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BW Businessworld

Everybody Has To Come On Board: Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Jal Shakti Minister, Government of India

The newly created Jal Shakti Ministry reflects the ‘mission mode’ the Narendra Modi government has adopted to preserve and conserve water bodies and mandate efficient use of the dwindling resource. A very optimistic Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat tells BW Businessworld’s Sheena Sachdeva that conserving water should become a people’s movement

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Water scarcity is expected to dent the GDP by as much as six per cent. A 2017 United Nations report pegs losses from climate change related disasters at $79.5 billion. How serious is the crisis according to you?

Owing to climate change the span of  average rainfall has been reduced. Even though average rainfall is the same, rains have contracted in places due to precipitation. From a policy perspective, the total water harvesting capacity of  the nation is very little in the light of  the total harvestable precipitation we have, which is merely 10 per cent on just the surface. 

The Prime Minister took an initiative where he wrote a letter to all elected representatives in the gram panchayats  almost 2.5 lakh people in 12 different languages, to push the entire village towards water conservation and water harvesting. So the philosophy is ‘ghar ka pani ghar me roko, khet ka pani khet me roko aur gaon ka pani gaon me roko’ (capture the water at home in the farmfields and in the villages)  and there are so many examples. 

We will have to start harvesting water and rationalise use of  water. Reusing water is of upmost importance. 

The NITI Aayog’s 2018 report says 21 Indian cities will run short of groundwater by next year ... 

The NITI Aayog’s report titled Composite Water Management Index 2018 is based on estimates of annual groundwater replenishment and its extraction. However, it does not take into account the groundwater availability in the deeper aquifers. Moreover, out of 21 cities, 17 have water supply both from the surface and groundwater, with a majority being dependent on surface water sources to a large extent. 

The Department of  Water Resources (DoWR) has circulated a Model Bill to all the states and Union Territories (UTs) to support them in enabling suitable groundwater legislation for regulation and development of groundwater, which includes provision for rainwater harvesting. So far, 15 states and UTs have adopted and implemented the groundwater legislation on the lines of the Bill. Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) is also working in this area through policy interventions. 

How will the Jal Shakti Ministry and schemes like Jal Shakti Abhiyan and Jal Jeevan Mission tackle the crisis?

The National Water Policy accords top priority to drinking water and the domestic sector in the country. The new Jal Shakti Ministry has been created by bringing the Department of  Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation (DoWSS) and Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (DoWR, RD & GR) under one umbrella. This will facilitate addressing the key issues of providing safe drinking water to the entire population of  the country. At the same time, a major thrust has been given by the Ministry of Jal Shakti to water conservation and rainwater harvesting through the Jal Shakti Abhiyan and Jal Jeevan Mission.

The USP of these programmes is in bringing the community, state authorities and central organisations under one umbrella and convergence of various schemes of the Central and state governments on a mission mode.

Are desalination plants a solution to the prevailing water crisis? Is the NITI Aayog working on such a policy? 

It’s a discussion. We don’t need a policy in this area. If desalination plants become a viable option, then it is the best option. However, viability is a problem because of the cost of electricity. 

Agriculture uses 80 per cent of  fresh water. What steps are required for water-efficient agricultural practices ?  

In agriculture, we should follow a few practices to decrease consumption of water, which include adoption of a cropping pattern as per a Water Budget, zero or minimum tillage agricultural practices, avoidance of flood irrigation and use of  a furrow or a check method of irrigation. We should maximise the use of micro-irrigation (drip/sprinkler) to improve the efficiency of irrigation and to further enhance crop production. However, high yielding seeds should be used during farming, along with conjunctive use of fertilisers and organic manure. 

For complete piped water coverage of  the population, expenditure on the water network could almost double. How could the private sector participate in this project? 

Everybody has to come on board. However, this number is less than what we are predicting. We expect more investment than this. If a model like Gujarat is taken up, where the total treatment and transportation of  water till the destination or the distribution system is done by cooperative companies, then a lot of improvement can be seen in the current system. But lots of people have to come together wherein treatment of water, transportation of water and laying of pipelines can also be done by private companies. So, there has to be planning at a huge level.   

What strategies are being adopted for households and farmers to tackle the problem of depleting groundwater?  

Various initiatives have been taken up by the ministry as a strategy to control water depletion and to promote rainwater harvesting and conservation, which will ultimately address the shortage of water for drinking, domestic use as well as irrigation and also provide sustainability of groundwater sources. The National Water Policy 2012 advocates rainwater harvesting and conservation of  water. It also highlights the need for augmenting the availability of water through direct use of rainfall. 

What other integrated water management (IWM) schemes does the ministry plan to work on?  

To achieve the goal of IWM, we need integrated river basin planning, development and management by preparing river basin master plans. But to do this we need to prepare a long-term perspective plan for the development of  the basin’s water resources, along with a comprehensive and integrated approach for the development of water and other natural resources, using water with due regard to the constraint imposed by configuration of water availability.

The river-linking project is still in progress. What are your plans for expediting the process?

The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) programme is being taken up in a consultative model to achieve a consensus among the states concerned.  This process is time-consuming as each state has its own plans for developing and utilising its water resources. Formation of an authority under the Union Government on the lines of  the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) through legislation will certainly expedite the process.

India’s water and wastewater market alone is worth $420 million and is growing by 18 per cent annually.  Do you have any plans of addressing this market? 

I have recently made a plan with the Oxford Alumni acquisitions here in the country and the Chicago University Centre, to bring together and present the world’s available water technology, be it desalination, water treatment, water-saving or groundwater (preservation) through an India Water Show. This event will include a competition among startups working on water across the globe. The most doable and most practical startup solution will be rewarded with a prize and will also work with the government.       

Water bodies have been encroached upon in various parts of  the country. Do you have any plans for such problems?

It is a painful problem. This is generally because we have lost connection with the water bodies. In the city of Jodhpur, there are more than a thousand traditional water structures. Being from the city myself, even we are not aware of  the exact number. However, I have asked my officers to get in touch with the state and take the help of technology including ASI, to identify all traditional water bodies throughout the country.