By Manju Menon and Kanchi Kohli*
Among the many areas where we have systematically worsened our chances of a decent life, one is the management of groundwater, a resource hidden from our sight yet one that sustains over half the water needs of India’s population. This makes regulating groundwater extraction a big challenge much like solving the air pollution crisis.
To impose “reasonable restrictions”, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR) sought comments on a Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation, and Management of Groundwater in June 2016. We were encouraged that it sought to realize “water for life” and regarded “basic safety requirements for water” a fundamental right of citizens. The Bill described groundwater as a “common heritage” of the people of India held in public trust, rather than a “common pool resource” from which anyone could extract freely. This Bill now called Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017 is reportedly with the Niti Aayog.
In the interim, the MoWR has sought comments from the public on the “Draft Guidelines for issuance of No Objection Certificate (NoC) for withdrawal of groundwater”. The public comment period ended on December 12, 2017. The government claims that the guidelines are needed as per the directions of various benches of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directing the Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA) in several cases regarding the grant of approval for groundwater extraction. These guidelines are drafted with the purpose of ensuring a uniform procedure and prevent discriminatory practices in regulating users.
The guidelines of 2015, also drafted under directions of the NGT, allowed the CGWA to delegate powers to grant NOCs to the district collectors. As per the proposed guidelines, the powers to grant approval for groundwater extraction is shared by multiple institutions at the state and district levels based on the quantum to be extracted. Contrary to the notion of decentralization or devolution of the approval process to local authorities, this proposed move will create an overlapping approval system across the government levels that will damage the resource even further.
With little or no system of coordination between these levels of institutions, they will all exercise their powers to grant approvals in the same region or to the same projects. Already, in the existing system, which has both the Central Ground Water Board under the MoWR and the Central Ground Water Authority that is set up under the Environment Act, there is little coordination.
The proposed guidelines aim to make the process of grant of approvals a level playing field, but this does not mean that groundwater will be used judiciously. In fact the approval granting process has been ineffective because the conditions that accompany them are barely enforced. These guidelines skirt the vexed issue of enforcement by lumping the difficult tasks of ongoing monitoring of all approvals, checking of wells, sealing illegal wells, launching prosecution and grievance redressal to the offices of the District Magistrate/DC.
The difficulty of enforcement is borne out by the proposal in the new guidelines to legalise violating units drawing groundwater without an NOC. The guidelines propose amnesty to these units through a one-time payment of Rs 0.15 /m3 of water extracted illegally. This makes the setting up of an approval process look ridiculous and half-hearted. Why would anyone want to seek an approval if fines can legalise their violation?
Pricing instead of protection and recharge
Recent regulatory changes for groundwater management have suggested classification of geographical areas based on groundwater levels and areas where extraction is permitted only for drinking purposes due to scarcity.
However, the implementation of these proposals is left vague. What is clearly outlined is the charge of a “water conservation fee.” While some natural resource economists may recommend such pricing mechanisms, these “market instruments” have become the classic escape route out of complex and politically sensitive regulatory decision making on the careful use of nature. Such user charges create a perverse logic for high impact and wasteful extraction as has been well documented in the case of forests and minerals.
These proposed guidelines free up groundwater users from the responsibility of conservation and recharge. Though it proposes that the state government in receipt of the fees, will take steps to conserve, no such steps are identified. As of now, this important task slips between the various actors with no one held accountable for groundwater conservation.
The guidelines do not mention the problem of groundwater contamination by industrial effluents, landfills, and over-extraction.
By setting up a process for approvals for groundwater extraction with no conservation of the resource, groundwater may be pushed further out of reach of thirsty Indians. These guidelines could exacerbate the effects they ought to prevent or remedy.
*With the CPR-Namati Environmental Justice Program.
This article was first published HERE