The Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act 2009

Shashank Deshpande, Deputy Director GSDA, talks to the India Water Portal on the background and features of the recently passed Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act 2009.
View of an open well View of an open well

Please provide us some background on the hydrogeology of Maharashtra and its special features, which make it stand out as compared to the other parts of the country.

Maharashtra is a relatively better off state in the country in terms of rainfall, but it may soon become a state facing increasing water crisis with perennial water shortages, if urgent measures are not undertaken to address quantity and the quality issues related to groundwater.

There are 40,785 villages and 45,528 hamlets in the state and as high as 82% of the rural population depends on agriculture for its livelihood. Out of the total area under irrigation, 28.75 lakh hectares (71%) of the agricultural land is irrigated by groundwater while 11.83 lakh hectares (29%) by flow or canal irrigation. Out of the total groundwater consumed, 85% is for irrigation, 10% for industries and only 5% is for domestic consumption. Drinking water needs of around 80% of the total rural population are met from groundwater.

As high as 82% of the state is occupied by hard rock or Deccan trap basalt, which has a very low storage capacity and which depends on the weathering characteristics and water bearing properties of the rocks. 10% of the area consists of granite and metamorphic rocks, 5% consists of sedimentary rocks while only 4% consists of alluvial rocks that have a higher water holding capacity.

Out of the 4% alluvium, half each has been divided between Tapi and Purna regions. The Purna region alluvium holds ample groundwater, but it is highly saline and not potable. Only a few lenses or layers of sweet water are available in the Purna region. In contrast, the Tapi alluvial region is a rich source of groundwater.

In addition to this, a look at the rainfall pattern shows that it is not uniform and there is considerable regional as well as annual variability. The State experiences extremes of rainfall ranging from 6000 mm to less than 500 mm with the Konkan sub-division that includes the coastal districts and Western Ghats receiving more than 6000 mm of rainfall while the plains receive 2500 mm of rainfall. However, the rainfall decreases towards eastern slopes and plateau areas where it is less than 500 mm.

The rainfall then again increases towards east i.e in the direction of Marathwada and Vidarbha to around 1500 mm. Thus, the Madhya Maharashtra sub-division is the region of the lowest rainfall in the state and is almost always in the grip of water scarcity and droughts. As high as ninety-nine talukas in the state are chronically drought affected.

The topography of the state shows that 20% of the area is hilly with slopes greater than 15% called as run-off zone, 30% include valleys with slopes less than 5%, called as storage zone. 50 % of the area is more important with slopes in the range of 5 to 15% called as recharge zone.

The variability in rainfall, topography and the geology of the region poses a number of limitations in terms of groundwater availability, recharge and storage in the state. In such a situation where groundwater resources are limited and restricted to certain sections of the state, we can see a peculiar phenomenon of overextraction of groundwater in these groundwater rich areas and emphasis on cash crops such as sugarcane, bananas, grapes, oranges.

How has this contributed in the groundwater development of the state and what is the situation of the state with respect to groundwater? What are the factors that have contributed to this situation?

A large section of the rural population in Maharashtra and urban to some extent, is dependent on groundwater for drinking purposes. Also more than 50% irrigation in the state is through groundwater and more and more industries are also preferring groundwater due to its uniformity in temperature.

In a situation where groundwater resources have limitations, there continues to be the phenomenon of overextraction of groundwater for irrigation in the state. Can you imagine how much water is being drawn out?

In 1972, the occurrence of frequent droughts, limitations in availability of surface water, availability of low cost drilling devices and institutional finance led to proliferation of irrigation wells. For example, the irrigation wells have increased from 5.5 lakh in 1972 to as high as 21 lakh according to the fourth well census. The number has increased by four times in four decades! This keeps on increasing at a frightening scale with no limitations or legal restrictions on the withdrawal of groundwater.

This has created an imbalance with increase in draft or withdrawal, but with recharge remaining the same. This has led to overexploitation, serious declines in water levels and problems with water quality in certain areas due to over drilling and trying to go deeper and deeper with no results. Mind you, there are some areas in Marathwada where farmers are drilling one borewell after another in the desperation to get water, which does not help with declining groundwater levels.

Imagine a situation where there is a vessel full of water which is being drawn out from all sides by straws. What will happen? If nothing is done to replace the water, then it can lead to serious depletion of water resources.

For example, according to standards, one square kilometre area should not have more than 8 wells. But in some districts in Maharashtra, the well density is more than 16! Deeper aquifers are being accessed and the situation is serious.

Looking at this situation, the Maharashtra Water and Irrigation Commission had recommended that it is necessary to register wells, borewells and tube wells and to consider and estimate groundwater and surface water together and that too on a watershed/sub basin basis. The total rechargeable fresh groundwater resources in the state are around 33.93 BCM and net groundwater availability is 32.15 BCM. The current withdrawal for all purposes is 17.18 BCM.

It has been found that there are 24.27 lakh abstraction structures being used to withdraw groundwater every year for irrigation, industries and domestic purpose. Out of these there are 19.01 lakh dug wells withdrawing 14.85 BCM of water and 1.91 lakh borewells withdrawing 1.29 BCM of water.

Out of the 1531 watersheds in the state, 76 are categorised as overexploited and 4 are critical, where the groundwater abstraction has been found to be either more than 100% or 90% of the annual recharge and either pre or post monsoon or both water levels are depleting.

A total of 100 watersheds are in a semi critical category where the stage of groundwater development is between 70 to 90 percent and the pre and the post monsoon water levels are depleting. In all, 4 watersheds are classified as poor quality and the rest 1347 watersheds are classified as safe.

How has groundwater been viewed in the state? Did the idea of groundwater regulation exist in the state before? How did the concept and the need for groundwater regulation evolve in Maharashtra? What was the role of (Groundwater Survey and Development Agency) GSDA in it?

Taking into consideration this situation, Maharashtra is one of the few states who has enacted the Maharashtra Groundwater (Regulation for Drinking Water Purposes) Act 1993 and the subsequent framing of rules to regulate the exploitation of groundwater for the protection of public drinking water sources.

However by 1999, the Chitale Commission had put forth the concept of looking at groundwater use in totality as that used for drinking as well as irrigation, with the deeper groundwater to be used for drinking purposes while the annually replenishable one for irrigation.

We felt that something had to be done. By that time we had also been conducting pilot studies in Jalna, Beed, Satara where we identified aquifer boundaries and based on the information related to water availability, helped villagers to make a groundwater management action plan based on an appraisal of the source and the resource through active participation of the community. The community was made aware of the gap between availability and demand and measures for saving of water were thought of.

The project was successfully implemented in  three districts and people were convinced of the need to use water with care, plan crops according to water availability, prevent focus on cash crops. For example, we were able to convince farmers in Satara to use horticulture crops. Sugarcane plantations were reduced by 50%. In Beed, farmers are now taking up pomegranate, sweet lime and in Satara are going for ginger. Due to this, they could survive without tankers till the end of March during less rainfall years, which was not the situation earlier.

We learnt a number of lessons from these pilots and decided that it was important to go ahead for legislation to protect the overexploited areas. We realised that the 1993 law was only looking at drinking water. But the basic issue is of the draft or withdrawal. Who should control this? To understand this you cannot separate drinking water and irrigation needs. The issue has to be understood from the perspective of use.

Pumped water from well

For example, as per the Report on Dynamic Groundwater Resources of Maharashtra as on 2011-12, around 93% of the total abstracted groundwater is used for irrigation withdrawal, around 5% used for drinking and maybe 2 to 3% for industries and if groundwater is limited then the share in irrigation use needs to be reduced to attain sustainability.

If one really wants to make groundwater sustainable and control abstraction, then a groundwater use plan and a crop plan is needed. You cannot do away with drinking water, that is a mandatory need, so crop management becomes very important.

In Maharashtra, the state legislature has recently passed the Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act 2009 drafted by the GSDA.Could you please describe the background and the evolution of this Act?

Although the Maharashtra Groundwater (Regulation for Drinking Water Purposes) Act 1993 had the provision for regulation of overexploited watersheds and subsequently prohibition on the construction of new wells i.e. groundwater developmental activities in overexploited and critical watersheds, it was realised that the act had certain limitations. The law is silent on issues such as how much water may be withdrawn for irrigation,  whether high water consuming crops can be grown in overexploited watersheds and on drilling of deep borewells for irrigation etc

With a change in perspective following the Chitale Committee report, the state government decided to rebuild on the Maharashtra Groundwater (Regulation for Drinking Water Purposes) Act 1993 and enact the Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Bill 2009.

Could you please inform us of the important features and principles of this Act? Why is it referred to as a pioneering and a more progressive Act as compared to the earlier attempts at legislation?
The very purpose of this act is to facilitate and ensure sustainable and adequate supply of groundwater of prescribed quality for different categories of users, through supply and demand management measures and protection of public drinking water sources. Some of the important features of the Act include:

  • The state to be responsible for the management of groundwater:

This legislation also has the background of the Coco Cola case that was fought in Plachimada, Kerala where the Hble High Court withheld that ground water is a national wealth and belongs to the entire society and that the state is the trustee of all natural resources, which are by nature meant for public use and enjoyment and that these resources cannot be converted into private ownership.

According to the act, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) will act as the State Groundwater Authority in the state. The State Groundwater Authority along with the District Level Authority in consultation with Watershed Water Resources Committee (WWRC) at the watershed level in collaboration with the Panchayats or urban local bodies will manage and regulate the groundwater in the overexploited and critical areas of the state.

  • Legislation to control overexploitation of groundwater resources

One of the important feature of the act is the legislation it has to control overexploitation of groundwater resources that includes declaration of over exploited or water quality affected areas as notified areas, mandatory registration of existing and new wells, borewells etc within notified and non notified areas, prohibition of the drilling of deep borewell/s, for usages other than drinking purposes, within the notified and non-notified areas by the State Water Authority.

It proposes prohibition on construction of new wells within the notified areas and prohibition on extraction of groundwater from existing deep wells within notified areas. It also proposes a cess on groundwater withdrawal from deep wells within non notified areas and prohibition on sale of groundwater within notified areas

  • Focus on source and resource management through controlling demand and augmenting supply

Firstly, it looks at both surface water and groundwater in combination.It focuses on watershed as a basic area for management of water and recognises the aquifer as the basic unit for understanding groundwater exploitation.

It is for the first time that an Act has been passed that also comments on withdrawal of groundwater for other than drinking water i.e. irrigation. The Act focuses on source and resource management and demand and supply management.

For example, the Act focuses on regulation of water abstraction in overexploited areas and it is expected that an integrated watershed development plan must be made as a part of the state water plan to understand how much of water is surplus. Unless surplus surface water available, it will not be possible to go for massive scale recharge.

So in this situation, what is important is to ask farmers to reduce demand for groundwater and at the same time also look at alternatives like working on individual level water conservation structures, rainwater harvesting structures for which the government will provide funds. Thus, planning for water by looking at source availability and planning for optimum and sustained availability of resource forms an important part of the act.

  • Focus is on water accounting, crop planning and groundwater use plan

The Act also focuses on water accounting. For example it is expected that demand and supply can be adjusted by deciding priorities between the need for drinking water and water for irrigation.Once the amount of water needed for drinking is decided the farmers can manage the water needed for irrigation by exploring alternative resources.

Preparation of prospective crop plan based on groundwater use plan is mandatory in the notified areas according to the act. Preparation and keeping of water account will be done by WWRC within notified areas and by Gram Panchayat within non notified areas and WWRC shall promote locally suitable cropping pattern within the notified areas.

There is also a provision in the act for creation of the necessary infrastructure and linkages or markets for water efficient crops. There is also a provision in the act to place a total ban on water intensive crops based on the recommendations of the WWRC, GSDA and the watershed or aquifer wise groundwater use plan and the crop plan in notified areas.

If a farmer seeks permission to grow water intensive crop like sugarcane, from the WWRC,the WWRC may allow the farmer to do so, provided less amount of groundwater is used and the farmer undertakes water conservation measures at his own cost to maintain the water budget of the village.

  • Focus on decentralisation and community participation

One of the other important features of the act is focus on decentralisation and community participation with the lower most unit for development being the watershed area and management plan for all watersheds will be made by ensuring community participation right from the beginning where the state authority will involve the Director GSDA and one groundwater user and that too a woman to assist or provide information on the ground level situation before making any policy decisions on groundwater in the area.

If the State Groundwater Authority  feels that it is necessary to control the withdrawal of ground water in the area, it shall declare this area as notified. It will then form the Watershed Water Resources Committee (WWRC) with the aim of promoting and regulating the development and management of groundwater.

Farmer couple ploughing their fields

The important part is that the act will reach the lowermost unit at the village level that is the Panchayat while making the Integrated Watershed Development and Management plans for notified as well as non notified areas.

For example, as section 9 of the act says, the State Authority will direct the District Watershed Management Committee in consultation with the Watershed Water Resources Committee, Panchayat and the GSDA to prepare an Integrated Watershed Development and Management Plan for artificial recharge of groundwater in notified areas and ensure community participation.

As section 46 says, even in non notified areas the Panchayat and Panchayat Samitis and urban local bodies will be involved in the process of watershed management in protection of safe watershed status of the area through uptaking measures at groundwater recharge, making of a water budget and maintaining of water account and a Groundwater Use Plan.

Equity will be ensured in the sense that watershed water resources committee will be responsible for the concept of community ownership of groundwater and the protection of the rights of small and marginal farmers and restrictions will be laid down for surveys of groundwater, withdrawal of groundwater and prevention of overdrawal of groundwater.

  • Focus on maintenance of water quality and polluter pay principle

The act also focuses on maintenance of water quality and sanitation. For example, section 6 of the act specifically includes industries and contamination of groundwater by effluents in notified and non notified areas and provision has been made at district, as well as rural and urban local bodies to refrain industries from polluting groundwater.

The polluter pay principle has also been implemented in such cases. Regarding sanitation, once recharge areas are notified, open defecation on these areas becomes an offense, thus prevention of faecal contamination of groundwater is ensured.

  • Linkages with the aquifer mapping programme

One of the other important features of the act is the linkages the act will have with the aquifer mapping programme in which the GSDA will be involved as a technical authority. The GSDA will have the task of identifying, delineating and declaring basic watersheds or aquifers in the state along with the boundaries. The act is in line with the land revenue code.

Aquifer mapping has already been planned and will be implemented soon in the 12-13th five year plans with the first phase already starting with the next five year plan. In Maharashtra under the Jalaswarajya II, 19 out of 80 watersheds have been delineated and the Government of Maharashtra is taking it ahead till the village level.

We are also in the process of upscaling this initiative with a World Bank project in which 30 more aquifers will be delineated. This will also need support from barefoot geologists, NGOs, local communities as well. Our experiences with aquifer delineation in villages of Shivni in Jalna and others have shown that it requires efforts from different kind of stakeholders and can have direct as well as indirect benefits.

In a way we have tried to address the concerns of all in the act which includes aquifer delineation plan to deal with the issue of the easement act, have ensued community participation and involvement of local people and communities as well as non governmental organisations in the implementation of the act, have legislation in place to prevent sale of groundwater and ban on tankers in notified areas to prevent the control of private players and  plantation of high water consuming crops in notified areas. The act has also banned industries in notified areas and ensured protection of recharge worthy areas.

We have been working on the act for a very long time and it has taken almost 10 years to get it passed. I think, we need to give it some time to see how the actual plan gets implemented on the ground level before we really try to say anything about it.

Shri Shashank Deshpande is the Deputy Director, Jalswarajya-2, Special Monitoring Cell, Maharashtra Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA). 

Download copies of the Act in English and Marathi below.

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