Politics of Water Conservation: Industries vs. Agriculture


While the world is gradually moving towards green economy, Orissa is seen to be embracing brown economy. Depending on the likes of Vedanta, POSCO, batteries of sponge Iron and coal companies which have demonstrated negligible social and environmental sensitivities, the State government intends to allocate exclusive water for such industries. On August 5, the state cabinet has approved a proposal to create a 'water conservation fund' from monetary contribution of industries which use the water from October to June. In the name of water conservation, the state government prescribes the social responsibility of industries to activate the fund for water conservation projects like minor and medium irrigations, check dams/barrages etc. on upstream areas.


At the outset, this is a good initiative but its intention is not clear, as the operational arrangement of the fund is yet to be prepared. First, the amount of information is being shared by the department of water resource (DoWR). There could be a nexus between industry and government. The DoWR might have its own agenda of water conservation that is so far unknown to the people of Orissa in general. The genesis, process and outcome of approval of such an initiative related to water needs to be looked into with broader water conservation effort in Odisha.


What are the water footprint assessments (WFA) of these industries? Industries, especially thermal power plant and coal mining are water- guzzling units. These units need no water as well but not at the expenses of farmers’ need or health of rivers or storage reservoirs. The erratic rainfall due to climate change has already destabilise the water balance. As per the government's own water balance assessment, industrial demand requires 10 percent of available water in the rivers.  Subsequently, the government is heading towards creating 'exclusive' water storage for industrial requirements. 


While emphasising construction of exclusive storage, the government does prescribe mandatory reuse, recycle and conservation of water for industrial units. How many industrial units have been following this government prescribed-diktat? The state government must ensure water footprint audit both direct and indirect use of water of these industries before allocation. There is a gradual departure from the State Water Policy 2007 which puts industrial need as fifth priority among six priority sectors.  In the same breath, the 2007 State Policy stipulates that any alteration in the mentioned priorities will demand formulation of a new policy. Has the Government taken steps for such drafting of new water policy?


It is believed that DoWR has evolved from narrow focus of only infrastructure building to water resource governance since 1996. But, in practice, the DoWR has been evolving as an agency to facilitate the so-called brown economy of the state and become spokesperson for the industries using Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) as a shield.


For a decade or so, the industrial water allocation from the major rivers has not been transparent and accountable. This is tantamount to saying that the industrial water consumption has exceeded the actual allocation, or vice versa. Water theft has not been regulated or curbed not only from rivers but also from ground water.  Now, industries drawing five cusecs or more water shall contribute one time at INR 2.5 crore per cusec to the Fund.


In mid-2005, the Orissa State Pollution Control Board (OSPCB) identified 78 industrial units mainly mining and sponge iron plants that were issued show cause notices due to causing water pollution in Keonjhar District. Many such industrial units along Brahmani River has been evading water pollution guidelines. Has DoWR taken stringent action like imposing a ban on these units to draw water from rivers or underneath?   


However, the state government has been lenient towards industries. All allocation of water for Industries are being made only after political permutation and combination. If the state government wishes to transform its act of a so-called increase in the irrigation potential into electoral vote in coming election, the water fund which provides Industries free hand to divert and consume water would definitely aggravate already existing animosities between the industries and the agriculture.


For greening the economy with spirit of environmental conservation and facilitating developmental activities by luring extractive industries, there have been various initiatives existing all over the world including in India. The Water Conservation Fund (Fondo de Protección del Agua) in Ecuador, Water Trust Fund in Peru, Trust Fund in Laos, Land and Water Conservation Fund in US are similar initiatives. The much debated and non-transparent Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) comes as a volunteer and charitable source is one of such non-binding funding from the private sectors. 


We do remember that  by the end December,  2000, a portion of dyke of Ash Pond No. 2 of Captive Power Plant of NALCO, Angul breached and affected 300 acres including Nandiara River bed.  The NALCO supported a INR 5.72 crore drinking water project covering 30,000 people in 13 affected villages. 


In India, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund and the Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) Plan  fund are such examples of effort towards conservation. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) aims to accelerate preservation of natural forests, management of wildlife from the money collected towards compensatory afforestation, additional compensatory afforestation, penal compensatory afforestation, Net Present Value (NPV) and all other amounts from the user agencies under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.  The CAT Plan  fund which addresses conservation of catchment area  of the river with biological, engineering  and social measures directly or indirectly associated with the catchment area. 


The state government has not divulge details of implementation of such funds so far.  Across India, the CAT plan fund is not utilised so far for the said purposes.  Then, a question is, what is new in this water conservation fund.


Water is not oil or hydrocarbon.  Among all the finite natural resources, water can't be equated with forest, coal or hydrocarbon. Industries are not only drawing water but diverting mostly irrigated command area for their activities. Despite water allocation from rivers, many industries are locally drawing ground water that triggers local conflicts. While the government, by its talk, is maximising the benefits for industries instead of farmers, it can't regulate the leviathan in Orissa. With such backdrop, how far the water conservation fund will be transparent and accountable to the farmers of Orissa is a moot point.    


In the last decade or so, the government has introduced many innovative programmes for development of water resources in the state. It requires proper auditing to find out the efficacy of such investments. One such arrangement was Perspective Plan of the DoWR prepared during 2009. Now, the plan and programme of the department are not in line with the Perspective Plan. Who is accountable for this? In water sector development in Orissa, it has been an accepted practice to show a rosy picture to the stakeholders (famers) and then utilise the resources in a way suitable to the implementing units.


Fund comes and goes in India without a trace. The trust deficit is high on the citizen's mind. Without proper mechanism, structure and process, the DoWR should not bring the Fund into existence. It needs to be extensively discussed among the stakeholders, more particularly the farmers prior to implementation.  To remove such trust deficit, the DoWR must look into the health of rivers than industrial dolls on.  Accountability must get first priority while stepping into the gamut of corpus funds.


[An abridged version of the article was published in Orissa Post (English Daily, on October 13, 2013.]


Author Note
Avilash Roul (Ph. D) is a Senior Fellow at the Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi