Ramaswamy R. Iyer was formerly Secretary Water Resources in the Government of India, initiator and principal draftsman of India's first National Water Policy in 1987.
Before we get into the subject, a few introductory remarks about water may be in order. Water is many things in one: a basic life-need and right; an amenity; a cleaning agent; a social good (e.g., for firefighting, hospital use, use in schools and public institutions, etc); a requirement for economic activity (agriculture, industry, commerce); a means of transportation; a part of our social, political and cultural life; and a sacred substance. It is also a part of the ecological system, sustaining and being sustained by it; and it plays a vital role on Planet earth. Even if we are concerned with only one aspect of water in a given context, it is necessary to keep in mind the larger and more complex whole of which it is a part.
Secondly, the complexity and multi-dimensionality of water leads to multiple perspectives on water, which need not be gone into here, except to note that different perspectives could be valid for different purposes without necessarily contradicting one another. For instance, water as a basic life-support need is a fundamental right under Indian law and a human right in the UN system, and from this perspective, water is not a commodity subject to market forces. At the same time, water as an input into economic or commercial activity is indeed an economic good, i.e., a commodity. All that one can say is that water as life-need i.e., a fundamental right, takes priority over economic and commercial uses/rights. There is also the engineering perspective of control and manipulation of nature, which has increasingly come under question. There is further an important question whether water is private property or state property or a common pool resource held in public trust by the state for the community. The last view has been stated by the Supreme Court in some cases but it is not clear whether the matter stands conclusively settled. We have to wait for a crucial landmark judgment. There are also ecological, equity and social justice perspectives, and very clearly, there is a women's perspective of growing importance.
Thirdly, it is now common ground internationally that the world faces an imminent water crisis; many think that the crisis is already upon us; and it is also common ground that the crisis is going to be complicated and exacerbated by the phenomenon of climate change. Without questioning these propositions, one might ask: what is the nature of this crisis? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to that question. The Establishment or mainstream view is that the growth of population, the pace of urbanisation, the processes of economic growth, and higher standards of living, combine to generate an increasing demand for water which brings the finite availability of water under mounting pressure. The other view, held by many thinkers and commentators outside the government (including myself), and also by some in government, is that while there is indeed pressure on a finite resource by growing demand, the crisis is to a considerable extent the result of gross mismanagement and wasteful use of water in all uses, and a pattern of development that inexorably creates a competitive, unsustainable demand for water; in other words, the crisis is largely one of our own creation. The two diagnoses will lead to two different responses:
(i) augmenting the supply of water to meet the projected demand, which has been the implicit policy for a century and a half, and
(ii) restraining the runaway growth of demand and managing the requirements within the finite availability, which implies a reversal of that implicit policy. The latter response represents my own position.
Private corporate sector participation needs to be considered against that broad background. Two kinds of participation immediately come to mind, namely, the privatisation of water supply (or â€˜water servicesâ€™), and private corporate entities undertaking investment in and execution of 'major water resource projects'. These are strongly advocated by many thinkers and institutions, but considered unacceptable by many others including this writer.
In the case of privately owned projects, the ground for the objection is that the transfer of control over natural resources from the state and the community to private hands seems wholly undesirable. There are indeed cases of the kind in other countries, and there is the Maheshwar Project in this country, but the objection stated above remains. This will not be discussed further here.
The privatisation of water supply is slowly and unobtrusively making headway in several States in the country. That seems an unfortunate development for several reasons.
One,under the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution and the related schedules 11 and 12, local water management is a subject to be devolved to panchayati raj institutions or PRIs. Against that constitutionally mandated democratic decentralization, the entrustment of the water supply function to a private entity or even a public sector corporate body or parastatal seems quite wrong.
Secondly, as a fundamental right, the citizen is entitled to ask for the provision or assurance of water from his/her elected representatives. If it is privatised, this fundamental right becomes a contractual right to be received on payment to the supplier.
Thirdly, it is difficult to privatise the supply without some degree of transfer of control over a water source to private hands. Fourthly, in so far as water for life is a fundamental right, the state has a responsibility that cannot be shed. If the private supplier fails, the responsibility will shift back to the state.
There are several instances in which private corporate entities, pursuing their own objective of profit, have depleted and/or irreparably damaged water for agriculture, drinking water, and water for modest livelihoods in the surrounding area. These are cases of a wholly negative relationship between industry and agriculture and rural livelihoods.
We have so far been considering cases of negative relationship between industry and agriculture. There are of course cases of positive relationship. Apart from purchases of agricultural produce by industry, agriculture, particularly large-scale agriculture, gets a wide range of inputs needed for production from industry sources: chemical fertilisers and pesticides, fodder for livestock, agricultural implements, equipment such as threshers, tractors, harvesters, etc, tube-well and bore-well motors and pumps, and so on. Alas, even seeds may have to come from industry, as under the prevailing legal dispensation our famers are losing control over their own seeds and have often to pay fees or royalties to foreign companies. The Green Revolution, with its heavy stress on high-yielding varieties of seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, has not only brought about a vulnerable dependence of farmers on industry, but has focused on a few HYV seeds to the detriment of large local, indigenous varieties, and has led to a loss of bio-diversity. Now, desperate efforts are being made by some individuals and NGOs to find as many of the lost seed varieties as possible and save them. Thus, what at first sight looked like a healthy relationship between agriculture and industry turns out on closer examination to be very different. The kind of agriculture-industry relationship that Green Revolution brought about was a pathological one.
In any case, the Green Revolution, which brought about a dramatic surge in production in the short run but has also generated a whole range of long-term problems, has more or less run its course. It is often said that we need a second Green Revolution. If so, it will have to be a very different kind of GR; and here is where the scope lies for a new, positive, healthy relationship between the private sector industry and agriculture. The 1970s GR brought about a high-capital, water-demanding, high-energy, centralised, chemicals-intensive, soil-health-endangering, biodiversity-reducing, inequitable, conflict-creating, unsustainable agriculture. If we need a new GR, it must be the opposite of the old GR in every respect. What we need is a low-capital, low-tech, decentralised, sustainable agriculture. The movement initially known as LISA and later simply as Sustainable Agriculture or Alternative agriculture started in the USA and spread further, and is particularly relevant for 'developing' countries. A similar movement known as LEISA (Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture) was of Dutch origin and has some following in India. It is not necessarily the same thing as Organic Agriculture but the two could come together. Kudumbam, Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) runs a magazine on LEISA. The late K. R. Datye had been urging a transformation from centralised fossil-fuel-based energy-intensive 'development' (which is unsustainable) to a decentralised, biomass-based livelihoods approach to development. He advocated a low external input, sustainable regenerative agriculture. LISA or LEISA or regenerative agriculture or organic agriculture: these are overlapping ideas that have many elements in common. If there is to be a new GR, it will probably be on these lines.
However, this is not really a 'private-sector participation' question. Pesticides, whether produced by a public sector company or a private sector company, will have the same effects on soil, produce and agricultural discharge. Similarly, dying units and hide-processing units will be equally polluting, whether publicly or privately owned. The question here is one of a relationship between agriculture and industry, particularly in the context of the Green Revolution; and this in turn is part of the larger issue of the kind of 'development' that we have chosen. If we need a new kind of GR, we also need a new kind of industrial development - benign, non-polluting, non-toxic. It is only under those conditions that we can conceive of a healthy relationship between industry and agriculture.
Let me return from that larger question to the more specific one of what HUF and HUL can do in relation to water and agriculture. This is a positive story indeed. HUF is already doing so much under its 'Water for Public Good' project that it is very difficult to offer any new ideas for their consideration. However, with some hesitation I am putting forward a few points that occurred to me as I reflected on what HUL as a leading corporate entity and part of a global organization can do in relation to water, a vital substance that is under growing pressure because of unsustainable demand, wasteful use and heavy pollution.
What can HUL do in relation to water? This falls under three heads:
(a) reduction of water-use and of the generation/disposal of polluting effluents in the production process;
(b) reduction in the demand for water related to the consumers' use of its products, and in the pollution potential of that use; and
(c) going beyond its production and marketing, engaging with civil society and NGOs in widespread local initiatives in augmenting the water available for use without adverse impacts, conserving the water so garnered, and using it economically to the best advantage in a sustainable and harmonious manner.
In so far as the production process is concerned, HUL is already trying to reduce the water requirement and minimise the generation of effluents (and also trying to obtain its requirements from sustainable sources). However, as long-term goals, HUL could consider adopting 'zero effluent' and 'zero net water budget'. Zero effluent is already the corporate goal of many of HUL's constituent units, but it could be universalised. As for water requirements for production, the efforts to bring these down probably do include multiple use of the same water, but I am suggesting that these be pushed further to the point that water once supplied and used is repeatedly treated and re-used so that there is virtually no need to ask for a further supply. This is what I mean by 'net zero water budget'. Undoubtedly this will be a very difficult aim to achieve, but I suggest its adoption as a long-term goal. Apart from reducing HUL's draft on the water resources of the country and minimising if not eliminating the pollution of those resources, these two goals will also make excellent economic sense from the point of view of profitability.
As for the water requirements relating to the use of HUL's products by the purchasers, and the pollution that such use contributes, HUL is no doubt already trying to reduce/minimise these, but I suggest that going beyond efficiency, innovation is called for.
- making the products less water-demanding in use, and
- eliminating or at least minimising the pollution arising from that use, call for R&D. Perhaps HUL is already pursuing R&D in these matters, but an increase in and intensification of R&D would be both highly desirable and eminently worthwhile.
Turning to HUF's very commendable activities at the local level in collaboration with several NGOs, there are many further valuable contributions that HUF can make.
First, local initiatives in rainwater-harvesting and other forms of augmentation of available water for local use need to be governed by some minimal knowledge of hydrology and possible impacts on downstream areas. Both the choice of the right locations for water-harvesting structures, and the extent of harvesting that can be done without undue interference with the hydrological cycle and without harm to downstream areas, are decisions that must be informed by knowledge. HUF could strengthen the knowledge base on which such initiatives are undertaken. Local initiatives are very necessary, but must be in harmony with the overall hydrology of the watershed/basin.
Secondly, the water so augmented needs to be conserved and economically used to the best advantage. Here again some contribution not only from traditional knowledge but also from modern science might be useful. In the past, S&T was called upon to find ways of making more water available. In future, S&T may have to play a different role, namely, to get the most out of available water - to make a little water go a long way. HUF can not only strengthen the knowledge base here, but also perhaps look for innovative ways of getting more out of less, including funding research in this direction. I am not making definite suggestions in this regard, but merely indicating a possible line of action.
Guidance may also be needed to ensure the avoidance of water-intensive cropping patterns. Further, conflicts between upstream and downstream users in a watershed need to be obviated. Rules governing water-use have to be devised and voluntarily adopted by the farmers. Here, Rajendra Singh's idea of a water parliament on the Arvari stream in Rajasthan (Arvari Sansad) might be a useful example. Local initiatives run the risk that the water so added to the aquifer might be captured by someone else, say, a rich farmer, through tube-wells or bore-wells. I don't know whether HUF has actually come across any such case, but this is a danger to be guarded against.
HUF could undertake, wherever possible, a promotion of SRI (System of Rice Intensification) which is said both to save water and to increase yield. This is already making some headway, but it would be a good idea for HUF to promote it.
Going a bit beyond this, HUF could explore the possibility of promoting Low Input Sustainable Agriculture and organic farming which would eliminate the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the attendant pollution of soil and water sources, and of course the crops themselves.
Where the local initiative is based on groundwater, some idea of the aquifer would be useful. Mapping aquifers is a governmental activity, but HUF could do some local delineation in collaboration with government agencies.
Similarly, in urban areas, HUF could collaborate with government agencies in trying to revive defunct urban water bodies, reduce distribution losses, design and implement better water supply solutions for slum areas, etc. (Arghyam's work on Mulbagal in Karnataka is an example of a sustained initiative).
I hope HUF will find these suggestions relevant and useful and consistent with what they are already doing. Through partnerships with various NGOs, HUF is supporting local initiatives in water-harvesting and conservation, the economical use of water, better agricultural practices, and the generation or enhancement of livelihoods. In these initiatives, it will be a good idea to explore possibilities of promoting the emergence of a new, alternative, sustainable agriculture. HUF could thus align itself with an emerging transformation.