The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) and, more importantly, the citizens of India have acknowledged that the country is undergoing the “worst water crisis” in its history—and they are making commendable efforts to address it. They have proposed a comprehensive index to create awareness and to enable effective water management for the Indian states. In June 2018, NITI Aayog, the premier think tank for the Government of India, proposed the Composite Water Management Index , a tool to assess and improve the efficiency of water resource management.
The index will be a powerful mechanism to raise awareness among policy makers and other stakeholders, encourage high aspirations, and prioritize strategic actions toward tangible outcomes for water security in India.
Awareness of the issues related to the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector and its impact on human health, among others, have contributed significantly to increasing the momentum of this largely neglected sector. On a global level, there have been a range of water policy and development cooperation initiatives, such as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade in the 1980s, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, and the inclusion of water targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They all emphasized the need for improvements in WASH (Gupta et al. 2013 ). Significant progress in the sector was made during the MDG era between 2000 and 2015. The success stories of many countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Viet Nam all began with policy makers acknowledging the need to improve WASH. In the post-MDG era, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in 2015, comprising a more comprehensive set of development goals to achieve by 2030. In India, a range of flagship programs under the central government have fueled the progress toward the water and sanitation targets of the SDGs. The recent effort of NITI Aayog in developing the Composite Water Management Index is a step toward understanding the problem of water management in Indian states and is surely a welcome move.
The path from awareness to actions is as follows. Once systematic information about the status of WASH is collected, the opportunities for a broader spectrum of WASH stakeholders will open. For example, the NITI Aayog report has clearly identified the existing gaps in data availability of key water indicators. These data gaps could be viewed as an opportunity for researchers and nongovernment organization to fill. NITI Aayog has also advocated developing a platform accessible by researchers, entrepreneurs, and others to enable further innovation. The awareness about the problem leads to strong aspirations to find solutions. By establishing a clear benchmark for state-level performance on key water indicators, the index aims to promote a culture of center–state collaboration and constructive competition among states. Such aspirations by the states will then open avenues to coproduce WASH services with help from the private sector and others.
The composite index itself is evolutionary. It aims to promote a culture of evidence-based decision making through a collection of a robust and efficient data covering a variety of critical aspects related to water management across India. The index is primarily targeted at addressing challenges of food security in the country. A closer look at relative weights assigned to nine indicators reveals that the highest weight (15 points out of 100) has been assigned to each of three indicators—groundwater source augmentation, irrigation supply management, and policy and governance. Among those, the highest weight on policy and governance from various state agencies hints that the perspective adopted in this index has evolved beyond the traditional one, which considered supply management as the only dimension for water management.
Even in irrigation supply management, maintenance and efficient operation of existing services have been given due attention. Compared to the traditional focus on increasing service provisions only, such a shift in focus on maintenance calls for continuous efforts toward capacity building for state departments, engagement with users, and collection of user fees.
Besides supply management, demand-side management of agricultural water has received much attention. Indicators related to the promotion of participatory irrigation and sustainable on-farm water use practices (10-point weight to each) call for decentralized management, promotion of water-efficient irrigation practices, and effective controls on groundwater extraction.
Most importantly, the index proposed by NITI Aayog has acknowledged the missing link between groundwater management and sanitation in rural and urban contexts. As regards India, it has now been acknowledged that the households and firms tend to depend excessively on groundwater leading to depletion in groundwater quality. Groundwater quality depletes even rapidly, when it is combined with poor practices of wastewater management (Narain 2012 ). The two indicators on rural and urban water quality (10 points each) not only promote access to water supply but also promote safety and service reliability of the water supply. The report from NITI Aayog highlights the inadequacy of wastewater treatment capacity prevalent in India. It also calls for boosting efforts to check the adverse health impacts of water contamination and to promote the reuse of water to fulfill the demand from the agriculture sector.
Although the Composite Water Management Index focuses explicitly on food security issues, the systematic information collected for the comprehensive set of indicators could soon reveal links between water management and other fields. This will set the directions for future policies considering the crosscutting nature of water. The focus on equity and decentralized decision making is evident in the NITI Aayog report. Indicators related to urban and rural water supply have been assigned equal weight. The model case studies promoted in the report highlight the importance of decentralized management, community organization, and women leadership.
The approach advocated in the NITI Aayog report is also coherent with a recent framework of best practices in urban sanitation  proposed by the Asian Development Bank and will surely help guide the Asian Development Bank Institute’s future programs targeted at India.
Note: Since June 2017, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Asian Development Bank Institute has been curating leadership capacity development programs targeting government decision makers, officials in implementing agencies, and professional staff of international organizations. The inaugural program in July 2018 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy of the National University of Singapore covered topics such as innovative design solutions and policy instruments to accelerate implementation of non-sewered sanitation and fecal sludge management components in projects supported by development partners in developing countries in Asia. In September 2018, a follow-on program is planned at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in Chennai.
Gupta, J., A. Akhmouch, W. Cosgrove, Z. Hurwitz, J. Maestu, and O. Ünver. 2013. Policymakers’ Reflections on Water Governance Issues. Ecology and Society 18(1): 35.
Narain, S. 2012. Excreta Matters – 71 Cities: A Survey. New Delhi: Center for Science and Environment.