Govt. Trying To Introduce Water Management Laws Through PCs
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The government’s attempt to introduce through the North Western Provincial Council the controversial water management policy has come under fire from environmentalists and opposition politicians.
The move to surreptitiously introduce water management regulations under the guise of regulating small irrigation systems in the North Western Province is expected to serve as a test before introducing it to other provinces in the country.
The government since 2000 has made several failed attempts to introduce a national water management policy where water would be considered a commodity after taking the natural resource under the government.
The government in 2001, 2004 and 2007 had tried to introduce the national water policy to set up a water management authority which would introduce a tax on water as a commodity.
The UPFA government made a last attempt to introduce legislation in parliament in 2009.
However, the government had to shelve the plan following protests by environmental activists and opposition political parties.
Environmentalist Raveendra Kariyawasam said the government, after failing to introduce water management as national policy, has now resorted to introducing the legislation through provincial councils.
“The first test would be at the North Western Provincial Council. The Council is currently formulating an Irrigation Management Ordinance for the province,” he said.
He explained that the Ordinance is still at draft stage, but would be presented to the Council shortly.
Under the legislation being discussed by the Council, an irrigation management committee is to be set up.
The small irrigation systems in the Province would then come under the purview of the committee and farmers who utilize these irrigation schemes would be governed by the conditions laid down by the committee.
“This committee could even enter into agreements with private companies to lease out small tanks in the province,” Kariyawasam said.
According to the legislation currently under discussion, the farmers have to contribute to the rural irrigation maintenance fund.
“The farmers have to contribute 40% for the welfare and maintenance of the committee. The irrigation management committee would also include a ministry secretary from the Provincial Council and all expenses of the official would be covered by the 40% contributed by the farmers,” Kariyawasam noted.
The legislation states that a person who does not abide by the conditions laid down by the irrigation management director would be considered an offender under the law, and could get a maximum fine of Rs. 50,000 or a six-month jail term.
According to environmentalists, the legislation would not only create an environment where farmers would have to pay for the water they receive to cultivate their lands, but also face a jail term if they fail to abide by the new legislation.
Kariyawasam pointed out that if the legislation on irrigation management were passed in the North Western Provincial Council, the government would gradually introduce the legislation in the other provinces as well.
“The government would then be able to bring in water management laws without taking it at a national level,” he said, adding the water is considered a first generation human right and the government could not violate it.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader of North Western Provincial Council Shamal Senarath said the opposition would oppose moves by the ruling party to introduce the proposed legislation.
He claimed that it was an attempt by the government to further burden the people with taxes.
“The bankrupt government is now trying to impose taxes on the people through the provincial councils,” he charged.
Senarath explained that there are a large number of small irrigation schemes in the country under the purview of the provincial councils and imposing taxes on such schemes could earn a lot of money.
He said that the move to implement the legislation was due to the government giving into the dictates of international lending agencies.
“The government that claims to be strong and unafraid of the international community has clearly bowed down to international pressure,” he noted. Giving a historical perspective to the water management controversy, Senrath explained that the World Bank in 1980 had made a proposal to manage the big irrigation systems in the country.
Under the proposal, farmers would have been asked to pay for the water utilized for cultivation.
“However, it was at a conference on water resources in Ireland in 1992 that it was decided to make water a commodity,” Senarath said.
He added that the decision was followed up with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was given the green light to lay down conditions on water management when lending monies to third world nations.
It was on March 28, 2000 that the then Chandrika Kumaratunge government decided to implement legislation on water management in Sri Lanka. The Cabinet of Ministers that approved the decision included President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The UNF government that assumed office in 2001 shelved the plan and the present government has on several occasions tried to introduce the water management legislation.
Senarath pointed out that water would become a state owned commodity if the controversial laws are applied and even wells in houses could be taxed for its water.
“We will not support any move to bring in water management laws and the UNP and the opposition would oppose the governing party’s attempt to surreptitiously introduce these laws through the North Western Provincial Council,” he said.
However, North Western Province Chief Minister Athula Wijesinghe denied any move by the North Western Provincial Council to charge money for water supplied to farmers.
He said the proposed legislation is aimed at helping the people in the Province and not to charge monies from them. He noted that there are many irrigation and drinking water schemes in the North Western Province with no proper management and the proposed legislation would help bring all under one authority.
“There is no need to worry, people anyway pay for their drinking water,” Wijesinghe said.
Minister of Agriculture, Small Irrigation Systems, Agrarian Development and Livestock Development of the North Western Province, D. B. Herath said the legislation is still in draft stage and views are being sought from all stakeholders on the matter.
“There are many small irrigation systems in the North Western Province amounting to several thousands,” he said.
Herath observed that the legislation proposed by the Council is intended to allocate more powers to the farmers’ associations and the maintenance of small irrigation systems would be under their purview.
The Minister said that the Council would continue to assist in the maintenance work but did not elaborate.
He refrained from commenting about the setting up of an irrigation management committee, its role and the contributions by farmers.
However, Herath also denied that a price would be fixed on water as a commodity.