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BW Businessworld

An Urgent Concern

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The Comptroller and Auditor General has an enormous task; he has to audit all levels of government from the centre to panchayats, and send a stream of audit reports to Parliament. Hence he applies a standardised technology to most institutions. He starts from the tasks laid down for the institutions by their charters, looks at the costs and performance, and gives a rough measure of how far expenditures were translated into achievements. Traditionally, he confined himself to the audit of activities financed by the budgets of the various governments. But more recently he has ventured to unprecedented areas.

The Commonwealth Games were the subject of a report exceeding 500 pages. They were extremely costly. The cost was paid by all Commonwealth countries, and not India alone. And they went badly wrong. So the CAG put especially hard work into their audit. He went back to the award of the Games to Delhi in 2003, and traced the course of events right till their end in 2010. Even catering at the airport, road signage and cleaning of non-venue sites did not escape his attention.

But perhaps his most unusual report concerns water pollution. The ministry of environment and forestry is over a quarter century old; one might have thought that it had had enough time to protect our water resources. Till now, however, it has not found the time to make an inventory of water bodies. Control of river pollution began in 1985; even now, major rivers including Yamuna, Krishna, Godavari and Sutlej are heavily polluted. Amongst lakes, the CAG found a handful including Sharanabasaveshvara and Nainital lakes improved; but most lakes continued to have poor water quality, leading to eutrophication and choking up by weeds.

The CAG did not confine himself to criticism of the relevant ministries; he had suggestions about how they should be doing their job. He pointed out that the focus of the ministry of water resources on water bodies was mistaken. Water flowed and travelled long distances, and could carry pollution with it. Hence it was essential to tackle water quality in the entire command areas of rivers that converged on their way to the sea. Uniform water quality standards needed to be developed and set for the country as a whole, and used for making the inventory of water resources, on the basis of which a plan for quality improvement could be made. Integrated drainage and waste disposal schemes needed to be made for cities, instead of perpetuating the inherited piecemeal arrangements.

The response of the Ministry of Environment and Forests was as expected: it appointed a committee of experts. The committee has been in existence for over seven months now; till now, there is no sign of any output. It may be that the committee is working diligently and will soon come up with a detailed plan of action. But it would give the people some reassurance if it brought out with greater dispatch a concept paper outlining how we should approach the problem.

To begin with, it should form a view on raising the utilisation. Soon after independence, the government built many dams to conserve water and make it available for irrigation. Today, the dams are silted up and have lost much storage capacity. Canals are in poor shape. And faced with growing water needs of cities, governments have diverted a considerable proportion of stored water to them, leaving farmers high and dry. Luckily, there have been vigorous local efforts in some states towards small-scale irrigation and water conservation, which have postponed an agricultural crisis.

But it cannot be postponed forever. The first three decades after independence were the era of big dams. The last three decades have seen progressive exploitation of groundwater. It is reaching its limits in the drier regions. The spate of farmer suicides in eastern parts of Maharashtra are not unrelated to this. We need to continue intensifying the use of water. Already, many rivers which used to run to the sea have dried up because their water gets used up on the way. Even when there is enough water, access to it is highly unequal.

All this argues for a more rational, more active approach to water. And the first step in that approach is better knowledge of our water resources. That will not be enough; water will also have to be distributed to those who need it, and new technologies will have to be developed to make more intensive use of it. But we have to start somewhere; one could not do better than start where the Comptroller and Auditor General stopped. And when the water resources are accounted for, he can audit them.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-01-2012)