On December 18, 2018, the principle of Bench of the National Green Tribunal, called the CGWA (Central Groundwater Authority) notification gazetted[i] on Dec 12, 2018 as against “national interest”.[ii] The trouble is can we even expect CGWA and their parent, Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR for short) to get us out of the deep murky groundwater pit that we are in today?
NGT rightly asked, can just charging fees regulate groundwater? But it seems the MoWR cannot think in terms of a policy for groundwater, which is what the NGT had asked, not price tag list.
This policy blindness about India’s water lifeline is the biggest obstacle to achieving better groundwater governance. India’s water lifeline is groundwater, any discerning observer will agree, with two thirds of irrigated area, 85% of rural water needs, over half of urban and industrial water needs being served by groundwater and graph of % dependence on groundwater climbing up for each of these sub sectors. Our National Water Policy needs to acknowledge this reality, that whether we want it or not like it or not, groundwater is and is going to remain our water lifeline in foreseeable future.
Once that is acknowledged in the National Water Policy, then we will need to understand where does the groundwater come from. The natural recharge systems include the forests, the wetlands, the rivers, the flood plains, the local water bodies. We then need to protect these recharge systems and take measures to enhance recharge from these systems. Where necessary and scientifically feasible, we can add artificial recharge systems.
But most importantly, we would then start seriously thinking about groundwater regulation. The CGWA, set up under Environment Protection Act (1986) on Jan 14, 1997 following Supreme Court order of Dec 10, 1996, has proved itself to be completely worthless in this respect. After being in existence for close to 22 years, it cannot show a successful example of regulation anywhere in India in spite of having sweeping powers to achieve that. The revolving door that exists between CGWA and CGWB (Central Groundwater Board) has essentially made it to be a licensing body, and thus worsening the groundwater situation.
What has the CGWA been doing? In its own words: “issuing ‘No Objection Certificates’ for ground water extraction to industries or infrastructure projects or mining projects etc., and framed guidelines in this connection from time to time in twenty states and three Union territories, where ground water development is not being regulated by the State Government or Union territory administration concerned”. States/ Union Territories where CGA is not regulating groundwater currently: Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Telangana, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Puducherry. However, the new notification will have pan India applicability, says section 2.
The mindset of CGWA is on full display in the latest notification of Dec 12, 2018.
Some key aspects of the guidelines and critique:
- The guidelines to come into force from June 1, 2019 (why should it not be immediately implemented?). Groundwater use for Individual households for drinking water use for supply line upto 1 inch diameter supply line (Section 2.2.1) does not require mandatory rainwater harvesting. Installation of digital water meter is not mandatory in this case.
- Section 2.2.2, applicable to infrastructure projects/ industries/ mining/ public water supply agencies for drinking/ domestic water use upto 12.5 m3/day water. They do not mandatorily require use of recycled/ treated sewage for flushing/ green belt etc. Installation of piezometers not mandatory if extraction below 10 m3/day. Installation of Digital Water Level Recorders shall not be mandatory for projects requiring ground water upto 50 m3/day in safe and semi critical assessment units (no telemetry for water use upto 500 m3/day) and upto 20 m3/day in critical and overexploited assessment units (no telemetry for water use upto 200 m3/day). No condition for compulsory treatment and recycle of sewage.
- Section 2.3.1 for water use for industries: industries abstracting ground water to the tune of 500 m3/day or more in safe and semi critical and 200 m3/day or more in critical and over-exploited assessment units do not require water audit. Those that require water audit, need to get it done through “CII/ FICCI/ NPC certified auditors”. How can that be credible? It says “industries except those falling in red and orange categories as per CPCB” to implement Rain water harvesting. Why should the red and orange category industries exempt from Rain water harvesting?
- Major concession: “Existing industries, which have already obtained NOC and have implemented recharge measures as specified in the NOC, shall be exempted from paying WCF. However, if the industry is going for expansion, WCF will have to be paid for the additional quantum of ground water withdrawal as per applicable rates.”
- Section 2.3.3 for Infrastructure projects: Wastewater treatment and recycle measures not mandatory.
- Shockingly, no impact assessment, no public consultation, monitoring or compliance mechanism for any of the massive groundwater extraction proposals, in any of the above.
- Why should monitoring records be retained only for upto two years?
Agriculture water use: “Concerned State Departments (Agriculture/ Irrigation/ Water Resources) shall be required to undertake suitable demand and supply side measures to ensure sustainability of ground water sources. An indicative list of demand side measures is given”. CGWA could have provided more detailed and effective measures, including community governed groundwater regulation. The list given does not even include water saving methods like System of Rice Intensification or such method for other crops.
In fact, community driven regulation could have been recommended for all the different user classes.
WCF = Water CON fees? The notification has no restrictions, no banned water use activities even in over exploited and critical areas, where essentially there is no groundwater available for exploitation. Everyone, including bottled water and cold drink manufacturers are allowed to extract as much as they want, even from over exploited areas, as long as they pay WCF! These are clearly not Water Conservation Fees, but Water CON Fees. “Other industries” have to pay just one fifth to one sixth the WCF compared to packaged drinking water units. The “other industries” clearly includes cold drink companies. Mining and infrastructure industries have to pay even lower, upto one third the WCF than “other industries”.
Other conditions include a strange one: “Sale of raw/ unprocessed/ untreated ground water for commercial use by agencies not having valid NOC from CGWA is not permitted.” This means that if you have valid NOC, you can sale the water to others!
The delegation of powers by the notification is clearly not confidence inspiring: “Central Ground Water Authority has appointed the District Magistrate/ District Collector / Sub Divisional Magistrates of each Revenue District and Regional Directors of CGWB through Public Notice as Authorized Officers, who have been delegated the power to monitor compliance, check violations and seal illegal wells, launch prosecution against offenders etc. including grievance redressal related to ground water.” These agencies have not succeeded in achieving regulation of groundwater, how that is going to change? What is required is a dedicated groundwater regulation mechanism at aquifer/ gram sabha/ block/ district level where at least 50% members are independent people from outside government.
We hope NGT keeps all this in mind when it gives detailed order on January 11, 2019, as promised on Dec 18, 2018.
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org), SANDRP
Note: An edited version of this was published in THE TRIBUNE on Dec 31, 2018: https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/in-focus/deep-trouble-on-water-front/706239.html