in the country, and it proved to be a great success with a marked improvement in productivity of the region.

After the success at the minor level, we tried to scale it up in different places. One of the best examples of WUA can be seen in Nashik district where we worked with a local organisation called Samaj Parivarthan Kendra. In one of the villages, they even brought wells under the jurisdiction of the WUA, with some of the well-owners paying charges for using the well water. This is also a region where WUAs at the minor level federated together, and the entire Waghad Irrigation Project came to be managed by the farmers themselves. In 2005, as per the Maharashtra Management of Irrigation Systems by Farmers Act (MMISFA 2005), the state government passed the legislation making PIM compulsory.

How has PIM performed across the country? Does it have the potential to efficiently restructure our public irrigation system?

The PIM legislation prescribes the government to do certain things. Before transferring the system to farmers, the water resource management department is supposed to do proper maintenance; bring back the carrying capacity of canals to the original level so that you hand over a good system to the farmers. But very often this does not happen, once you pass on a bad system, the farmers cannot manage it.

So the average performance in India, not only in Maharashtra, has not been all that great. Except in places like Gujarat, where the Development Support Center (DSC) has been able to do some good work, so has the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) where SOPPECOM is involved. So wherever good NGOs are working and hand-holding these efforts, PIM has been able to deliver results. Even Madhya Pradesh seems to have made a lot of difference because of PIM. 

So I would still say that PIM has potential, but if we want to realise the potential, then we need to meet some of these pre-conditions. PIM is one of the solutions, but we certainly need to move to a more participatory model of water management; bureaucratic management is not leading us anywhere. We need to bring in farmers, the actual users, and incentivise them by rewarding better performances etc.

Discussion with farmers at a fodder camp in beed - Understanding India's Water Management Woes | Nature inFocus
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"Wherever good NGOs are working and hand-holding these efforts, PIM has been able to deliver results."                     In photograph; a meeting with farmers at a fodder camp in Beed. Photograph: SOPPECOM

Is water allocation our major water resource management problem?

The allocation across people, as in the equity issue, and how you allocate between different uses like domestic, industry, agriculture etc. is something we struggle with. For example, if you look at the norms for rural water supply and urban water supply, they are two different things – rural supply is 40/50/55L per person per day, and in urban areas, it is 120/170/300L per person per day. 

With the urban water use increasing, we need to relook at how water is allocated because in the water policy the priority is given to drinking water, so anything can get justified under that, whether people in the cities waste water or not. A part of the urban water needs must be met through recycling, reuse and rooftop water harvesting. Only if these measures do not provide enough water should you bring water from outside the cities. Also, what are you doing with the wastewater, which is a huge resource we have. The more water you give to a city, the more sewage it generates, and studies show that we have not been able to treat more than 18% of our sewage. So the pollution load that it carries to the surface water or groundwater is much larger.

You are someone who has worked at the grassroots and policy levels. What is the reality on the ground and how much do they reflect in the policies that are put forth today?

Water is primarily a state-level subject, apart from when there are transboundary or interstate rivers and the central government can intervene through tribunals. We feel that the role of the national water policy is to set some broad conditions and guidances. Each state will know the ground reality better, and they are supposed to make their own policies and legal regimes to suit the local conditions in a decentralised manner. From that point of view, it has been able to do, more or less, a certain sense of justice. But the problem is that unless you can get a buy-in from the states, very often these policies don't work.

In fact, these are some of the things that are being discussed, now that there is an effort to formulate a national water policy for India. There is a committee that has been put in place under the chairmanship of economist Dr Mihir Shah, and I am also a member of that. One of the efforts we are making is that even before coming out with the first draft, we are spending a lot of time with different stakeholders to get their individual viewpoints. So far we had about four meetings, in which we had called the state governments to come and present their viewpoints. We had also called a lot of experts who have been doing work in this space, and even activists and civil society people, to get all their inputs before we even draft. It has been a much more inclusive process, and we hope that this time we will get a policy which will speak to issues much better than the previous ones, with a very clear direction of change.

Physical assessment of cnb on lamanbudvi nadi in kalegaon ghat - Understanding India's Water Management Woes | Nature inFocus
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SOPPECOM team examining a cement nala bund in Kalegaon Ghat, Beed. Photograph: Neha Bhadbhade

Interstate water conflicts are still prevalent in India and are only bound to get worse. How do we resolve these issues?

There are two or three constitutional routes to resolve interstate issues. The first is that if the concerned riparian states can come together and negotiate, nothing like it; that is the best option. But whenever that does not happen, they can approach the central government to appoint a tribunal, as per the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, which got amended in 2019 as the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill.

Experience has been that the tribunals have been, by and large, unable to resolve conflict issues, and Kaveri is a great example of that. That does not mean that there aren't interstate issues where agreements have taken place. But issues like Kaveri have not been determined because after the tribunal gave the final verdict, all the states concerned went to the Supreme Court to contest the verdict.

We also don't have institutional spaces for conflicting parties to come together, negotiate, and share data and experience. In western countries, they have something called multi-stakeholder platforms where different stakeholders can come together, discuss, and where academics can also pitch in with their research and insight. Apart from the institutional, organisational problems, one of the major gaps has been that there is no clear understanding of what are the norms to be used in interstate water allocation.

In the Kaveri conflict, some years back, economist Prof. Janakarajan and the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) took the initiative to form the Kaveri Family. It did work for some time, and it also came up with a sharing formula, but that did not speak to the formal process of a tribunal, because they are two different parallel tracks. So then the tribunal gave the verdict, and nothing happened through the Kaveri Family Initiative. Unless we get a legal space for multi-stakeholder platforms saying that what the process decides should be legally mandated, this type of participatory negotiated settlements will not come.

What is the most immediate action for this country to prevent a further water crisis?

My first take is that there is no silver bullet. People talk about very ad-hoc solutions like plant trees on either bank of the river, and your problem will be solved. These types of simplistic solutions create more problems than they solve. So we need to take a hard look at it, and we need to get much more integrated solutions. 

First, we need to look at agriculture water use much more critically. Without reducing production and people's food needs, can we reduce water use through efficiency measures, better cropping and agrochemical practices, and equitable principles? Second, is the water-quality issue that is creating havoc. If we can crack that, the demand for freshwater will be much less. Third, is to empower communities. I think people's participation is important, and they can even come up with water security plans at the micro-level.

We also need to have new partnerships in terms of government institutions, academic institutions and NGOs coming together on some of the real-world issues. Basically, we are talking about a new water paradigm in which these elements have to come together. We need to experiment, learn, and be patient; this is a long-term process.