The Maharashtra government rushes through a controversial bill after midnight
In a post midnight call on 13 April, Maharashtra’s Democratic Front government tabled the controversial Maharashtra Water Resources Regulation Bill in the Legislative Assembly and ensured that it was passed. The time was 1.30 am and the attendance in the Lower House was four Congress MLAs and a handful of ministers. The Bill was passed in haste and without adequate and proper debate.
Now an Act, it empowers a group of ministers (GoM) to divert water from irrigation to industry, and in doing so, defeats the purpose of the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority set up to implement equitable distribution of water resources. Members cutting across political parties, except the NCP (which holds the Irrigation portfolio), are screaming themselves hoarse against this new Act. Their concern is not misplaced because empowering a GoM to decide on an important issue such as diversion of water will lead to misuse of power. It is no secret that while ministers speak of improving the lives of farmers, in their actions they often favour industries.
The DF government has not only undermined the powers of the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority, but has also usurped the functions of the authority itself. A vast majority of legislators believe, and rightly so, that this Act will benefit the private sector more than anyone else.
Water management is not a need confined to the state of Maharashtra, nor are agrarian crises. More states will have to manage water better and take concrete steps—including legislation—to ensure that. In mishandling what could have been a watershed legislation and making a mess of it, the state government has illustrated how not to deal with such matters in other parts of the country.
There is a sense of déjà vu in the way things are happening in the state. This instance from the past also illustrates what one could expect from the government in the future: some years ago, an ordinance was promulgated to empower a group of ministers to decide on the allocation of water meant for irrigation projects for the use of consumers (drinking) and the industrial sector. The ordinance was challenged on the grounds that since there was a water regulatory authority in existence, the government could not empower ministers to decide on the allocation of water. It was alleged that the ordinance was promulgated with a view to benefit a leading industrial house by ensuring it a steady supply of water from the Upper Wardha irrigation project.
The largest share of water was allocated to the private sector despite the fact that the irrigation project was financed via the Prime Minister’s Fund. Though the purpose was enhancement of the irrigation potential in drought-prone areas of the state, the benefits from it went to the private sector. The state’s drought-prone areas continue to remain parched; indeed, water scarcity has only increased manifold.
The Congress says it did not want the Bill. But it started screaming itself hoarse only after the deed was done. While the issue was being debated at cabinet meetings, the party—led by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan—did not put its foot down. After the Bill was passed in the legislative assembly, the party sought the help of the BJP to stall it from being passed by the legislative council. The Congress tried to convince the BJP to support its demand that the controversial Bill be referred to a joint select committee of the legislature. The move failed.
A delegation of the state Congress met Chief Minister Chavan and complained against the Bill. The party is worried that this Act will affect its electoral prospects in the Vidharbha region where it managed to register a sizeable presence in the 2009 Assembly polls. Of the 62 Assembly seats in the region, the Congress holds 24 seats while the NCP has only four seats. The Act will affect cotton growers in the Vidharba region if preference is given to industrial use over agriculture. Vidharba, Marathawada and North Maharashtra are reeling under acute water shortage, which has led to an agrarian crisis. The only irrigated part in the state is western Maharashtra, where the NCP has a considerable presence. In the past, before the birth of the NCP, Congress bigwigs did not allow major irrigation projects to come up in the Vidharba and Marathawada regions. The inequitable distribution of water saw both these regions remaining backward with a huge developmental backlog. Things were changing after the Maharashtra Water Regulatory Authority was set up. The Act can reverse those gains.