Pitfalls of Decentralization

The conceptualization of decentralization in developing countries as practice of good governance is well-entrenched in today’s international development framework. Decentralization represents the shift of power away from centralized authority under the state to local and regionally based entities. Among other things, it emphasizes a greater role for the market and as well as participatory governance. The World Bank’s emphasis on good governance as well as funding from entities such as the MacArthur and Ford Foundations has helped enhance the popularity of the idea.

However, according to this article, the goals, aspirations and processes of decentralization are threatened and are at risk of being sidelined given the increasing prominence of Globalization and its associated processes, of which decentralization is ironically a part.


The process of local administration in India is represented by locally elected bodies known as Panchayats that are engaged in use of local knowledge and participation. However, such bodies are linked to higher levels of administration where the policy and planning process is essentially technocratic, resulting in a condition where the linkages between these levels are not well defined.

Sometimes, technocratic polities that make sense at higher levels of administration turn out to be detrimental to local interests. For example, liberalization of agricultural products in India has induced a fall in prices of produce, resulting in increased farmer suicides. On the same lines, the venturing of multinational corporations into the domain of large-scale agribusiness has threatened the livelihoods of many farmers, without any promise of alternative employment. In essence, a framework at a higher level of administration that does not have local empowerment as a focus defeats the purpose of decentralization itself.

This article is relevant to my thesis topic primarily because of the preeminent position of decentralization as an explanation for ‘success’. In recent times, a large number of public sector projects have seen power decentralization, either through the involvement of the private sector, or through scaling down the size of the intended project to a level that can be managed locally and then implementing it in multiple locations. The Rainwater Harvesting project in Chennai is no exception. However, since this article argues against this very premise, it encourages me to search for the roots of the successful outcome in a more rigorous manner.

Source: RoyChowdhury, Supriya. “Globalisation and Decentralisation.” The Hindu, January 05, 2002.




Centralization vs Decentralization: Part I

Water supply has traditionally been within the domain of centralized management. Such centralization has led to the construction of large-scale pipeline systems as well as sourcing of water from distant areas, at the cost of abandoning local water resources. However, concerns relating to increasing water demand in major urban centers, environmental degradation at the sources of water as well as the financial cost of bringing water from distant areas have led to a shift towards decentralization of water supply and localization of water sources, both in developed and developing countries. Such a shift is also in line with the idea of urban sustainability where local solutions and the participation of local governments and citizenry are deemed valuable.

             Some decentralized approaches to water management include Storm Water Management, Wastewater Management, rainwater Harvesting and Grey Water Reuse. Stormwater management relates to the harvesting of urban surface runoff from rainfall resulting from impermeability of such surfaces. Methods widely used include micro-scale solutions such as ponds, wetland development, permeable pavements and other infiltration techniques. Wastewater management includes harvesting of water with ‘colors’, including blackwater, greywater and yellowwater. In this case, such flows are mixed and treated in wastewater treatment plans, and are subsequently returned to water bodies with the addition of certain nutrients that are lost in the process. Even though wastewater treatment is general a part of a centralized system, it is possible to separate and treat them at the source.

                       Rooftop  rainwater harvesting, another decentralized mechanism is easier in that water is collected at source before mixture with groundwater and that no kind of special treatment is required. Additionally, establishing micro-scale systems of rainwater harvesting at the level of the household is easy. However, the system does have drawbacks. One, is this idea is that rainfall over the long term is generally variable and that it is impossible to predict reliable availabilities. Another drawback is the fact that there might still be a degree of mixture with contaminants such as atmospheric pollutants and bird and animal excreta on the roof. Finally, Greywater reuse refers to use of wastewater that does not contain any kind of excreta, and in general, has a low microbial concentration when compared to mixed wastewater. This water is used for the purposes of urban agriculture and gardening.

Domenech, Laia. “Rethinking water management: From centralized to decentralized water supply and sanitation models.” Documents d’Analisi Geografica 57, no. 2 (2011): 293-310.

Legitimacy Versus Effectiveness

The Veeranam Project is a water management project completed in 2004 to bring water to Chennai city from the distant Veeranam Reservoir. Involving the laying of nearly 235 km of pipeline, it also counts as one of the many innovative projects carried out by the State Government of Tamil Nadu from 2002 to 2004 to alleviate water shortage in Chennai. However, its long-term sustainability and impacts in terms of real-life effectiveness are in question, as indicated by this article.

ImageThe project itself was first conceived in 1993 by the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government at a cost of Rs. 464 Crores ( $ 76 million) to pump 180 mld (million litres per day) of water to Chennai. However, in 1996, the formation of a new State Government headed by the rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), resulted in a revised project with estimated expenditure increasing to Rs 1638 Crores ($ 268 million). The project, however, could not be completed because the World Bank refused to provide loans that it had promised earlier. With the return of AIADMK to power in 2001, the project was revised once again, with an emphasis on increasing the capacity of the Veeranam reservoir, strengthening critical water channels and more importantly, drilling deep bore wells.

The AIADMK led The State Government of Tamil Nadu, in 2004, decided to dig 45 deep wells to the north of the parched Veeranam Reservoir in order to enable flow of water to Chennai through a system of pipelines. However, this prompted farmer associations and opposition political parties to criticize the ruling AIADMK government of trying to maintain legitimacy in the wake of an unsustainable project.

With the revival of the project, local leaders expressed concerns relating to their livelihoods. The President of a local farmers’ welfare society pointed out that given existing water availability, they were unable to successfully cultivate any of the three major crops of the year, and were in fact, forced to migrate to major cities in search of work.  Another local peasant leader pointed out that the average duration of farmer employment in the region declined from nearly 200 days a year to merely 60 days a year and also feared that the Veeranam Project would worsen the situation.

Additionally, a former Chief Engineer of the state Public Works Department argued that the project was unsustainable. He said that the project would have to pump 180 mld of water for 155 days in order to send 1 tmc ft. of water to the city and that this was equivalent to “pouring a mug-full of water into the sea”. He also said that the project was cost prohibitive given the revised estimates and that desalination was a better option in comparison. He added that aggressive pumping of water would lead to further depletion of the already over-exploited Neyveli Aquifer and that saline intrusion would result given the proximity of the region to the Bay of Bengal .


Sridhar, V, and S Thanthoni. “A Pipe Dream ?” Frontline, May 08-21, 2004.

Critically Evaluating Watershed Development Projects in India

Watershed development projects are promoted by central, state and local governments in India and are seen as solutions to the ongoing water crisis. However, such projects can also change the temporal and spatial distribution water resources, giving rise to undesirable effects.

An example of this is the Karnataka Watershed Development Project (KAWAD), which has been implemented in the semi-arid northern region of the Indian state of Karnataka. The project is very similar to ones in other parts of the country, with primary goal being conservation of water and soil moisture through physical interventions such as check dams and bunds. However, the water audits conducted as a part of KAWAD and its sister project Andhra Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Programme (APRLP) have revealed that the design of the project is largely inconsistent with the watershed conditions of the target area.

The water audit methodology itself was designed to take into consideration factors such as the occurrence and availability of ground and surface water, demand and supply of water and factors affecting them and the effectiveness of institutions engaged in project implementation and management.

Additionally, it was also designed to make use of secondary data, the flowchart of which is as follows:


The water audits revealed a number of fundamental deficiencies in project design. The first one was the assumption that annual runoff was 30-40% of the annual rainfall when in fact, it was close to 2-5 %. The second one was the lack of consideration given to existing water harvesting structures before work was started. The third deficiency was the fact that the combined impact of different kinds of water harvesting and exploitation mechanisms on water access and availability. In that light, the audits also argued that resource management, as opposed to resource augmentation, should be the ideal goal.


The audits also linked overexploitation of water resources to poverty, through mechanisms such as failed borewell investments by farmers and subsequent indebtedness, competitive well deepening in response to falling ground water levels, reduction in urban water supply during summers and periods of drought and a reduction in informal water vending systems and subsequent inequitable distribution. They also called for the use of audit-related information to design interventions that would promote equitable distribution and prioritize water supply for basic human needs.

Finally, the audits showed water and watershed policy and development were often formulated based on outdated statistics and/or myths and assumptions inconsistent with evidence. Some prominent myths included the belief that water harvesting technologies were benign and bereft of negative consequences, that planting trees leads to an increase in local rainfall, that annual rainfall has been decreasing over time and that aquifers are non- replenishable resources.

This journal article raises a number of important questions relevant to my research. First, it makes me wonder if Chennai’s rainwater harvesting system is the result of a logical process or at least in part, due to isomorphic mimicry resulting from government promotion of cookie-cutter watershed management policies. Second, the article makes me aware of the fact that Chennai’s Rainwater Harvesting system is an attempt to augment demand and also makes me wonder if I should explore the role of unrelated supply-side strategies in the success of the project. Third, the article not only reminds me that water-related myths have definitely penetrated the water management discourse in Chennai city, but also encourages me to explore why such myths haven’t affected outcomes.


Batchelor, C.H, M.S Rama Mohan Rao, and S Manohar Rao. “Watershed development: A solution to water shortages in semi-arid India or part of the problem?” Land Use and Water Resources Research 3 (2003): 1-10.

Water Crisis in India: An Interview

In this article, Sonia Luthra and Amrita Kundu of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) interview Dr. Kirit.S.Parikh, chairman of the Integrated Research and Action for Development regarding the causes and cures of India’s current water crisis.

Dr. Kirti Parikh explains that the causes of India’s water crisis are three fold. According to him, the first cause relates to overpopulation, relatively insufficient water supply and therefore, to insufficient availability of water per person. He points out that with a population of 1.2 billion as of 2011 and an estimated water availability of 700 to 1200 billion cubic meters, India at best, has only 1000 m3 of water per person. He also notes that this below the standard water-stress threshold of 1700m3 of water per person.

He says that the second and third causes are poor water quality resulting from a lack of government investment in water treatment and over-extraction of ground water for agricultural purposes due to open-access of ground water reserves respectively.

Asked about critical areas of concern relating to water shortage, Dr. Parikh says that there is a pressure to expand irrigation and water-storage facilities in order to achieve targeted economic growth rates of above 8%. He also says that there is active opposition to dam construction from national and international environmentalists due to their concerns relating to loss of forest land, loss of biodiversity and inequitable displacement of people.

On the question of current measures taken by central, state and local governments to address the water crisis, Dr. Parikh says that there is a country-wide emphasis on watershed management programs that involve tapping rainwater through check-dams to increase soil moisture. He provides examples of NGO and community-led efforts, with a notable one being the role played by noted political activist Anna Hazare in making water supply in Ralegaon Siddhi (a village in central India) sustainable.  He also says that municipal bodies have resorted to hiring private consultants to streamline water distribution, reduce water leaks and to improve tariff systems.

Finally, when asked about his recommendations, he suggests four options. First, he says that central and state governments should empower community-based groups in order to promote ground water extraction in a co-operative manner. Second, he says that the government should continue its expansion of current watershed programs. Third, he says that the government should work with groups opposed to dams and engage in exploring alternatives building consensus. Fourth, he says that State Pollution Control Boards should be strengthened so that they can better enforce effluent standards.


Parikh, K. S. (2013, August 13). India’s Water Crisis: Causes and Cures. (S. Luthra, & A. Kundu, Interviewers) National Bureau of Asian Research.

Rainwater Harvesting in Tamil Nadu, India: Governance gaps ?

The state of Tamil Nadu in India frequently experiences severe droughts due to the erratic nature of the winter Northeast Monsoon. Such droughts substantially affect the availability and the quality of water for human consumption and for domestic purposes.

In order to improve access to water supply, the Government of Tamil Nadu in 2003 legislated a state-wide rainwater harvesting program. According to this program, occupiers and/or owners of all types of residential, commercial and industrial buildings in municipalities were required to install rainwater harvesting mechanisms or face penalty in the form of disconnection of water and sewerage lines. The system was considered to be successful, and resulted in statistically significant increases in groundwater levels as well as in water quality.

However, a survey by the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) has revealed that as many as 1.669 million buildings in the state, nearly 23% of the total number of buildings in the state did not have Rainwater Harvesting structures. This included the capital city of Chennai, where 10% of buildings lacked rainwater harvesting systems and 90% of buildings had fully or partially functioning systems.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, the founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a research center focusing on water and energy issues has hinted that rigorous enforcement of rules along with continued measures to increase public awareness would enhance the rainwater harvesting capabilities of the existing system.

Mariappan, Julie. “Parched Tamil Nadu lets rainwater go down the drain.” The Times of India. July 15, 2013. http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-07-15/chennai/40589798_1_rainwater-harvesting-rwh-drinking-water.