Sunday, August 18, 2019

Comments on the New Report of WRI on Urban Water Access

The World Resources Institute (WRI) launched on 14th August a new report titled "Unaffordable and Undrinkable: Rethinking Urban Water Access in the Global South", whose "analysis of 15 cities shows that vast segments of the urban population in the global south lack access to safe, reliable and affordable water." Given below are some comments on the report. The report can be found at

1. The emphasis and recommendation of the report that "Cities and water utilities should extend the formal piped water network to improve water access" is very important and well-taken. Access to affordable water of adequate quantity and quality is a basic human right and piped water in urban areas is the best way to meet this goal as today millions are deprived of it. We would add that while universalisation should be the ultimate aim, the poor and the marginalised settlements must be the priority ones to get access.

Photo Credit: Manthan Adhyayan Kendra (Gaurav/ Rehmat)
2. It is very important that the report has recognised and highlighted that both privatisation and commercialisation of water supply have failed to meet the needs of the people, particularly the poor and the marginalised. Privatisation and commercialisation (the latter is when the ownership or control of the water system is in public hands, but the operations are on a purely market based, commercial principles). As the report notes - "private sector involvement did not solve the problem of inadequate access..." and "Corporatized utilities adopt commercial market principles ...However, corporatization has not substantively improved low income communities’ access to water services." The important lesson that would have been good to be explicitly articulate is that supply of water of adequate quality and quantity is a social responsibility of the state the state needs to fulfill it on a priority basis.This is important because even today, there is pressure to push privatisation or commercialisation of water supply.

3. The report says that "It is widely recommended that households not spend more than 3–5 percent of their average household income on both water and sanitation services per month." This should be worded and emphasized differently. As access to water is a basic human right, the report should have taken a stand that such supply must be ensured regardless of the capacity of the household to pay full or any charges. Where payment is possible, it may be limited to the 3-5% range as suggested, but it should be clear that this is secondary to the principle that access should not be denied on the basis of inability to pay.

4. The report criticises "intermittency" as a serious issue and one of its recommendations is to address intermittency - that is, reduce or eliminate it. We agree that this can be an important long term goal, (of 24x7 supply) as it has several advantages including convenience. However, to ensure and maintain continuous supply has very heavy costs, and we feel that this can come in the way of meeting the more important and highest priority target of first ensuring basic supply to all. Some of the problems of intermittency can be taken care of by ensuring regularity (predictability) for ensuring convenience,
and better maintenance of pipeline network to ensure non-contamination. Continuous supply can be brought in as a target in the next phase. It may be mentioned that the 24x7 supply logic and need was pushed heavily in the late 1980s and 1990s to to push privatisation.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

New Estimations of India’s Water Resources by CWC – Better Methodology But Questions Remain

The Central Water Commission (CWC)  has recently released (in June 2019) a report “Reassessment of Water Availability in India Using Space Inputsthat re-assesses the average annual water resources of the country with technical support of NRSC on similar lines to that of the pilot studies completed in June 2013 by CWC and NRSC on Godavari and Brahmani-Baitarani river basins.

As per the report, “The average annual water resource of the basins for the study period of 30 years (1985-2015) has been assessed as 1999.20 BCM. The mean annual rainfall of the basins for the study period of 30 years is 3880 BCM. However, utilisable water resources estimation was not in the scope of current study.” (Page xii)

 This report broadly confirms the figures of earlier similar assessments of the total water availability in the country, namely, the CWC study of 1993 and the study by National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD) of 1999. The current report asserts that “…. since the present study is based on the most advanced methodology, it generates more confidence in the results achieved.” (Page 77)

A perusal of the current report and the methodology used supports this assertion, and we can take these figures with a higher level of reliability and confidence (subject to the caveats and limitations outlined by the report itself at page 96 and some questions raised by us later on in this note.)

Comparing with Earlier Studies

The comparative figures for available water resources of India for this and earlier studies are given below, compiled from the Report itself (Table 2 at Page 20).

Sr. No.
Water Resources Assessed at (BCM – Billion Cubic Meters)
First Irrigation Commission/using coefficients of runoff
For pre-independence India
Khosla's empirical formula

Central Water and Power Commission
Statistical analysis of flow data wherever available and rainfall-runoff relationships wherever data were meagre
Central Water Commission
General water balance approach
Central Water Commission

National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD)


The differences in the last three or four studies are not much and can be attributed to some lack of data, some assumptions and other factors.

However the current study has not estimated the most crucial part – that is, the “utilisable” part of this total water, as against “available”, which is what all the above estimates are. This is important because the methodology of estimating the “utilisable” portion of surface flows by CWC is essentially based on how many dams, diversions and storage structures can be built in a river basin. The details of the methodology and the way it has been applied to each basin are not available. It would be important to see the limitations and assumptions of this methodology as well as the use of a more modern and advanced methodology for assessing the utilisable component, just as a more advanced method has been used for assessing the total resource. 

Superior Method

So what is the method used by the current study? It essentially uses a hydrologically model and water balance, with as disaggregated data (spatial and temporal) as possible. As the study says, it “emphasises on quantifying basin scale water wealth by transformation [of the methodology] from presently adapted basin terminal gauge site discharge aggregation [method] to meteorological data based water budgeting exercise through hydrological modelling approach.” (Page xi)

It uses daily rainfall data of 0.25o X 0.25o grids, daily temperature data of 1o X1 o grids, and Land Use Land Cover (LULC) map for the period from 2004-05 to 2014-15 prepared under Natural Resources Census (NRC) project of NRSC using IRS AWiFS satellite data (56 m resolution). Soil textural map, LULC map, daily rainfall map, daily temperature map, water body map and command area maps were integrated in modified Thornthwaite-Mather modelling framework to compute the monthly soil moisture, evapotranspiration, surface runoff. A software tool namely Water Resources Assessment Tool (WRAT) was developed by NRSC for computation of water balance components in modified Thornthwaite-Mather modelling framework using geo-spatial datasets. Abstractions for all uses (irrigation, domestic, industrial, others) were estimated. (Page xii). More details of the methodology can be seen in the report.

This methodology is certainly an advance on the methodologies used in the earlier assessments. Yet, it needs to be emphasised that the method is only as good as the data used – whether it is of the rainfall, soil characteristics, or abstractions, diversions and uses. And this probably remains its biggest limitation.

Addressing Concern Raised in Mihir Shah Committee Report

The Committee set up by the Ministry of Water Resources for “Restructuring the CWC and CGWB”, headed by Dr. Mihir Shah, gave its report in July 2016. It flagged an important issue related to the estimation of India’s water resources. It raised the issue that (Page 23 of Mihir Shah Committee Report)
“…recent calculations based on higher estimates of the amount of water lost to the atmosphere by evapo-transpiration are less comforting. Narasimhan (2008) has recalculated India’s water budget, using an evapotranspiration rate of 65 per cent, which compares with worldwide figures ranging from 60 per cent to 90 per cent instead of the 40 per cent rate assumed in the official estimates. The result also summarised in Figure 1.1 is sobering. After allowing the same 48.8 per cent for ecological flows, his estimate of water utilizable for human use comes to only 654 BCM, which is very close to the current actual water use estimate of 634 BCM.”

In effect, what is suggested by the results of Narasimhan (as outlined in the Mihir Shah report) is that India’s official water resource estimation assumes an effective total evapotranspiration of 1539 BCM leaving 2301 BCM as available water; whereas if evapotranspiration figures of Narasimhan are taken, then total evapotranspiration is really 2500 BCM, leaving only 1340 BCM as available.

First of all, there seems to some error in this due to double counting of groundwater. Groundwater resources are included in the total water resources. If this error is corrected, evapotranspiration figures of official estimates come to be 1971 BCM. Though this narrows the gap, the issue raised by Narasimhan remains.

In this context, though the current CWC report does not mention it, the methodology, by including specifically the evapotranspiration in terms of actual data (or better estimates using meteorological and other data) and using water balance studies, would address the concerns raised by Narasimhan. This is because the central concern raised has been the underestimation of evapotranspiration by the (earlier) official studies. If details of the figures from the modelling exercise done by CWC for this study are available, this could be further cross-checked.

Some Other Issues of Concern

There are some other important issues of concern with the CWC assessment and report.

First of all, the Report does give the limitations and assumptions of the study, and looking at these, it is clear that there these could significantly influence the accuracy of the estimates. The Confidence Interval reported in  the study at 90% indicates that the model may not be calibrating well with the observed parameters, possibly due to the many limitations and assumptions. Ideally, a confidence interval of at least 95% would have been expected. 

Some other figures also raise doubts about the CWC estimates. For example, in the basin wise estimations, the water resources of the Narmada river at 75% dependability are given as 45.24 BCM (Page 71). This is 36.66 Million Acre Feet (MAF), significantly higher than the 28 MAF which the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal determined as the total water in the river. This raises some questions on the dependability of the estimates. (While the Narmada Tribunal calls its estimates at the “utilisable” water at 75% dependability, from the way it has been  estimated, we can see that it what the CWC report calls “available” water.)

Last but not the least, the CWC Report does give the water resource estimates basin-wise, but it would have been very important if the estimates were also given season-wise (monsoon, lean season etc).

We hope that some of these issues can be addressed in the subsequent reports as this should clearly be an ongoing work.

Note: This post has been slightly modified mainly to include a comment on the  Confidence Interval. Further, this note may be treated as a Preliminary Comment, as the author is working on some further aspects based on several comments received. Comments of Manoj Misra, KJ Joy and Jeevananda Reddy are acknowledged, as is a tutorial on statistics and modelling methods by Ann Josey and Mokshda Kaul.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

“Parsimonious With the Truth”

The Supreme Court Indictment of the Environment Impact Assessment of the Mopa Airport and Lessons to be Learnt 


SC Stays EC of Proposed Mopa Airport

 On 29th March 2019, the Supreme Court (SC) suspended the environment clearance (EC) granted to the proposed Mopa airport in Goa, due to serious lapses in the impact assessment, including non-disclosure of vital information by the project proponent (Government of Goa) and abdication by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the environment ministry of its role and function to appraise the environmental impacts and mitigation plans and recommend or deny the EC based on this.

The essence of the problem can be captured just four words used in the judgement, that the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) of the project is “parsimonious with the truth”.  A more pithy and terse but sharp and hard-hitting summary would be difficult to find.
Unfortunately, what the judgement says about the Mopa EIA is true about many, if not most of the EIAs for such large infrastructure projects.  
Proposed Airport and Trees to be felled for it. Photo Courtesy

A Far-Reaching Judgement

Indeed, that is what makes the Mopa judgement so important – that it identifies and clearly spells out key problems with the entire process of environmental clearances for infrastructure projects. It also lays down principles and guidelines for ensuring that the spirit and letter of environmental laws are implemented, or, as the judgement points out, for upholding the “environmental rule of law”. These points, a few of which we will highlight here, have the potential to bring back on track the environmental clearance process which has been distorted to the point where environmental protection has become the least important aspect in the process, a process that has been reduced to rubber-stamping project clearances no matter the nature and extent  of their social and environmental impacts. 

This far-reaching implication of the judgement is probably what caused NITI CEO Amitabh Kant to write an angry commentary on the judgement, ( “The Need to Mope About Mopa”, ET April 15, 2019) calling the verdict a “dangerous precedent”. It certainly is a dangerous precedent – dangerous to those who see environment as merely an obstacle in the path of development (whatever the latter may mean), and who have been pushing and bending the implementation of environmental laws to get away with blatantly violating and ignoring environmental concerns. Kant’s article clearly reflects the unease that an institution as important as the SC has called out the terrible flaws and called for addressing them. Kant’s articles is mostly a series of specious arguments and has been ably addressed by eminent environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta in his rejoinder “When Wings were Rightly Clipped” (ET April 29, 2019) so we won’t get into it. But we will later bring in some points that Kant makes to highlight the problems in the EC process. 

Critical Points in the Judgement

Complete Disclosures at Application Stage a Must

Coming back to the important points made by the judgement, the very first point is that full and proper information should be given right at the stage of application for EC, that is, in the Form 1 (and Form 1A). Often, the project proponents leave questions blank, or provide inadequate or even misleading information in the this Form. Sometimes, the information is subsequently provided in the EIA. This judgement has highlighted that nondisclosure at Form 1 stage cannot be remedied by disclosure at EIA stage, and that

“failure on part of the project proponent to make mandatory disclosures stipulated in Form 1 under the 2006 notification…must have consequences in law.”

The reasoning behind this is also very important, namely, that the

 “failure on part of a project proponent to disclose material information in Form 1 …has a cascading effect ..” 

because the TORs are based on Form 1, and the EIA has to be assessed against the TORs. Moreover, the EIA Notification gives the power to the EAC (and the SEAC) to reject the project at the application stage itself in case it is seen as severely impacting the environment. Information given in Form 1 would play a big part in this consideration. Thus, non-disclosure or wrong disclosures in Form 1 

“bypasses the authority of the EAC and SEAC to reject an application at the preliminary stage and cannot be countenanced.”

Map showing location of proposed Mopa airport surrounded by forested area. One of the key information not disclosed was the large number of trees that you have to be cut, and presence of eco-sensitive areas nearby.

EAC Must Apply Mind to Environmental Aspects

An important point made by the judgement is that 

“the EAC betrays a lack of comprehension of the true nature of its function under the 2006 notification. The EAC has failed to consider relevant circumstances bearing on the environmental impact of the project and has instead considered circumstances extraneous to its function.”

This unfortunately is the rule rather than the exception in most EACs and their deliberations. In the Mopa case for example, the SC judgement lists the six points considered as reasons by the EAC to recommend clearance to the project, and these include issues like project is in public interest, delays in land acquisition etc. whereas no environmental factors are listed.

Indeed, it is not the function of the EAC to look at whether a project is in public interest (one presumes that if it was not, this fact would have been identified at the pre-feasibility stage itself and the project would never have come to the EC stage), and more importantly, use that as a reason (or excuse!) to overrule all environmental impacts, objections. The main function and role of EAC is to assess the environmental impact and appraise the project from the sustainability angle. As the judgement rightly says, this
“analysis of the EIA report is, to say the least, sketchy and perfunctory and discloses an abdication of its functions by the EAC.”

The judgement then order the EAC to re-examine the project, an exercise “primarily … for the EAC to carry out in its expert decision making capacity.” If all the EACs just simply adhere to this role and function as has been mandated for them by the EIA Notification 2006, it would dramatically alter the EC process in favour of environmental protection, as is the intent of the law.

NGT Must Carry Out Merits Review

As the judgement points out

“The mix of judicial and technical members envisaged by the statute is for the reason that the Tribunal is called upon to consider questions which involve the application and assessment of science and its interface with the environment.”

Thus, the NGT is supposed to examine the appeals in front of it not just on the grounds of law but on the grounds of merits and substantive questions of environment. The judgement points out that

“In failing to carry out a merits review, the NGT has not discharged an adjudicatory function which properly belongs to it.”

And that this constitutes a failure of the (checks and balances in the) EC process. Such failure of the NGT to carry out an effective merits review is seen in many other cases. For example, consider the OA 487/2015 which called on the NGT to require the Ganga Waterway (National Inland Waterway 1) to seek environmental clearance as at least the dredging component fell within the ambit of the EIA Notification 2006. The NGT heard the matter for close to three and half years, and at the end merely ordered that the MoEFCC should state its stand on whether waterways needed EC or not. (See here for a commentary on that order by Avli Verma of Manthan).

The NGT is supposed to act as a check to ensure that the EAC and MoEFCC do justice to the spirit and letter of the EIA Notification 2006 to ensure proper scrutiny and clearance only if environmental protection is ensured. A failure by NGT to carry out such merits review, and in a time bound manner, is detrimental to the larger goal of protecting the environment and ensuring sustainable development and allows the flawed processes in the EC process to continue.

In his article mentioned earlier, Kant says “And, yet, the apex court continues to treat the environment and economic development as binaries. Neither does it provide a means to reconcile SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] in the context of the Mopa airport, nor does it call for a proper cost benefit analysis.”

But Kant forgets, or ignores, that this (reconciling SDGs in context of infrastructure development) is not the role of the SC or the judiciary. The SC had to intervene precisely because of the complete failure – in fact, a deliberate, considered abdication of responsibility of protecting the environment – by the Government and its specific institutions like the MoEFCC, EAC that are tasked with the job. Indeed, what the Mopa order has done is in fact laid down principles and ways of operating that will ensure that the existing systems (like EAC) work in way that proper reconciliation of developmental and environmental goals is done, and to ensure the “environmental rule of law”.

Bona Fides of Those Raising Objections

A very critical observation of the judgement is that it has considered it

“appropriate to record a finding on the bona fides of the appellants before this Court. It was briefly urged by the respondents that the appellants have invoked the jurisdiction of this Court based on a personal agenda and consequently, the present appeal is liable to be dismissed. This argument cannot be accepted.

“Vague aspersions on the intention of public-spirited individuals does not constitute an adequate response to those interested in the protection of the environment.”

This is really important as often, project promoters, Government and vested interests attack anyone who raise objections, who question projects, who talk of environmental impacts, by abusing them, by casting aspersions on their motives and means etc. The SC judgement has done well to remind all that there is an important role for such public spirited individuals and that casting aspersions on them cannot be a defence against the issues raised by them. These need proper answers from  governments and project authorities. 

It may be pointed out, for example, that the EAC responsible for assessing River Valley and Hydropower projects had actually decided in its meeting of 30th Dec 2016, that it will “not take any cognizance of such representations received from the any Civil Action Group during final appraisal”, because such representations “have an anti-development attitude so that the projects are kept on hold or delayed. This has financial implications to the developers in particular and to the nation in general.”

Excellent Tutorial

Lastly, an unrelated but a very interesting aspect of this judgement. The judgement explains in detail the entire procedure for a project to obtain environmental clearance under the EIA Notification 2006. In that, for any student who wants to understand the said notification and the procedure for environmental clearance, this is an excellent tutorial and a wonderful first learning, that too from two judges of the Supreme Court.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

In Which Swaminathan Iyer McDonaldises the Tribals and Serves Other Junk Food

What can one expect when one is faced with a blog by “India’s leading economic journalist” which is titled “Most of the ousted tribals are flourishing and loving it”? (Times of India  TOI, 12th Sept, at ) That there will be a large helping of fries on the side? That it will taste great but is really junk? In all of these expectations, one is not disappointed. 

First, a little background. The leading economic journalist is Swaminathan Iyer, and he and a colleague have carried out a survey of some tribals ousted by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam, comparing their situation with those left behind in the hilly areas near the river, and others in the hilly areas but near a mining project. On 10th Sept 2017, Iyer wrote a blog titled “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted” based on his study. In a matter of just two days, Iyer has come out with a second blog based on the same study on the same topic. One wonders why? But then, again, one may not wonder, for the Sardar Sarovar has become an important topic with the Prime Minister scheduled to dedicate to the nation the dam on 17th Sept 2017.

The first blog was a classic case of misinterpretation of data, hiding the more important issues, and conclusions not supported by research findings, as we showed in our response. We showed that the tribals do mind being ousted. Now Iyer has written another blog on the matter, which skirts the issues we had raised in our response and omits some crucial survey findings given in the earlier blog, but still tries to show the Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation program as being successful. 

Iyer’s second blog tries to discredit activists who have raised issues with resettlement of tribals affected by the Sardar Sarovar, and argues that displacement has led to modernisation for the tribals, that they are flourishing, and of course “loving it”, as his title says. 

To do this, he uses several devices. Firstly, he sets up a strawman: “Some activists say economic development and modernisation are disastrous for tribals.” This statement is of course easy to attack. But activists, least of all the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which has worked with Sardar Sarovar oustees, have never taken such a position. We have argued that modernisation, development, and social and economic change is very important for tribals, but that it be their choice, be gradual, be on their terms (as much as possible), with their full involvement, and in a way that they can handle.  Displacement for the dam was not only involuntary but missed most of the other elements too; and much of the struggle was in fact to have the tribals find a voice in the process of what happens to them. Iyer is not concerned with this detail.

Second, his findings that tribals are better off in the resettled village is not exactly substantiated even by his own surveys, as our earlier response shows. In the second blog, he reiterates his earlier findings that “the oustees were far better off in material terms (TVs, mobikes, pukka houses, school access, electricity)”, but omits figures that show that even 30 years after resettlement, and hundreds of crores of rupees spent by the project, 55% of resettled oustees did not have access to drinking water, 63% no access to a PHC,  and 84% no access to a hospital. His own finding that “54% of oustees said they would rather return to the same land they once occupied in the forest” – 25-30 years after displacement, is an indication of whether the oustees feel they are better off.

Third, in his second blog, one of the findings Iyer gives to show how well the tribals have accepted modernisation is that “Cellphone ownership, the epitome of modernisation, was 88% for oustees versus 59% in the semi-evacuated forest villages.”  Whether the cellphone is the epitome of modernity is questionable, but the fact that tribals have accepted and taken to this new technology is simply a testimony to the fact that tribals, like most of the human race, are intelligent and will learn new things. But Iyer wants to imply that such a “modernisation” is possible only when the tribals leave their forests, and that it is the Sardar Sarovar that has made such modernisation possible. Both are flawed assertions. Tribals have taken to modern technology even in their original villages. With the support of NBA, two of the tribal villages in the submergence area set up micro-hydro power generation projects. Once partial submergence made travel virtually impossible without motorised boats, tribals were quick to buy second-hand boats from Alang shipyard and run them themselves.

Microhydel project underconstruction in tribal village in SSP Submergence area. PC: Anon. Courtesy NBA.
Tribals running motor boat in partially submerged villages. Photo: Nandini Oza

Iyer highlights the modernity of displaced tribals by saying “Many of those near the Sardar Sarovar Dam have cell phones and motorcycles, and can download their land titles from internet caf├ęs.” Is this an attempt to attribute causation to the Sardar Sarovar, and by doing so, justify or glorify it? If so, that is bunkum, as the examples given by us show.

Rest of his blog meanders away from the Sardar Sarovar oustees and talks about how some tribals have become affluent, foreign-educated ones, and how tribals left behind in forests “can catch up, given empowerment and access to modern facilities.” There is no disputing this. But the issue is that what “catching up” means should be defined by the tribals themselves, and not by others for them. And certainly, that should not require them to be forcibly uprooted from their lands, culture and communities. As Iyer himself says, but ignores in his conclusions, “Tribals in hill states earn well above the national average. Education and infrastructure have enabled hill tribals…to leapfrog into modernity with minimal trauma.” But this is without any displacement by any dam, which Iyer seems to conveniently ignore. So may be displacement is not a necessary condition for modernisation and development, unlike what Iyer wants to imply?

Let us then make this the aim – that the tribals themselves decide what “modernity”, “development” mean for them, that it be done with their involvement and control, where they are located, any migration being voluntary, and with minimal trauma. That the Sardar Sarovar has none of these characteristics is clear, and that the tribals reject this as “development” is also obvious from the fact that majority still want to go back, after so many years. 

Thus, Iyer’s attempt at dressing up the Sardar Sarovar (and its rehabilitation program) by bringing in a false causality, by mistaking or implying co-existence and juxtapositioning as causation is completely irrational  and specious. The tribals certainly are not lov’in it.

Shripad Dharmadhikary (                                                 14 Sept 2017
Nandini Oza (
The writers were both fulltime activists with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for close to 12 years.