India’s water futures: Emergent ideas and pathways (Joy and Janakarajan, 2018)

John S. Ambler

HD Joy, K.J. and Janakarajan, S. (Eds). 2018. India’s water futures: Emergent ideas and pathways. NY: Routledge. ISBN 9780815384045, 344 p., $124.


John S. Ambler

To cite this Review: Ambers, J.S. 2020. Review of "India’s water futures: Emergent ideas and pathways", Routledge, 2018, edited by Joy, K.J. and Janakarajan, S., Water Alternatives,


This collection of 15 essays in honour of the late Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary Water Resources, Government of India, is notable for the distinguished panel of contributors and for its fresh thinking on managing India’s scarce—and diverse—water resources. The book is essential reading for all those interested in improving water management and human welfare. It is also a reminder that there are enormous challenges lying in wait for even the most earnest water reformers.

As the authors show, better water management is an issue of human health and survival at an individual level, and one of environmental stewardship, equitable access, resource use efficiency, and return on investment at the societal level. Furthermore, water is highly political. In the western USA there is a maxim, “Water flows uphill towards money.” And this certainly applies to India.

First, this volume’s strengths. The articles take a hydra-headed issue like water and provide insightful analyses on many of its major aspects. Most studies of India’s water management challenges have understandably focused on specific subsectors. By contrast, this volume is more ambitious, bringing together issues of big dams and large-scale irrigation, groundwater and watershed management, ecosystems and environmental flows, inter-basin water transfers, interstate disputes, urban water supply and sanitation, water and gender, agricultural productivity, and governance.

These are familiar issues, but the authors break new ground by highlighting India’s unprecedented challenges. Climate change is exacerbating extreme weather events—especially droughts and floods—forcing changes in major water management practices and even affecting individual peasant survival strategies. The cost of new large-scale irrigation is rising geometrically, while groundwater levels in many place are dropping steeply. 80% of India’s actively managed water goes to agriculture, yet Indian cities are growing rapidly and demanding more water for domestic and industrial use. Urban users are also changing water use habits (e.g., flush toilets in high-rise apartment buildings that are replacing traditional dry pit toilets). How bad can it get? In fact, pretty bad. In 2019, the municipal water system of Chennai, a city of over 7 million people, ran dry.

While there are specific technical elements to the “water problem,” as come through in the articles, a major impediment is certainly poor governance. Unfortunately, with the exception of the excellent article by Warghade and Wagle on Maharashtra’s experience with an independent water regulatory agency, not much new in the way of institutional reform is proposed. There is some discussion of Integrated Water Resources Management and the National Water Framework, but no serious alternatives are presented to challenge what the editors call the “Indian hydrocracy.” Enhanced roles are anticipated for the private sector, but little is said about how to provide incentives for farmers, urban users and the private sector to work together. The absence of a chapter on comparative legal and organizational forms for water users is felt.

In terms of end-user involvement, at least five of the authors call for more “participation” in water management. However, like calls for “increased coordination,” without enhanced legal backing “increased participation” by itself is not a solution. In my experience, participation actually means something like, “You users should participate, but we, the officials and engineers, will decide on the terms of your participation. At the end of the day, we will make the plans, and we will run the show.” Without legal status, participation does not carry much heft in negotiating improved rights and services regimes, especially within a context of unequal power relations. Without some form of “co-ownership” of water for users, it is difficult to talk about meaningful participatory reform (Ambler, 2017).

Several authors touch on the need for better water pricing and cost recovery. Fortunately, they do not fall into the trap of advocating simplistic market mechanisms as the sole determinant of how water is allocated and used within and across sectors. Treating water as a purely economic good, the position of “neoliberal” financial institutions, would virtually ensures that people living in poverty and others in vulnerable positions would see their rights to water eroded or abrogated. 

India has been front and center on the debate about how to collect more irrigation service fees. But cost recovery depends in large measure on farmers having some real ownership of water (not just “sense of ownership”) and clear responsibilities. Studies of large-scale irrigation have generally found that merely turning over maintenance of tertiary canals to farmer water users’ associations (as endorsed by M. Shah in the book’s summary chapter) rarely works, because main system management is so often erratic, biased toward powerful head-end users, non-communicative, non-transparent, and unaccountable. Turning over more responsibility to farmers without strengthening their legal rights and also improving their water services is a dead end.

Contrary to popular opinion in India, farmers are actually willing to pay a lot for water when they have full ownership and good control over water. Since the 1990s, in Gujarat, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India) has worked with tribal farmers (adivasi), generally acknowledged to be among the cash-poorest in India. Together, they have been able to develop diesel pump irrigation from rivers. Through their water users’ associations, farmers have been paying the full cost of annual O&M, and paying into a fund for the amortization of the capital equipment. AKRSP has provided technical inputs and training for design, construction, and water management. Farmers invested materials and labor. (Anil Shah, 1995, personal communication) Admittedly, this is “minor irrigation” (<500 ha), but it gives one an idea of what farmers are actually willing and able to pay when they control the resource, and where an honest broker is present.

Larger scale is also achievable. In the USA irrigation management is largely private. There are systems of nearly 200,000 ha that are managed entirely by the farmers or farmer cooperatives. Don’t they need irrigation engineers to manage systems of that size? Yes, they do, and such technical staff are hired by and work directly for the farmers or cooperative, not the government. The lesson here is that the better educated the leading farmers are, the wider the range of institutional possibilities.

New forms of water management in India must consider a fuller range of legal possibilities, e.g., joint ventures, public utilities, common property ownership, mutual companies, cooperatives, etc. The goal should be to maximize end user ownership, control, and responsibility, with the government playing higher order political and technical roles. For such tasks as watershed management, inter-sectoral water allocation, inter-basin transfers, dispute arbitration, water resource inventories and measurement, and water financing, partnership between government and users will be necessary. Optimal governance for water in India will likely require not one form but a mix of interfacing institutions, depending on the levels and boundaries of the defined water problems. 

The essays in this volume imply that this set of new or reformulated water institutions must be able to handle a number of major tasks, with special attention to cross-sector problem resolution. I note the following:

(1) Creation and enforcement of new water rights and legal forms for end users, with particular attention to legal empowerments for small-scale and poor water users, both rural and urban

(2) Allocation of surface water between major water subsectors; and improved water measurement. Some water subsectors have weak natural constituencies, like environmental flows, so they will need higher order mandates and political backing to bargain with powerful subsectors, like irrigation. 

(3) Watershed management, or sub-watersheds in the case of very large watersheds, that takes into account the needs of all legitimate claimants on water 

(4) Water pollution/contamination management and abatement, from both the view of sanitation as well as point and non-point pollution (agricultural, industrial, and municipal).

(5) Water use efficiency. Clarification of different water management goals in agriculture, such as “crop for drop” versus “return for drop” versus water as a human right, etc., is needed

(6) Inter-state water allocation. The recent creation of four new states in India has made this task even more complex and pressing.

(7) Sustainable groundwater management, in light of overlapping and vague water rights, declining water levels, land subsidence, salt water intrusion, non-productive capital investments, and wasteful power consumption. 

I would have liked to see the book tackle head-on some issues of corruption and perverse water management incentives, but one tome cannot cover everything.

This book is not the final word on India’s water futures, nor does it intend to be, but it does highlight a number of key priorities. It also reminds us that solving cross-sectoral and multilevel claims on water is a particularly pressing challenge.

Turning priorities into concrete solutions will, however, be a struggle. As Mark Twain said, “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, and water’s for fightin’.” This book provides a very useful and positive framework for knowing where the next rounds of fighting need to take place. 


Ambler, J. S. 2017. Empowered Development in Poor Countries, pp 15-26. Boston: Oxfam America. (downloadable for free via 

John S. Ambler managed The Ford Foundation’s water program in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, 1990-1995. He was CARE’s Asia regional manager, and Oxfam America’s Senior Vice President, Programs. He holds degrees from Stanford, the University of Denver, and Cornell. He has a particular interest in the intersection between water governance and engineering design in agency-managed and farmer-managed irrigation systems.


Additional Info

  • Author(s): K.J. Joy and S. Janakarajan
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Subject: Water policy, Water governance, Water management, Irrigation, Dams, Water crisis
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: John S. Ambler
  • Language: English