The tragedy of the groundwater commons

India's groundwater is under severe stress thanks to its burgeoning population, inadequate and irregular water supply, abuse of water resources, and changes in the groundwater recharge potential. Governing groundwater is a growing challenge in large parts of the country where the water table is steadily dropping. According to a 2005 World Bank Report, groundwater accounted for over 50% of irrigated area in the country with 20 million tubewells installed, but the new guidelines from India’s groundwater regulatory agency--Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA)--are silent on how groundwater for agricultural use will be regulated

The fresh guidelines prohibit industrial and domestic borewells in notified areas with piped water supply, which suffer from critical groundwater levels. These guidelines, which became effective on November 16, 2015, could put an end to the excessive use of groundwater by water-intensive industries such as soft drinks, bottled water, breweries, distilleries, paper and pulp, fertilizers and others. However, the guidelines fail to stipulate measuring and monitoring mechanisms for groundwater recharge and are open to abuse by industries unless a rigid monitoring system is also articulated and implemented.

Amit Shrivastava of the India Resource Centre, an international organisation which has campaigned to hold beverage companies accountable for excessive and unsustainable groundwater use across India says, “The new guidelines are a significant step forward but a lot depends on whether the CGWA will apply the guidelines in letter and spirit for existing industries in water stressed areas, particularly over-exploited areas".

What is the impact to industry and domestic users?

If enforced, these rules could impact water intensive industries like mineral water bottling plants or major tanker businesses operating in water-scarce or over-exploited zones. They could also ensure that several industries dependent on groundwater in severely parched parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and other states now come under the CGWA scanner, and that they may be asked to re-use recycled wastewater instead of groundwater.

Since the guidelines came into force, both new and existing industries have to obtain no-objection certificates (NOCs), something that is new to the latter. Early reactions from industries indicate that they are “worried and confused”. Rajesh Kumar, who has leather and meat by-products factories--water guzzlers both--in Uttar Pradesh, said that the guidelines were “not easy to implement and could lead to large-scale malpractice with the state government as the implementing agency”. The impact on domestic users also could be significant. In the absence of supply from government agencies, a large number of domestic users — who use water from tankers who in turn extract it from borewells — could be affected.

Is the CGWA just another corrupt entity?

The CGWA was set up in 1996 by the Supreme Court and empowered under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 to regulate groundwater in over-exploited, water-scarce areas, but its record thus far is not very promising. Despite bottling plants requiring a licence from the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) which in turn required an NOC from the CGWA confirming that groundwater wasn't being withdrawn from scarce areas, "Over 1000 units extracting groundwater from over-exploited areas in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were given licenses by the CGWA. When asked how they could do this, flimsy reasons were given”, says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

“Unless and until a more transparent, participatory and decentralised decision making process is adopted, groundwater cannot be regulated. All decisions to regulate groundwater, which is essentially a local resource, cannot be taken at the state or central levels", he opines.

Can Participatory Groundwater Management come to the rescue?

Dr. Himanshu Kulkarni, Founder Trustee and Executive Director, Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), has other concerns about the new guidelines, “The regulation imposed by the new CGWA guidelines on industries is a welcome move but it must come with clear technical support and guidance". Kulkarni is of the opinion that the regulation needs to be coupled with solid groundwater management--Participatory Groundwater Management (PGWM)--if exploitation is to be curtailed. "PGWM is a comprehensive process to get things on the right track, especially keeping the focus on 'aquifers' for the assessment and management of groundwater”, he says, and based on earlier success stories, including it in the CGWA guidelines would be beneficial. 

“While such guidelines must remain stringent for industries and urban water use, they must address exploitation of groundwater for agriculture, especially in areas where industry and agriculture source groundwater from a 'common' aquifer system", he says. He also believes that top priority must be given to groundwater for domestic purposes including drinking water and sanitation.

Have past guidelines made a difference? 

According to a working paper by Sarbani Mukherjee published by the Institute for Social and Economic Change in 2007, “A Model Bill to regulate and control the development of groundwater was circulated as early as 1970. Water is a state subject in India, therefore the Model Bill could not be adopted directly by the central government. Instead, it was circulated to the states with the recommendation that it--or a suitable modified version of it--be adopted as legislation. No state, however, adopted it.

In 2005, the Model Bill was reviewed again to include provisions relating to regulation, development and augmentation of groundwater resources. Importantly, draft bills have been presented in the legislatures of several states but have never been effectively enacted. Ever since the inception of the Model Bill, there has been very little headway as far as implementation of groundwater legislations in different states. 'System managers often have no effective power to enforce the rules or the penalties for violating those rules'".

In a half-hearted attempt to tide over the groundwater crisis, the CGWA issued numerous notifications from 2000 to 2002 which banned or controlled the withdrawal of groundwater in designated notified areas of the National Capital Region, but these haven't been accompanied by awareness campaigns, so people installed tubewells without permission. What is worse is that monitoring has been inadequate leading to ineffective enforcement. 

Thus far, the story of groundwater commons continues to remain a tragedy. Perhaps legislation can only go so far, and awareness, concern and action by the citizenry is the only way out of this grave crisis.

Neeta Deshpande is an independent writer based in Bengaluru.