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Securing Groundwater Access in Urban India

Securing Groundwater Access in Urban India

Delhi is expected to run out of groundwater in the coming decade. Photo: Flickr/Kamala L., CC BY SA 2.0.

In the last few decades, groundwater extraction and use in India for drinking and irrigation increased more than anywhere else in the world. Though successive National Water Policies (e.g. 2002 and 2012) anticipated the worrying consequences of this trend, it was perhaps the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), published by NITI Aayog, that received the most attention.

In a first, the CWMI developed a national index of water severity in 24 Indian states and reported that “54% of India’s groundwater wells are declining”. While the dependence on groundwater for irrigation in rural areas is well-known, the fact that cities would be water-stressed as soon as 2020, as the CWMI also noted, highlighted the fact that India lacks a clear regulatory framework for urban groundwater resources.

Groundwater is the primary source of drinking water. In recent years, the exponential growth of packaged drinking water has expanded the demand for groundwater. Concerns of contamination and waterborne infections through municipal/water boards supply has only fuelled this demand. These packages are priced between 30 and 50 rupees per 20 litres. Their production grew significantly enough for the National Green Tribunal to take notice in 2018, when it questioned the legality of its production operations and sought an estimate of groundwater levels in Delhi from the Central Ground Water Authority.

Indeed, notwithstanding the abundant supply, there continues to be little transparency over how these companies negotiate their operations with state-level bodies and how they might be regulated. And although almost all cans come with an ‘ISI’ stamp, concerns remain over how drinking water standards are maintained and checked by external regulators.

Current conservation efforts

Conservation of groundwater resources in most cities can be said to follow a pattern. Rejuvenating depleting surface-water bodies (SWBs) such as ponds, lakes, wetlands and rivers, is thought to recharge groundwater resources. Though the reasoning is correct, the preference for these bodies is leaving alarming rates of groundwater depletion unaddressed.

Water is a state subject in India, and it was expected that conservation plans would differ among the states. This makes the concern of particular importance because rejuvenation projects typically take time, which exacerbate the imbalanced nature of this approach. A reason for a weak regulatory structure of groundwater resources is probably due to the fact that groundwater rights are tied to land ownership guaranteed under the Indian Easements Act (1882). This legal framework does not show any signs of reform despite notable scholarship arguing against the same. It is feared that without factoring in current challenges such as social equity and climate change, groundwater consumption may be extremely inequitable in the future. Poorer households may not access groundwater without being able to pay for it at substantial costs.

The demand for clean drinking water in the form of canned usage provides clear incentives for water utilities to improve supplied quality standards. The recent ‘Drinking Water – Specification’ (second revision, IS 10500:2012) report by the Bureau of Indian Standards on drinking water quality in twenty state capitals including Delhi had shown disappointing findings.

Therefore, water boards/utilities have a central role in mitigating the crisis. Investments addressing deteriorating infrastructure – the chief cause of contamination, may reduce canned consumption and earn revenues for such utilities which have long remained resource deficient. Further, strengthening regulatory measures which curb commercial and domestic capture of groundwater resources are crucial.

Many residents of Delhi confirmed to the author corporators and/or water board officials never visited their localities. This had led to an elite capture of the piped water infrastructure in many colonies. So in the interest of decentralisation, ward-level committees may play a key role in ensuring equitable access. Such measures reiterate the oft-repeated reforms needed towards urban governance, but may prove crucial in ensuring groundwater security in the future for urban India.

V. Mark Gideon has a PhD in urban water governance from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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