Groundwater Bill: Need for a re-look


Groundwater resource in Karnataka is under severe stress for years, owing to increase in demand and unwise planning. About 30 per cent of the state has been over exploited and the over-draft is estimated to be about 0.22 million hectare meters. The problem is so acute that it is likely to cause severe social stress and strong agitations.

Groundwater exploitation went unabated due to absence of any institutional control. The current practice of water management are not supported by legislative control. A need to work towards a groundwater policy that provides an equitable framework and functions at a decentralised level was long felt.

In India, there is no single law that deals with groundwater ownership and management. All groundwater Acts are established in the form of state Acts as the sector is in the state list and most of these are benign. Karnataka is yet to come up with a final legislation, even though we have been hobnobbing with many drafts.

Recently, there is some fresh thinking about Karnataka Groundwater (Regulation and Control of Development and Management) Bill. A brain storming session held at the Institute for Social and Economic Change was helpful in identifying some of the important issues and missing links in the proposed bill.

At all levels

First and foremost, the proposed groundwater legislation should incorporate the cumulative policy pronouncements made both at the national and at the state level concerning water, agriculture and the economy. These include subjects like (i) conservation, recharge, sustainable and equitable use of groundwater; (ii) participatory and decentralised management; and (iii) an integrated approach that would include planning, use and management of groundwater resources.

Second, it is most urgent to establish a Ground Water Authority (GWA) and fix its functions to go along with the objectives of the bill. The composition of the authority in the proposed form is quite unwieldy, highly bureaucratised and centralised. Instead, GWA can have two tiers; one at the apex level acting in advisory capacity and looking into control and monitoring functions. This can be drawn from a couple of representatives each from the government, expert groups, farming communities and panchayats. At the second tier, technical experts should coordinate the process of implementation. This includes fixing liabilities and imposition of obligations. The provisions need to incorporate the notions of stewardship and trusteeship of the Constitution among the users.

All this would mean clear stipulation of the functions and accountability for every user in protecting, maintaining and judicious use of groundwater. The GWA should also be made accountable for its decisions. Existing data across departments have to be compiled under the authority.

The bill should include a clause to deal with transfer and sale of well water and water quality issues if it is not already there. This will discourage any new well coming up in the close neighbourhood of an existing well. There shall be specification regarding isolation distance and/or isolation depth/s linked with technology of water use (like drip or sprinkler).

Cap on irrigation wells

It is difficult to be accurate about specifyng distance between two wells. So, a cap on the number of irrigation wells is a reasonably easier measure for regulation. Water conservation through rainwater and roof water harvesting must find place in the new Act. Similarly, recharge measures need to be indicated and encouraged for different agro-climatic regions.

Since electricity is a chief mode of groundwater extraction, groundwater-energy nexus need to be treated carefully. Electricity consumed for agricultural purposes stood at 29 per cent of the total consumption in the state. Now, the state has introduced cross subsidies, in addition to direct subsidies, to meet the power supply expenditure, which is around Rs 3,500 crore to Rs 3,900 crore at the normal tariff of Rs 3.90 per unit. Free power supply might even hurt farmers’ interests in the long run as the government might ignore quality of power supply in rural areas, thus accentuating the rural-urban divide.

If we are really serious about the environmental externalities inflicted by the over-draft of groundwater, placing the bill before the Assembly is essential. But more than mere placement of the bill, it will be quintessential to provide appropriate teeth to the bill for its flawless implementation. We must wait and see if the bill sees the gates of the Vidhana Soudha or not.

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