Green court pushes government for action on groundwater regulation

  • India accounts for about 25 percent of the overall groundwater extracted across the world every year and about 90 percent of that alone goes to the agriculture sector.
  • Several regions across India have already become water stressed but with agriculture being a sensitive issue, governments have avoided regulating groundwater extraction or introducing similar policies. The courts are also trying to address the issue but there has not been a satisfactory result so far.
  • Environmentalists believe the Indian government need to overhaul its approach towards groundwater conservation and it needs to be done urgently.

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, extracting about 253 billion cubic metre (bcm) every year, which is about 25 percent of the global groundwater extraction. However, even though 90 percent of the total groundwater extraction in India is by the agriculture sector alone, it has never been brought under regulation considering the political sensitivity and socio-economic implications attached to the sector.

The situation of groundwater in the country is significant because, while  India has about four percent of world’s water resources and 2.4 percent of world’s land area, it is home to more than 18 percent of the world’s population, a majority of which depends on agriculture for livelihood. Additionally, the increasing demand for water in India is a challenge to water security in the country.  

An affidavit submitted by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) to the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in a series of cases related to groundwater situation, states that “being an agrarian economy, ground water extraction in India is primarily for irrigation in agricultural activities, accounting for nearly 228 bcm, which amounts to 90 percent of the annual ground water extraction.”

“The remaining 10 percent of extraction (25 bcm) is for drinking and domestic as well as industrial uses. Industrial uses is estimated to account for only about five percent of the annual ground water extraction in the country,” said the affidavit submitted in October 2018.

The affidavit was filed in the green tribunal in an ongoing case related to groundwater extraction. It stated that “groundwater extraction (withdrawal of groundwater in excess of the annually replenishable resources) in parts of the country is a matter of grave concern and the government is serious about the issue”.

Agriculture in India accounts for 90 percent of total groundwater used in the country. Photo by Seratobikiba/Wikimedia Commons.

Vikrant Tongad, a Noida-based activist who is fighting one such case said, “India uses maximum amount of groundwater in the world” and “we urgently need to decrease our dependence on it as we have a limited freshwater resource.”

Pressure of the agriculture sector on groundwater

The government maintains that despite best efforts, regulating groundwater extraction is a daunting task due to several reasons. As per the central government, there are about 30 million groundwater abstraction structures mostly owned by private individuals and being an invisible resource its unauthorised extraction is difficult to detect.

Another problem with conserving groundwater extraction is behavioural factor because as per the affidavit, “groundwater is still being considered as an easement to the land and hence is perceived to be privately owned rather than a common pool resource.”

The CGWB admitted in its affidavit that there are challenges in bringing regulatory measures in the agriculture sector which is the major consumer of groundwater.

The affidavit emphasised that “groundwater extraction for irrigated agriculture, coupled with low efficiency of water use is the major factor responsible for the overexploitation of groundwater in the country.”

It even stressed that “urgent measures such as demand and supply management coupled with appropriate regulation of groundwater will be required for improving the groundwater conditions in the water stressed areas of the country.”

But any action or regulation in the agriculture sector in India requires a serious political will and consensus.

India is responsible for about 25 percent of the overall groundwater extracted across the world every year. Photo by TeshTesh/Wikimedia Commons.

In September 2018, a meeting of the senior officers of the Indian government’s ministries of environment, water, agriculture, rural development and CGWB had also taken place to discuss the situation.

The meeting noted that “regulation of groundwater withdrawal through millions of groundwater abstraction structures being used for agricultural purposes in the country may impact the livelihoods of millions of small and marginal farmers”.

“It will also require wider public consultations to arrive at political and socio-economic consensus. Till such time, agriculture may continue to be exempted from regulation of ground water extraction. However, there is an urgent need to improve groundwater management in agriculture sector which may be done through suitable demand and supply interventions,” the meeting had noted.

Congress spokesperson Muhammad Khan stressed that “agricultural water usage is genuinely required but the government needs to deliver technological interventions that are sustainable.”

“Rapid depletion of groundwater resources is the most important issue that the present central government has ignored. The central government needs to evolve a dynamic policy response on the matter because it has far-reaching implications and consequences for every Indian regardless of the gender, age, religion and caste. In a country like India, we need to come up with technological solutions … and both the executive and legislature needs to push for them,” said Khan.

The court tries to plug the gap in the groundwater policy

Interestingly, this is not the first time that the authorities in India have noted the water stress in the country.

The 2012 national water policy of the Indian government had also noted that “large parts of India have already become water stressed” while observing that “rapid growth in demand for water due to population growth, urbanization and changing lifestyle pose serious challenges to water security.”

Despite several courts orders there has been little done on the issue of groundwater. Photo by Swagat Sabu /Wikimedia Commons.

The policy had also noted that the issues related to water governance have not been addressed adequately and “mismanagement of water resources has led to a critical situation in many parts of the country”.

In November 2018, while hearing a series of such cases, a bench of NGT led by its chairperson A.K. Goel came down heavily on Indian government for their “apathy” towards the issue.

Observing that NGT has been considering the issue of underground water conservation for the last six years and several orders have been passed, the NGT bench said that they have “noticed that even in overexploited, critical and semi critical areas, with or without permission, underground water continues to be extracted on a specious plea that though critical the area was not declared notified and is, thus, not regulated.”

“The CGWB has also sought to disown its responsibility by saying that the matter was State subject,” the bench had noted.

In India, the CGWB affidavit noted, “on the basis of stage of groundwater development and long-term trends of groundwater levels, out of the total of 6,584 assessment units, 1034 have been categorized as over exploited, 253 as critical, 681 as semi-critical, 4520 as safe and 96 as saline.”

The affidavit also emphasised that based on the assessment of annual recharge and extraction, the “stage of groundwater development (ratio of groundwater extraction to annual recharge) in the country is about 62 percent”.

The CGWB even went to extent of stating that “groundwater exploitation in over exploited areas exceeds the annual replenishment, the in-storage resource in such areas is being depleted, endangering the long-term sustainability of the resource” and “in critical areas, the annually replenished groundwater is almost fully extracted and any further increase in groundwater withdrawals is likely to impact the in-storage resources available.”

The bench called the allowing of groundwater withdrawal by industries against payment of charges in over exploited, critical and semi critical areas as “ridiculous and beyond comprehension”. It stated that such a thing “is against the precautionary principle, sustainable development as well as intergenerational equity principle”.

“One may understand the drawal of underground (water) for drinking purposes where no other source for such purpose exists but for no other purpose, much less the industrial purpose such drawal of underground water can be allowed with or without payment in such areas. The Tribunal has also noted that drawal of groundwater in the catchment areas of rivers may affect e-flow of the rivers which in turn affect aquatic life and the river water quality,” the bench said.

The tribunal empathised with the agricultural sector. It said that it “appreciates the difficulties of the agriculturists but the option of providing alternatives, such as the use of treated sewage water or switching over to less water consuming crops needs to be considered.”

The bench warned that “comprehensive planning and execution thereof on the subject with utmost priority is necessary and absence thereof has led to emergency situation in certain areas.”

The NGT, while pulling up the central government for its apathy and keeping such issues pending for years despite several orders by the Supreme Court over last 20 years, gave a time of four weeks to government to finalise whatever mechanism to address the issue. The case is now expected to come up for hearing on December 18.

Environmentalists call for an urgent action on groundwater to ensure it remains for future generations. Photo by Arugroupind/Wikimedia Commons.

Environmentalists call for urgent action

Environmentalists call for an urgent response and an overall course correction on the groundwater policy front.

“The condition of groundwater in India only reflects one thing that all the investment done in the country since independence on the development of surface water infrastructure has all been in vain. If still there is such a huge dependence on groundwater, then what were we doing all these years. This is a reflection on our wrong policies,” said Indian Forest Service officer turned environmentalist Manoj Misra, who is now working for rejuvenation of River Yamuna.

“If we had focused on groundwater than surface water infrastructure we would have been in a happy situation because a flowing river ensures that the groundwater is always kept recharged. But unchecked construction of dams has done two things- killed the rivers and impacted the groundwater recharge. We need to do a total course correction and our entire focus needs to be on groundwater,” Misra added.

Vikrant Tongad also expressed similar sentiments.

“We need to decrease our dependence on the groundwater resources through legal interventions. The policy around the whole issue is not clear. On national level, we need a special policy and need to implement it. If groundwater withdrawal situation remains the way it is today then our rivers will also die,” he said.

“If this doesn’t happen the whole water system of India will collapse and our ecological balance will also be threatened which can further impact the country’s economy. We need a new and urgent approach towards groundwater otherwise we will continue seeing people washing cars and even their cattle from freshwater,” Tongad stressed.

Banner Image: India needs a focused approach towards conservation of groundwater. Photo by Michael Gäbler//Wikimedia Commons.

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