(Photo from Outlook)
Harischandra Yerme from Latur (Maharashtra) sunk not one or two but 60 borewells in his field in Marathwada in the hope of finding water for his orchard. None of these 60 borewells yield water today. Mr. Yerme has taken on himself the task of educating farmers in his region that there is no sense in growing an orchard on bore wells: the supply may dry up at any moment, resulting in huge losses. He told me, “We don’t even consider 250 feet borewells now, all bores are at least 700-800 feet deep and even then they don’t work.” Marathwada is reportedly drilling as many as 10,000 borewells per month in this drought: a boom that is sustained by the “boring mafia” from Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu using travelling rigs… In as many as 247 villages of Marathwada, the draft has exceeded recharge to such an extent that the aquifer has literally gone dry.. Water in villages is plummeting even by 7 meters of the 5 years average. The density of borewells is so high that is villages near Tasagaon, a 40-50 square kilometer area has more than 210 deep bore wells. Officials from GSDA tell SANDRP of multiple instances where farmers only lose money in the hope of going deeper for groundwater, deeper than 800-900 feet. The landscape is likened to a “Chaalan”: a sieve in Marathi, but also several gunshot wounds..
Latest list of critical and over-exploited villages in the Maharashtra as per GSDA is expectedly alarming: 2331 villages in the state fall in watersheds which are critical or over exploited condition. District-wise distribution of the villages is: 556 villages in Amravati, 137 in Buldana, 55 in Aurangabad (which looks like an under-estimate), 14 in Jalna, 126 in Latur, 41 in Osmanabad, 292 in Ahmednagar, 385 in Jalgaon, 274 in Nashik, 172 in Pune, 91 in Sangli, 55 in Satara, and 133 in Solapur.
This groundwater crisis has moved the wheels of an established legislation: The Groundwater (Management and Development) Act of 2009 (GMDA). Under this Act, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA), functioning as the State Groundwater Authority, has issued a public notice for comments in April 2015 to “Notify” 76 overexploited and 7 critical watersheds in Districts of Ahmednagar, Amravati, Aurangabad, Buldana, Jalgaon, Jalna, Latur, Nashik, Osmanabad, Pune, Nashik, Satara and Solapur, to prohibit sinking wells deeper than 60 meters. SANDRP discussed this with senior officials in GSDA who confirmed that more than 1100 villages will impacted by this notification. However, no official communication has been sent to the Gram Panchayats about this. Currently, there is no institutional structure in place to enforce or monitor this restriction on pumping or sinking new wells. It is unclear how the notification has been issued in the absence of any groundwork on the Act itself, whose rules are yet to made formulated. Senior Official from GSDA told SANDRP that appointment of the District Authority in form of Sub Divisional Officer (Prant) is expected to happen in a fortnight. It is difficult to understand how this one –person “authority” will enforce penal clauses in so many villages, full of traveling boring mafia.
Time is opportune to analyse the situation in Maharashtra and the Groundwater Act itself which may finally see attempted implementation.
Although Maharashtra has India’s largest number of large dams, its water lifeline flows under the ground, like most other states. According to Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA), whopping 71% of the irrigated area in the state is irrigated not by large dams and canal, but through ground water. Experts peg this figure closer to 80%. In India, groundwater-irrigated area has increased 500%  since 1960 and India is the largest groundwater irrigating nations in the world. (See SANDRP’s Assessment of Groundwater in India here: https://sandrp.in/groundwater/crisugrdwtr.pdf)
According to the White Paper on Finances, Government of Maharashtra, March 2015, in 2013-14, there were 36,48,959 consumers of irrigation pumps in the state, majority for pumping groundwater, each using about 5900 units of electricity annually. This number has been increasing steeply every year and appropriates huge subsidy. These pumps are concentrated in specific districts, for example, Solapur has highest number of pumps ( and largest area under sugarcane) and appropriates maximum proportion of subsidy given for farm pumps, furthering regional imbalance and strengthening the water-energy nexus, besides showing the failure in regulating groundwater use at sustainable levels and in an equitable way.
It is groundwater that is being primarily used in schemes like Farm Ponds and not rainwater. Although Farm Ponds are being pushed by the center as well as the state through Agriculture Department, most ponds in drought-affected regions of Nashik, Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, etc. are storing pumped groundwater. Though there are justifications for doing this, this means blatant conversion of a public property resource into a fenced and locked private resource, the size of which depends on the size of the farm pond, the strength of the pump, the depth of the bore well and finally, the power of the farmer owning the farm pond. This author has witnessed incidences where powerful farmers have bought pieces of land of poorer farmers to sink bore wells and fill their farm ponds, while the dug wells in the poor farmers’ lands in surrounding area dry up, literally destroying the farmer.
There is a crying need to achieve some credible regulation of groundwater. There are thousands of desperate Yermes in Maharashtra whose bore wells and dug wells are running dry. In Marathwada, plummeting groundwater levels has been one of the reasons for farmer suicides. While impact of a dry borewell on its owner can be easily understood, its impact on groundwater as a public resource is difficult to gauge and part of the problem is also ambivalent nature of communities who believe that well owner can abstract as much water as he wants. Groundwater Irrigation due to its very nature throws up issues not only of sustainability of the resource, but equity in its distribution. It is one sector where regulation and monitoring gain paramount importance and are entirely lacking in reality.
And this is despite the fact that Maharashtra has already promulgated the Groundwater (Management and Development) Act (GMDA) in 2009, though it was gazetted only in 2013.
Maharashtra has been on the forefront of drafting new (and at times problematic) water laws. The state promulgated the first Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act (MWRRA Act) in 2005. However, the state’s performance in actually implementing any of the existing laws has been dismal to say the least. As put forth by Pradeep Purandare, the Maharashtra Irrigation Act of 1976, a parent act for many related legislations, has not been implemented fully in the past 38 years, even the rules of this act have not been formulated till date. Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority, formed under the MWRRA Act was paralyzed for many years and then did not perform any of its duties assigned to it, as pointed out scathingly by the Hon. Bombay High Court.
The Maharashtra Groundwater (Management and Development) Act 2009  Despite its limitations, Maharashtra Groundwater (Management and Development) Act 2009 could be a useful and needed legislation, if amended and implemented in correct way.
This is an attempt to broadly introduce the readers to the provisions of the act and to look at spaces which will allow Maharashtra to move forward from the earlier 1993 Groundwater Act, which largely remained unimplemented. This is not a detailed critique of the 2009 Act.
The preamble of the 2009 Act states that this Act is for “Sustainable, equitable and adequate supply of groundwater through supply and demand management measures to protect public drinking water sources.” The Law calls for a State Groundwater Authority which will have the powers to “notify” a region which is vulnerable to groundwater exploitation under the Act.
The constitution of this State Groundwater Authority is same as the MWRRA but invitees include director of GSDA, one expert on Groundwater management and one lady representative working on groundwater issues. The institutional mechanisms recommended by the Act include District Authority, District Watershed Water Management Committee, Watershed Water Resources Committee, etc. The State Groundwater Authority has the right to notify any region under this Act and can then completely ban sinking new borewells or pumping water from existing borewells for irrigation. Any use, including deep wells for drinking water will need to be regulated through the hierarchies of the institutions under the Act.
Unlike the 1993 Groundwater (Regulation for Drinking Water purposes) Act which dealt exclusively with protecting drinking water sources, the 2009 Act also looks at regulating groundwater abstraction for irrigation, includes strong provisions for artificial recharge and rainwater harvesting even sand mining, which is a welcome change.
In a notified region, the State Authority will form a Watershed Water Resource Committees (WWRC) which will work out a Watershed-based or aquifer based groundwater use plan every year based on water budget. The Committee will also work on a Cropping Pattern suitable for the region, the job of ascertaining existing use and individual methods of groundwater recharge will also be entrusted with the Watershed Water Resource Committee.
The State authority will monitor compulsory registration of rig owners who operate in the state, and can, following recommendation of WWRC, recommend complete ban on water intensive crops in notified regions. The State govt is supposed to prescribe a Crop Plan in consultation with institutional hierarchies under the Act.
Local authorities shall impose conditions on Rain water harvesting and any sinking of wells, even in non-notified region. All application for sinking new wells in notified areas have to reach the WWRC. The permission for sinking a well shall be subject to construction of artificial recharge structure of a suitable size ( which is excellent). The WWRC also has the right to ban or regulate Sand mining in rivers.
All the responsibility of “community participation” has been thrust upon the Panchayat-heavy WWRC without any clarity as to what community participation means in this case. The WWRC will include 11 villages in the notified region and its chairperson will be the Chairperson of the concerned Panchyat Samiti. (The logic behind “11 villages” is unclear). Members of the WWRC include one representative each from every Panchayat or Urban Local Body, one representative each from Water Supply and Sanitation Dept, Water Resources Department, Agriculture Department, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Department and GSDA, one representative from Water Users Association (WUA) in the notified area, elected member from Panchayat Samiti or Zilla Parishad as ex officio member, one NGO representative as invitee, Block Development Officer as the Member Secretary. Women should constitute at least 1/3 rd of the quorum.
The District Authority (DA) will implement the decisions taken by this WWRC and the Authority will also have the power to inspect wells being dug, or monitor use of existing wells, or rig owners, and check documentation, etc. The DA has the right to declare a Water Scarcity Area, in consultation with the WWRC, Panchayat, Urban Body, GSDA, etc., and water use will be restricted and regulated in this scarcity hit area for a limited period of time. Ironically, DA consists only of one official, Tahsildar or above. The entire inspection regime to check violations, which is most problematic and involves powerful and entrenched interests, has been entrusted with this one officer, which is highly impractical.
The DA has the right to notify a source as Public Drinking Water Source and no sinking of wells will be allowed in the vicinity of a public source. The DA will prepare Integrated Watershed Development and Management Plan for artificial recharge in consultation with GSDA and local bodies. DA shall implement the decisions of District Watershed Management Committee, which consists of the Guardian Minister, one member from State Legislature and Collector as the Member Secy of the Committee. An officer, not below the rank of a Tahsildar will be the District Authority under GMDA.
Through this Act, the institutional mechanisms are empowered to ban sinking and pumping in notified or Scarcity hit region, encourage artificial groundwater recharge, disallow water intensive cropping patterns, collect Cess (to be used for groundwater conservation), disconnect electricity connections of those violating orders, inspect wells and operations, inspect pumping water levels, confiscate instruments, etc. The Act has a penal provision of upto Rs 10000 fine for first offense and imprisonment upto 6 months and upto Rs 25,000 fine for habitual violations and also includes companies in its mandate.
Implementation There are some serious issues with the GMDA, most striking of which is constitution of Watershed Water Resources Committee only for notified area,,a hazy and unspecified community participation aspect, and an extremely Panchayat-heavy constitution of the WWRC, itself dominated by entrenched interests, which can make surfacing of any complaints against violators difficult, as was experienced with the 1993 Groundwater Act. It also does not include any mandatory public hearing for either the Integrated Watershed Plans being made by the District Committee or the watershed/groundwater plans and water budget or Crop Plans made by WWRC. Absence of participation in these crucial decision making arenas will make implementation difficult.
However, the Act has several strong point too and looking at the breakneck speed at which aquifers storing water over millions or years are going dry, the groundwater regulation is still a needed and should be implemented urgently. Unfortunately, after 2 years of its gazzetting, the Act is still not being implemented AT ALL on ground.
Can MWRRA be an effective State Groundwater Authority? One of the major problems of the GMDA is the heavy influence of MWRRA as the State Authority for the implementation of GMDA. The MWRRA has a remarkably bad track record in any implementation since the past ten years that it has been formed. It is still to take a single equitable water distribution decision, which was its main role. The whole Maharashtra irrigation scam happened under the agile existence of the MWRRA, but MWRRA failed to address any of the issues plaguing the irrigation sector or do any thing about the scam. The scam was also a regulatory failure among other things.
The River Basin Organizations, River Basin Plans and Integrated State Water Plan that were to be made by the MWRRA within 6 months of its formation are still not completed after 10 years! In the 2012-13 drought, the Hon High Court had to direct water release from upstream dams in the absence of functioning MWRRA. There are no signs that the Authority has improved its performance in its core area of equitable water distribution. The first meeting of the State Water Board happened only a couple of months back. In such a situation, can the same Authority, which is unable to perform its primary responsibility, be entrusted with regulating a complex resource like Groundwater as an additional responsibility?
When the I discussed the progress of GMDA with MWRRA Member, I was informed that even the State Groundwater Authority has not been formed in the true spirit of the act. No special invitees have been decided till date in the State Groundwater Authority. No District Authority has been constituted, neither have the Watershed Water Resource Committees been formed in the absence of notification. There is no time specific plan to achieve this in place either.
When SANDRP discussed this issue with senior officials at GSDA, they suggested that Delegation of Powers under the Act should happen more swiftly and GSDA needs to play a central role in the Groundwater Authority. However, in his words, “Delegation of power is always a tricky issue” and as stated above, even the invitee member on groundwater has not been announced by the MWRRA as yet.
According to water expert Pradeep Purandare, there is serious lack of homework and vagueness about the implementation of GMDA. The very central issue was not even discussed in the first ( and the only) meeting of the State water Board, under the Chairpersonship of the Chief Minister.
MWRRA is mulling over declaring overexploited and 7 critical watersheds in Districts of Ahmednagar, Amravati, Aurangabad, Buldhana, Jalgaon, Jalna, Latur, Nashik, Osmanabad, Pune, Nashik, Satara and Solapur as Notified regions, prohibiting sinking bore wells below 60 meters. However the Notification has not yet issued and actual management or any implementation of the prohibition will happen only after putting structure like District Committee, District Authority and Watershed Water Resources Committee in place, which will take further time.In the meantime, no work on encouraging groundwater recharge, improving public participation, education and outreach about the Act has been initiated.
Looking at the speed and the scale at which Maharashtra is being bored and drilled, the performance of the MWRRA is lackluster to say the least. State Groundwater Development Authority under MWRRA urgently needs to put forth a time-bound program of action as per the GMDA and officially put it out for public consultation. In the current situation, Maharashtra cannot afford one more largely unimplemented Groundwater Legislation like the 1993 Groundwater Act.
As Maharashtra faces drought after drought and goes deeper in its unstoppable search for water, there is no time to lose in protecting its groundwater lifeline in a credible, sustainable and democratic manner.
-Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org), SANDRP