Water woes

| Updated on January 20, 2018

The proposed law dealing with groundwater crisis needs improvement

The Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater, now in the public domain for feedback, could not have been framed at a more appropriate time. The monsoon may have arrived, but large swathes of the country are grappling with chronic water scarcity, for which overdrawal of groundwater is the most proximate cause. In its report released last month on the groundwater crisis, the World Bank, which is ploughing $1 billion into India’s groundwater management schemes, points out that “over half of all the districts in the country show signs of groundwater depletion and/or contamination. If the current trends persist, 60 per cent of the aquifers could reach a critical condition (where the water available, including the monsoon recharge, is almost totally depleted during the course of the year)”. The slow death of lakes, rivers, watersheds and tanks everywhere has both increased reliance on groundwater and impeded its recharge. Many regions no longer have the water reserves to withstand extended spells of hot and dry weather, as was evident earlier this year. Groundwater, which should ideally be an emergency backup, meets 65 per cent of our irrigation needs and about 80 per cent of our rural and urban domestic water supply requirements. A policy and governance framework, which takes a holistic view of surface and groundwater in order to address distortions, must be put in place.

The present draft does not grapple with either the nitty-gritty or the big picture. Free electricity, for instance, has led to water-intensive paddy and sugarcane being indiscriminately grown even in water-deficit areas. Besides, as a Crisil report on the subject observes, minimum support prices are primarily meant for water-consuming crops, skewing the sowing pattern towards wheat, rice and sugarcane. Poor access to irrigation has added to the preference for groundwater. Community institutions such as water users’ associations have addressed this imbalance in regions such as Gujarat, while a similar World Bank-sponsored collective experiment in Mahbubnagar district in Andhra Pradesh has approached groundwater as a community resource with successful results.

The proposed law, which seeks to empower local bodies, is not clear about whether a new governance framework should replace the old. The existing, centralised system of the Central Groundwater Authority issuing ‘no objection’ certificates to aquifer-users, without the local community being consulted, should stop. There is no clarity on how the obsolete concept of easement rights (that the landowner owns the water below his property) will make way for community management at a macro level. If community institutions are the way forward in rural India, systems such as better metering and accurate pricing should be introduced so that industrial and urban consumers are mindful of water use. The new policy must explain how the Centre plans to persuade the States to enact a similar law. Finally, water management cannot be seen in isolation of policies that promote balanced, sustainable practices in both rural and urban spaces.

Published on June 08, 2016

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