Water policies in India: Past and present

Effective policymaking is one of the key principles to achieve good governance (Image Source: IWP Flickr Photos)
Effective policymaking is one of the key principles to achieve good governance (Image Source: IWP Flickr Photos)

What is the state of water in India? 

India has 18 percent of the world’s population, but only 4 percent of its water resources, which makes it among the most water-stressed in the world. A large number of people in India are now facing high to extreme water stress, informs the report by the government’s policy think tank, the NITI Aayog (World Bank, 2023). The recently published World Resources Institute's Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas warns that India is one of the top countries that could face extreme water stress in the coming years which could impact agricultural production and disrupt the economy stressing for the urgency to manage water resources sustainably in the years to come. 

The NITI Aayog report predicts that the country’s water demand will be twice that of the available supply by 2030, affecting a large section of the population and leading to around 6 percent loss in the country’s GDP. As per the report of National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development of MoWR, the water requirement by 2050 in high use scenario is likely to be a  1,180 BCM, whereas the present-day availability is 695 BCM (NITI Aayog, 2018).

Most of the agricultural production in the country is rainfed, meaning it is heavily dependent on the monsoon, which is increasingly getting erratic. Droughts are becoming more frequent and India’s rain-dependent farmers are already facing a crisis with 53 percent of agriculture in India being dependent on the rains.  Groundwater resources that account for 40 percent of the water supply, are being depleted at unsustainable rates. Worse still even the water that is available stands the risk of contamination leading to nearly 200,000 deaths each year (NITI Aayog, 2018).

Conflicts over water sharing often increase among the Indian states in times of water scarcity, pointing to the fact that frameworks and institutions that are in place for water governance need to continuously evolve with time to take care of the water needs of the growing population under emerging challenges such as climate change (NITI Aayog, 2018).

Why is there a need for discussion on the water policy?

Effective policymaking is one of the key principles to achieve good governance. Policy includes guidelines that can help to take decisions and achieve rational outcomes. It is a statement of intent implemented as a procedure or protocol. Governments and institutions have policies in the form of laws, regulations, procedures, administrative actions, incentives and voluntary practices. Many a times, resource allocations mirror policy decisions.  

Policy making is extremely important for management of water resources in India. This is because while physical scarcity of water persists in many parts of India, there are many cities and towns where the cause of scarcity is also mismanagement of water resources.

Decision-making in water resources is challenging because of their diverse nature and interdependence with other resources and requires involvement with multiple actors and institutions making it more complex and challenging (OECD, 2016). There should be a proper balance for water usage among humans and the environment. Framing water policies at the national, state, or sub-state levels are very important to maintain this balance (Rathee and Mishra, 2021).

Efforts have been made by several government agencies for water resource management by incorporating the 1st national water policy in 1987 and making amendments in it over time to encourage optimum use of water and lessen the burden on the environment (Rathee and Mishra, 2021).. 

What are the principles on which water policies in India are based?

Water policies

(Image Source: Rathee, R.K., Mishra, K.S. (2021) Water Policies in India: A critical review. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 14(47):3456-3466). The paper is open access under cc license.

How did the water policy evolve since precolonial times?

Precolonial times

The relatively high availability of water in India led to lack of attention towards water regulation during precolonial times (Cullet, P. and Gupta, J., 2009).

Colonial times

The concept of government control over surface waters started since the colonial period. The control over water and rights to water were regulated through the introduction of common law principles during the British rule that emphasised the rights of landowners to water. Riparian rights allowed a landowner to use surface water on his or her land while having the unlimited right to access groundwater on their land (Cullet, P. and Gupta, J., 2009). 

Laws to protect and maintain embankments and to acquire land for embankments were also enacted during this period and the Controller was entrusted for implementing such laws. Other laws passed included regulation of canals for navigation and levying taxes on the users, river conservation, and rules on ferries and fisheries. The Northern India Canal and Drainage Act (1873) regulated irrigation, navigation and drainage and recognised the right of the Government to ‘use and control for public purposes the water of all rivers and streams flowing in natural channels, and of all lakes’ (Preamble). This led to the strengthening of state control over surface water and weakening of people’s customary rights (Cullet, P. and Gupta, J., 2009).

Colonial legislation also introduced a division between Centre and state in terms of responsibilities regarding water. The states or provinces were empowered to take decisions on water supply, irrigation, canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and hydropower under the Government of India Act (1935) and conflicts between provinces and/or princely states were subjected to the jurisdiction of the  Governor General (Cullet, P. and Gupta, J., 2009).

More details on the history of evolution of water laws and policies in India can be accessed here


Events that led to the Water Policy 1987

  • 1950: The Constitution of India gave ownership of all water resources to the government, specifying it as a state subject, and recognised the rights of citizens to drinking water.
  • 1951-56: Under the first Five-Year Plan, water supply and sanitation was added to the  national agenda with sanitation first time mentioned under water supply.
  • 1954: First National Water Supply and Sanitation Programme was launched as a part of  health plan.
  • 1956-61: Second Five-Year Plan: Water supply sector was not given much priority in this  Plan, but funding was provided to Public Health Engineering Departments (PHEDs). 
  • 1956: Amendment of interstate water disputes
  • 1961-66: In the third Five-Year Plan, problem villages were identified as those without  drinking water source within distance of 1.6 kilometers in the plains or an altitude of 100  meters in hill areas, those endemic to water-borne diseases and those where water sources contain excess salinity, iron, fluoride or toxic elements.
  • 1968: States were given financial authority to sanction rural water supply schemes, which  were expanded to include settlements with population less than 20,000. Priority was given to villages with acute scarcity of drinking water.
  • 1969: National Rural Drinking Water Supply Program was launched with technical support  from United Nations International Children ‘s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 
  • 1972 -73: Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) was launched by the  Government of India to assist States and Union Territories to accelerate the coverage of drinking water. 
  • 1975: ARWSP was replaced by Minimum Needs Programme (MNP) which aimed at full  coverage of population with safe drinking water. 
  • 1977-78: ARWSP was reintroduced, but funds were provided by the states through MNP.  
  • 1980-85: Under the sixth Five-Year Plan importance was given to the water supply sector in  keeping with the UN de Mar del Plata declaration of March 1977 about the  International Decade of Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation from 1981-90.
  • 1981: A national level apex committee was set up to define policies to achieve the goal of  providing safe drinking water to all villages as a part of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-1990).
  • 1985: Rural Water Supply and Sanitation was handed over to the Department of Rural  Development, then under the Ministry of Agriculture.
  • 1987: First National Water Policy

(Table source: Gupta, M. and Biswas, R. (2021) Structuring of water policies in India: An overview, Nagarlok, Vol LIII, Issue 4, 42). Nagarlok is a quarterly open access journal.


National Water Policy, 1987

The first National Water Policy, 1987 aimed at increasing the area under irrigation, food output from 150 million tons in 1987 to 240 million tons in 2000, meet the drinking water needs of 100 percent of the  population, and meet the sanitation needs of 80 percent of urban and 20 percent of rural populations. The policy document also highlighted the need to utilise groundwater, control floods, minimise impact of droughts, eliminate water pollution, establish a standardised National Information System, introduce a scientific planning and development procedure for water resources, establish Farmer Managed Irrigation Systems, etc (Paranjpye, V., Rathore, R.S., 2014). 

But, key elements of NWP 1987 remained unimplemented and NWP 1987 fell short of achieving its objectives due to lack of positive response from the State Governments inform Paranjpye, V. and Rathore, R.S. (2014).

Read more about it here

Events that led to the Water Policy 2002

  • 1991: National Drinking Water Mission (NDWM) 1986 became Rajiv Gandhi National  Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM).
  • 1992: 74th Constitutional Amendment Act was passed and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs)  known as Municipal Corporations, Municipal Councils and Nagar Panchayats and local bodies were created.
  • 1993: Accelerated Urban Water Supply Programme (AUWSP) was launched to provide safe  and adequate water supply facilities to the entire population in towns with population less  than 20000 as per 1991 Census.
  • 1994-95: Mega-city schemes were launched for five metro-cities.
  • 1994: Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) were assigned the responsibility of providing  drinking water as per the provisions of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment.
  • 1992-97: Eight Five-Year Plan: Problems with the water supply sector were identified and  reform agenda was put forward. Emphasis was placed on treating water as a commodity.
  • 1994: Sector Reform Pilot Project (SRPP) was launched in 1994 giving a new approach to  the water supply, operationalizing the decentralized delivery of water services by focusing  primarily on village level water supply management. The role of the government was  envisaged to change from service provider to facilitator. Sector reform projects were  introduced in 67 districts across the country on pilot basis.
  • 1997-2002: Ninth Five-Year Plan: The objective of Ninth Plan was to provide 100 percent  water supply coverage in urban and rural areas, 60 per cent sanitation coverage in urban  areas and 30 per cent in rural areas. Emphasis was placed on decentralisation and  privatisation, both in rural and urban sectors.
  • 2002: RGNDWM scaled up the Sector Reform Pilot Project to the whole country in the form of Swajaldhara Programme for National Drinking Water Supply. 

(Table source: Gupta, M. and Biswas, R. (2021) Structuring of water policies in India: An overview, Nagarlok, Vol LIII, Issue 4, 42). Nagarlok is a quarterly open access journal.


National Water Policy, 2002

The Second National Water Policy statement was released in the year 2002.

The preamble to the policy provides an understanding of the important principles on which the policy is
based and includes:-

  • Commitment to Integrated Water Resources Management and Development.
  • Importance to environment related concerns
  • Importance to innovative techniques and strategies based on science and technology (Siddiqui, M.S., Date not specified)

The salient features of the National Water Policy 2002 can be found here

The details on the different sections of the policy and a comparison with the 1987 policy can be found here

NWP 2002 fell short of bringing about reforms to mitigate the problem of floods, bring more area under irrigation, increasing utilisation efficiency for irrigation and also increase food grain production (Paranjpye, V., Rathore, R.S., 2014).

It also fell short in preventing pollution of water bodies, making available potable water and sanitation facilities to the population in rural and urban areas, maintaining environmental flows of rivers, integrating different components of the water sector at the sub-basin or river-basin level (Paranjpye, V., Rathore, R.S., 2014).

However, 2002 policy strongly recommended the promulgation of a ‘Dam Safety Legislation’, amendment of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956 for time-bound resolution of disputes and legislation for preserving of existing water bodies by preventing encroachment and deterioration of water quality. But all these reforms remained unfulfilled (Paranjpye, V., Rathore, R.S., 2014).

Read more about it here

Events that led to the Water Policy 2012

  • 2002-07: The Tenth Five Year Plan aimed at 100 percent coverage of urban and rural  population, management of water as a commodity, change in the role of government from direct service provider to facilitator, leading to privatisation.
  • 2003: Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA): The objective was to provide urban amenities and livelihood opportunities in rural areas.
  • 2004: All drinking water programmes were brought under the umbrella of the RGNDWM.
  • 2005: Bharat Nirman Programme (BNP), a five-year Programme to build rural infrastructure, of which drinking water supply was one of six components.
  • 2007: Funding under the Swajal dhara was changed from the previous 90:10 Central-community share to 50:50 Centre-State shares. Community contribution was optional.
  • 2007-12: The Eleventh Five-Year Plan aimed at covering  63 cities and 5098 towns under the JNNURM and UIDSSMT programmes, so as to provide adequate drinking water to the people. It aimed at a comprehensive approach to individual health care, public health, sanitation, clean drinking water, access to food and knowledge about hygiene and feeding practice.
  • 2008: National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) was launched to mitigate and adapt to the adverse impact of climate change. The National Water Mission was one of the eight missions under the programme.
  • 2009: Volume I and Volume II launched for the revised Comprehensive National Water Mission under National Action Plan on Climate Change by the Ministry of Water Resources.
  • 2010: Department of Drinking Water Supply was renamed as Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
  • 2011: Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation upgraded as separate Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
  • 2012: Draft NWP 2002 was updated to NWP 2012 and drinking water was given utmost priority.

(Table source: Gupta, M. and Biswas, R. (2021) Structuring of water policies in India: An overview, Nagarlok, Vol LIII, Issue 4, 42). Nagarlok is a quarterly open access journal.


The National Water Policy, 2012

Under the National Water Policy, 2012, a number of recommendations were made for conservation, development and improved management of water resources in the country.

The salient features of the National Water Policy 2012 can be found here

The policy faced limitations in terms of delay in creating River Basin Agencies/Authorities/ Organisations, inadequate implementation of policy recommendations, intractable inter-state disputes and over-optimistic estimates regarding India’s annual water availability. It also did not consider ancient water cultures in India, the irrigation energy nexus, the changing patterns in water use for irrigation, application of IWRM principles and the issue of privatisation of water and water grabbing (Paranjpye, V., Rathore, R.S., 2014). 

The ‘subsidiarity principle’ i.e. the devolution of planning and decision-making powers to the lowest appropriate level was also absent in the policy. It avoided listing of priorities and only mentioned different types of water uses. It also did not give adequate importance to the diversity in geographic conditions, agro-climatic zones, socio-economic disparities in the country etc inform Paranjpye, V. and Rathore, R.S. (2014). 

What are the challenges to policy making in the country?

Gupta, M. and Biswas, R. (2021) state that a comparison of  NWP 1987, NWP 2002, and NWP 2012 shows that the policies lack in the ‘Water Law’ component of the water institutions and thus have weak legal strength. Although they qualify well in the ‘Water Policy’ part, they seem to lose out on ‘Water Administration’. 

Water policy in India is constantly evolving, but the Central and state water  institutions continue to have inconsistent and overlapping policies hindering progress. Water policies in India are also found to face a number of barriers in cases such as implementing groundwater rights, metering tube wells, etc. 

The formation of water policy involves various authorities functioning along different political boundaries between districts, regions, states, etc. and hydrogeological boundaries like basins, sub-basins, and catchments, etc. making implementation difficult due to lack of a common framework. 

Lack of adequate and disaggregated data or availability of contradictory data by different water institutions and at the river basin management level makes planning, management extremely difficult. Coordination between different departments such as the Ministry of Water Resources, Rural Development, Agriculture and Urban Development, etc. at the Centre and states makes it even more exhausting. The economy is another challenge for effective water governance (Gupta, M. and Biswas, R., 2021).

In 2015, a committee of seven members (Mihir Shah Committee) was formed on the restructuring of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) to form the National Water Commission (NWC). 

The report proposed a paradigm shift in governance along twelve main areas. The report was criticised for being voiceless on challenges of allocation of water in different sectors, rules for allocation, enforcement, performance checks, etc. at the basin level. It was felt that the report fell short on reinventing institutional and economic reforms (Shah, M., 2018).

The details of the report can be accessed here

The new Karnataka State Water Policy

An important development in 2017 included the setting up of the Task group by the Karnataka Jnana Aayoga (KJA) to draft a new water policy for the state, which was led by Prof Mihir Shah, Shri S V Ranganath and Dr. Sharachchandra Lele. The Task Group submitted a comprehensive report to the Government of Karnataka, including a new draft Water Policy for the state and a detailed rationale to back up its recommendations. The draft report was submitted in 2019 and presented some very interesting insights related to the water law and water administration components missing in the earlier NWP 1987, 2002 and 2012. 

It recommended a complete overhaul that included passing an overarching water framework law for water governance, a revamped groundwater act and irrigation act nested within a law for setting up water regulatory authorities at state, basin and sub-basin level, reshaping water-related agencies to increase citizen voice, transparency and accountability in the governance of the pollution board, the water boards, and city water management - as well as radical changes in the staffing and administrative structure of these agencies. This was to be coupled with a new mission for water data collection, analysis, research, dissemination and outreach that provided information at all levels for water governance and to the public to encourage efficient, sustainable and equitable management of water resources in the state.

The details of the report can be accessed here

Also read this interview with Dr Sharachandra Lele to know more about the important features of the Karnataka State Water Policy.

The future

In November 2019, the Ministry of Jal Shakti for the first time set up a committee of independent experts to draft the new National Water Policy (NWP). Over a period of one year, the committee has received 124 submissions by state and central governments, academics and practitioners. The NWP is based on the consensus that has emerged through these wide-ranging deliberations and focuses on:

It is important that the policy is implemented by 2030 if India’s water woes are to be solved. (Gupta, M.  and Biswas, R., 2021). 

State Water Policies

Water is a state subject in India, and the state has the liberty to draw its strategies based on the functions required within their boundaries. Many states in India have their own water policies. These policies are based on the National Water Policy, and convert the National Water Policy into a strategy relevant to the state


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