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Governing water across scales: The Karnataka experience

13 Jun 2017 - 12:30

By Ritwika Basu and Chandni Singh

The history of managing India's water sector has been tumultuous. Driven by the sub-continent’s unique geography, with the monsoon characterising the economy, livelihoods, society and cultural practices, the governance of water poses many challenges. To understand these difficulties at the national and sub-national scale, we scrutinised peer-reviewed and grey literature, and interviewed 31 key informants, from concerned government line departments, and academic and policy circles. We also drew on findings from participatory focus group discussions and in-depth interviews conducted in our field sites in Karnataka: Kolar, Gulbarga and Bangalore. Additionally, we tracked newspaper articles over a year to unearth key debates and responses on water-related issues in the state, as well as the country. 

Here are some of our findings on the challenges around water governance at the sub-national scale: 

  • Poor participation in terms of continuous engagement by relevant stakeholders in the regulation of local water use.

  • The lack of adequate capacity within government line departments is a key barrier to implementing schemes and shifting towards integrated water resource management, and is considered of greater concern than the widely discussed financial barriers.

  • A mismatch of implementation effort and operational scale (e.g. natural river basins or watersheds) presents one of the biggest hurdles to realistically assessing water availability and ensuring water security.

  • The poor uptake of lessons learnt during different phases of a scheme (or between different schemes) necessitates an urgent overhaul of the ways that schemes and projects are evaluated and fed into policy processes.

  • Multiple challenges in practice mean that research findings are used rarely and negligibly in development. For example, research on crop varieties rarely reflect in practice due to the unavailability of seeds at the start of the agricultural season.

  • There is a lack of vision across departments operating on project-cycle timelines. For example, key informant interviews highlighted a disconnect between interventions – such as the ‘Sujala’ Watershed Project and the ‘Krishi Bhagya’ water conservation scheme – which slows down the process of transformational change.

We found that across stakeholders and scales, water is perceived and reported as a scarce and costly resource. However, responses to managing it are mostly focused on augmenting supply rather than managing demand, and the processes used to govern it are mostly reactive with very few examples of flexible, forward-looking decision-making. Such institutional rigidity and failure to take a proactive approach to managing climate variability and water scarcity, highlights the need for an adaptive governance approach in water management.

Photos: Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar, Chandni Singh