Working Papers

Water and Federalism: Working with States for Water Security

Centre for Policy Research

December 23, 2021

India’s poor water security indicators are partly a result of the poor translation of federal spirit in governing its water resources. The limited scholarship on the subject recognizes the vacuum in federal water governance and the weak articulation of Centre’s role to work with states in pursuing India’s long-term development and security goals. Besides, coherent federal responses are critical to address the new governance challenges and emerging risks such as those linked to climate change, floods, dam safety, etc.

Yet the national discourse on water federalism is dominated by interstate river water disputes. The study breaks new grounds by going beyond the narrow frame to engage comprehensively with the idea of water federalism in India. It explores the range of policy, institutional, legal and financial instruments for improved water governance. Conceptualised as the Centre’s leverage, the study investigates into these instruments to explore opportunities for the Centre to work with states for improved outcomes. Using mixed methods of qualitative and quantitative approaches, the study looks at the transforming Indian federal state from two contrasting viewpoints: the shifting stakes of the Centre and states in water resources development; and the converging forces of development goals and security concerns. The analysis is supported by case studies of Maharashtra, Punjab and Karnataka states revealing the diverse territorial imaginations and priorities of water resources development and, their implications for national water security. It also examines the experiences of central schemes through intergovernmental fiscal transfers and federal water governance practices internationally to incentivize states’ progressive pathways in water resources management. Identifying federal consensus-building about the Centre’s role and autonomous institutional architecture for data as the two foundational pillars, the study makes concrete recommendations to improve federal governance for long-term development and water security.

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