The centre- state dichotomy, along with a chaotic legal framework has been governing the Indian water sector for long. Rickety legislations have been engendering water anarchy and playing a pivotal role in impeding water security.

India’s water crisis has been in the making for a long time. Having only 4% of world’s water resources to cater to 18% of the global population, at present the estimated utilizable water resources stand at 1123 billion cubic meters (i). The per capita availability of water at national level has been reduced from about 5200 cubic meters in 1951 to the level of 1544 cubic meter in 2011. Furthermore, as a consequence of population boom till 2025, water availability is likely to drop to less than 1,000 cubic meters, pushing India towards water scarcity (ii).

The country faces a paradoxical situation as water resources are depleting while various sectoral demands are growing  and changing rapidly. Various sectoral projections reveal a total annual demand for water increasing from 629 BCM in 1997 to 843 BCM by 2025 (iii). It seems that during the next decade, the demand of water is expected to grow by 20 percent, fueled primarily by ever-growing industrial requirements

Groundwater aquifers have also been under serious stress and face a crisis of sustainability. Big dams that once created huge potential for irrigation now face the challenge of effective utilisation. Water demand is expected to rise further, posing a threat to water security. The pace of growth in demand is high enough to outstrip supply (see chart 1). Water security will assume distorted proportions due to severe mismatch in urban and rural demand. In this light, the already eminent inter-state conflicts would only intensify.

Source: Central water commission (iv)

Current initiatives

There has been an evident concern for water related issues, from the huge increase in budgetary allocation from the 11th Five-Year Plan (FYP) compared to the 12th Five-Year Plan from Rs. 243,497 crores to Rs. 504,371 crores (specifically towards irrigation and watershed development). The 11th FYP plan mentions National Water Policy very passingly. The idea of a national water framework law was mooted by the UPA government as a part of preparation of the 12th Five Year Plan with the Planning Commission setting up ‘Alagh Committee’. The committee recognised a ‘national framework law’ on water as a high priority area. 

Currently, the BJP led Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has recently put up two draft legislations for public inputs- The draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016 (NWFB) and The Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater- much needed developments over the archaic Easement Act.

The Bills have come at a point when the world is shifting towards a new paradigm of water management. However, water policy and governance in India has largely been disconnected from the global trend and scientific knowledge, and increasingly driven by populist politics. India cannot miss it any further. A legislative intervention has been also been proposed by Rajendra Singh- India’s water-man towards ensuring water access. The “Water Security Bill” conceptualises legal right to clean water to every citizen of India. The United Nations recognised the human right to clean water and sanitation in 2010, calling it “essential” for the realisation of other human rights.


It is important for India to consolidate water resource management through rational estimates and regulation (v). However, india is dealing with three most important water security related challenges of water management, attitude towards trans-boundary water and climate change. There is a gross mismanagement of water, which can be seen in agricultural sector as well as in big urban centres. The policy-makers have overlooked the water losses due to theft, defective pipelines, unsustainable agricultural practices, irrational pricing and populist policies like free power to run tube-wells drawing underground water. 

In addition to that, lack of coordination between different departments is the other major problem. India clearly lacks a coherent water management strategy, topped with under investment in water infrastructure. Apart from this, scientific management of the water resource like rainwater harvesting, recycling water, monitoring groundwater are still in their initial stages.

Although India share several rivers with our neighbouring countries and a significant size of our population depends on those rives water for their livelihood, at the present condition it seems that the attitude towards trans-boundary water cooperation is negative. The sharing of water by states without a joint mechanism makes this issue more complex. All these factors have challenged water security and has assumed a prominent position in politics. Also trans-boundary water debates are set around the impact of the construction of the infrastructure like dam on downstream population rather than future water security. 

The impact of climate change is also going to affect water supplies directly and potentially increase the water demand for agriculture and energy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), identifies water as the fundamental link through which climate change will impact humans and the environment. The preliminary assessments of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change have revealed that the severity of droughts and intensity of floods in various parts of India is likely to increase. The report pointed out that rise in sea levels and melting of glaciers will adversely affect the water balance in different parts of India. Therefore, the urgent need is to manage our water resources with an effective governance mechanism.


The existing constitution and legislation in India do not provide an appropriate framework to deal with matters related to water sharing related within sectors, states and individuals. Legal framework around water is spread across an array of legislations and judicial precedents, absolutely not in consonance to one another. The primary powers are vested with states but they do not correspond to basin boundaries, surface water rights are not very clearly defined and ground water rights are purely private. Environmental laws exist, but are not operational comprehensively and regulatory mechanism is absent.

In Indian context, the conundrum between water and populist politics requires a delicate balancing from decision-makers to ensure policy is well-informed and science is well communicated. The tattered regulatory structure is flawed on many grounds, for example, free electricity could have been a boon when there was abundant ground water, but the political repercussion is not letting such policies go obsolete despite of acceptance of the notion of depleting resources. Our flood management strategies no longer are able to comprehend growing flood frequency and intensity. “It is no wonder then that conflicts across competing uses and users of water are growing by the day” (vi). 

 It is a high time to recognise challenges related to water security and concrete efforts are necessary towards sustainable use of available water sources. To mitigate these challenges and avoid water conflicts, India needs mature legislation, coherent water management strategy, and a supportive political mandate.

(This article is contributed by Sarada Prasanna Das and Ira Sharma who are with Centre for Energy, Environment & Resources, New Delhi. Das is also affiliated with Institute for Governance, Policies & Politics)

Further reading:

 (i) Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, adopted November 2014.

(ii) Kumar et al., 2005, Water Resources Information System of India, 2011, Central Water Commission, 2013. 

(iii) Working Group on Water Resources for the XI Five year Plan, 2006.


(v)  ‘India Has Legislative Solutions to Its Water Management Problems, But Will They Work?’, Das and Swain, The Wire.

(vi)  ‘Water Conflicts in India’, Joy et al, 2008. I.pdf;jsessionid=F3733ED63E27C2F043816482A8BCA09D?sequence=1