|Groundwater is getting depleted fast across India and it is time the authorities thought of making and enforcing effective laws governing its use.|
As summer marks its slow retreat over the Indo-Gangetic plain, the data on the status of groundwater aquifers across the country make for grim reading. While borewells in Punjab have hit frightening depths of 120 metres below the surface, arsenic contamination in West Bengal and Jharkhand has exposed communities to dangerous levels of toxicity. In the south, in coastal States such as Tamil Nadu, experts fear, reckless mining for water may have ruptured the sedimentary rock layers that separate freshwater aquifers from the saline ingress of the sea.
What is surprising is that India has no real laws to govern the use of groundwater for either communities or industry. Groundwater disputes in India are settled according to the Indian Easements Act of 1882, in which groundwater is interpreted as a right attached to land. Hence, owners of a plot of land have unrestricted access to the water that lies below it. While such an interpretation offers a degree of independence to individual and community users, the same law has been used to justify the sucking out of millions of litres of water by giant industries every day. The growth of bottling and paper industries, distilleries and steel plants has resulted in pitched battles between communities and corporations for control over common water sources.
Punjab and Uttar Pradesh illustrate the environmental fallout of two different practices. A flawed agricultural policy has pushed parts of Punjab into drought, while in Uttar Pradesh the sugar-distillery-petrochemical complex is destroying a communal resource that the industry pays nothing for.
Of late, the Union and State governments seem to have woken up to the absence of a framework to deal with groundwater utilisation. The Ministry of Water Resources proposed the Ground Water (Regulation and Control of Development and Management) Act in 2005. Yet, it remains just a proposal with no time frame for enactment.
Meanwhile, India's freshwater crisis seems to have caught the eye of the Planning Commission. Recent reports suggest that an experts committee has been set up to study the implications of a groundwater cess policy and its recommendations are to be included in the 11th Plan approach paper; but neither the terms of reference nor the recommendations of this committee have been made public.
The first step towards regulation of groundwater use could be a rationalisation of water tariffs, especially for industry. At present, the Central Pollution Control Board simply collects a water cess under the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act of 1977. However, the maximum cess collected under any category is 30 paise per 1,000 litres. The minimum is five paise per 1,000 litres.
Tariffs as low as these offer companies no incentives to move from existing water-hungry industrial processes to modern, less consumptive ones. They also fail to consider food and beverage plants where water is a crucial input in the final product and is exported out of the local water cycle. According to documents released by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, in 2000-01, distilleries across the State produced 4,32,489 kilolitres of alcohol. The same report suggested that on an average, for each kilolitre of alcohol produced 125 kilolitres of water was used.
Commoditising water is always a controversial choice to make. Those in favour of it argue that commoditising implies better management and conservation. Those opposed to the idea point to scenarios where a consumer-driven management model for a fundamental need such as water shall result in economically and socially marginalised groups being priced out of the system.
However, formulating a policy that caters to the needs of communities and simultaneously checks indiscriminate use by industry is neither impossible nor inconceivable.