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Budget 2019 | Water gets a priority tag but solving the problem requires policies and action plans

The budget speech delivered by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was conspicuously skimpy on agriculture and water. The budget highlights make a brief mention of a Jal Shakti Abhiyan focussing on 1592 over-exploited and critical blocks

July 05, 2019 / 05:05 PM IST

Tushaar Shah

Ever since the NDA got an emphatic mandate for a second term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the priority of tackling the issues facing water even higher than during NDA-I. The widespread drought and the water crisis faced by many parts of the country has put into bold relief the criticality of managing the water crisis.

Reorganising myriad water-related ministries and departments under a unified Jal Shakti ministry soon after the formation of the new government pointed to the seriousness of NDA-II to attack the water crisis. Talk about delivering piped water to every home under the nal se jal campaign further confirmed the government’s seriousness. The Prime Minister’s consultations with a group of economists included agriculture and water as one of the six key challenges on which expert inputs were sought.

Given this hype about water issues, the budget speech delivered by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman was conspicuously skimpy on agriculture and water. The budget highlights make a brief mention of a Jal Shakti Abhiyan focussing on 1592 over-exploited and critical blocks. There is also a brief mention to ensure Har Ghar Jal to all rural households by 2024 under Jal Jeevan Mission.

NDA I promised har khet ko pani.  But the Prime Ministers Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), which was to deliver on this promise, was hijacked by Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Program (AIBP) which showered the lion’s share of funds to completing 99 incomplete canal irrigation schemes. Far from delivering har khet ko pani, PMKSY added little to irrigated area over what NDA had inherited.

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The budget speech suggests belated recognition by policy makers that India has come to depend far more on millions of groundwater structures for irrigation and domestic water supply than on government canals. Our principal water challenge is one of sustaining groundwater. Recognising this, the 2019 budget focuses, correctly, on Integrated demand and supply side management of water at local level, creation of local infrastructure for rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and household waste water management.

While the Swatch Bharat Mission is considered a great success, there are second generation challenges the millions of pit latrines have created in rural India. Many toilets are out of use for lack of water. Where they are in use, the challenge is of safe removal of sludge. There was an indirect recognition of this challenge in the budget speech which announced extension of SWM to sustainable solid waste management in every village.

In sum, many more water initiatives will be launched under NDA-II than the 2019 budget betrayed. There is recognition in the government that investing in improving public irrigation management has a much larger pay off than building more canals and neglecting them. There is recognition of the game changing role of solar energy in redesigning irrigation economy as evident in government’s KUSUM scheme. But this found no mention in the budget. Nal se jal is a noble intent; but there is no clarity on how will we ensure there is water to flow in the nal. The budget mentioned water as an issue; but we will have to wait until the government comes out with more detailed action plans and policies before we have clarity on what to expect.

Tushaar Shah is a Senior Fellow, International Water Management Institute. Views expressed are personal.
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