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India’s Groundwater Caught Between Industrial Growth, Sustainable Development

India’s Groundwater Caught Between Industrial Growth, Sustainable Development

A boy drinks water from a handpump in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, in March 2016. Photo: nithiclicks/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Industries can no longer extract groundwater in India without conducting an environment impact assessment of their extraction activities. In a July 20, 2020, order, the National Green Tribunal NGT, directed the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) to stop granting ‘general’ permission for withdrawal of groundwater by commercial entities. The NGT clarified that “any groundwater extraction permission should be for specific times and a specified quantity of water, and not in perpetuity”.

Although state governments are allowed to draw up laws concerning groundwater resources, the Centre, through the CGWA, effectively regulates and controls groundwater development and management across India. Before extracting groundwater in India, industries must obtain a ‘no objection certificate’ (NOC) from CGWA or state authorities, granted online in a user-friendly manner. CGWA assesses an applicant’s NOC request by analysing the groundwater depletion rates in the area where the applicant proposes to extract groundwater.

To effectively regulate the groundwater extraction, the Centre, following the NGT’s directions, has divided areas with declining water tables in three categories:

1. Overexploited – Areas in which groundwater extraction rate is more than the groundwater recharge rate

2. Critical – Areas where groundwater extraction rate is 90-100% of the recharge

3. Semi-critical – Areas with an extraction rate of 70-100% of groundwater recharge

These categories are together called the OCS areas. Of the 6,584 groundwater units in India, 1,034 are ‘overexploited’; 253 are ‘critical’; and 681 are ‘semi-critical’ – making up 1,968 OCS units in all. Around 80,000 industrial units run in these OCS areas. Most of them are in the Delhi-NCR region.

NGT versus CGWA

But despite the categorisation of groundwater-unit areas, the amount of extraction from OCS areas has been increasing continuously. Since 2015, the NGT has issued several orders directing the Centre to assess the water-carrying capacity of each groundwater unit in OCS areas, and draft a unit-wise plan describing how the authorities will increase the groundwater levels in areas with heavy industrial activity. NGT also asked the CGWA to assign industries running in OCS areas with replenishment targets and revoke their NOCs if they don’t replenish the groundwater through rainwater harvesting and other measures.

However, the Centre hasn’t provided any reports to the NGT substantiating its efforts to control industrial extractions nor a roadmap explaining how the Centre plans to check and neutralise dropping groundwater levels.

The Central think-tank Niti Ayog, in its 2018 water report, highlighted the plight of groundwater in India. Some 54% of groundwater units in India are experiencing more extraction than replenishment, and that 21 major cities could run out of groundwater by the end of 2020 (although this claim has been strongly disputed). The report also categorically stated that “almost none of the states have built the infrastructure required to recharge groundwater in over-exploited and critical areas”.

Also read: In India’s West, What Explains Groundwater Shortage After Years of More Rain?

The groundwater extraction rate in India is the highest in the world – and is greater than the combined rates of China and the US. India was ranked 120 in the water quality index, out of 122 countries, in 2018.

The NGT referred to these alarming reports when, in early 2019, it directed the CGWA to stop granting or renewing groundwater extraction NOCs to industries operating in OCS areas. The order particularly affected a large cluster of industries in the Delhi-NCR region – a cluster with 82% of its groundwater units in OCS areas. Subsequently, representatives of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry wrote to the Centre expressing their concerns over the non-renewal of NOCs; according to them, more than 20,000 applications for NOCs were on hold and that as a result the industrial units were suffering great losses.

In mid-2019, the CGWA implemented new guidelines on groundwater extraction, which effectively reversed the NGT’s order and allowed industries to obtain groundwater extraction NOCs in OCS areas. The guideline also imposed a ‘Water Conservation Fee’ on industries seeking NOCs. However, there is no clarity even today on how this fee is being used, and whether it is being used to conserve water.

In mid-2020, NGT noted that the proposed guideline liberalises groundwater extraction “without any impact assessment and effective check, and is against law”. The tribunal also berated the CGWA over its failure to conserve groundwater, adding that in 24 years of CGWA regulations, groundwater levels have neither improved nor does there appear to be a “projection for future improvement”. It refused to accept the CGWA’s recommendations – including on the issuance of NOCs in OCS areas – and determined that “further liberalisation [of groundwater regulations] will defeat the purpose of having CGWA”.

NGT’s proposed guidelines

The NGT also directed the Centre to conduct specific studies before liberalising the extraction of groundwater in India, and to gather and upload an active dataset on current and estimated water-levels in each groundwater unit and compose unit-wise water-management plans. To improve transparency, the tribunal also ordered the Centre to constitute an independent body to annually review groundwater levels India and assess industrial compliance vis-à-vis replenishment. The audit is also to be uploaded online. Any industrial unit not meeting the replenishment target would have to be blacklisted or prosecuted under the existing legal regime. NGT also asked the Centre to monitor and record the extraction and replenishment data using digital metres and upload the data into the public domain. For OCS areas, the NGT also asked the CGWA to prepare water-level data and management plans, preferably by the end of October 2020.

Even as India is increasingly, and exceedingly, water-stressed, environment data remains a matter of secrecy in India. Environmental activists seeking access to such data through RTI applications often have been confronted with physical violence. At the same time, there exists no comprehensive study, particularly by the government, on groundwater extraction and replenishment rates in different parts of India. Access to this data and these management plans would significantly improve the transparency of India’s groundwater regulation enterprise.

Also read: Is Survivor Bias Messing With Our Impression of South India’s Groundwater Crisis?

Nonetheless, the Centre has opposed strict guidelines limiting industries’ ability to extract groundwater by stating that the agriculture sector withdraws 89% and that industrial activities only account for 5% (the rest being for domestic use). Tighter controls on industrial groundwater extraction will bring infrastructure projects to a halt and deal a body-blow to micro, small and medium enterprises (a.k.a. MSMEs). In an affidavit to the NGT, the Centre has said “the restriction on extraction of groundwater in OCS areas is likely to harm industrial production, employment opportunities and GDP of some states.” Irrespective of the strength of this argument at other times, it assumes significance today due to the country’s ongoing COVID-19 epidemic and highly weakened economy as a result of the government’s lacklustre response to it.

The NGT is bound by law to give its judgment considering sustainable development, a concept that calls for a balance between economy, environment and communities. So while the Centre has argued that strict compliance would be unsustainable for industries, the NGT has maintained that “only economic consideration is not enough for a policy,” and that the unsustainable extraction of groundwater will continue to pose “a significant food security risk for the country”.

Shashikant Yadav is an energy and water policy researcher currently affiliated with the Central European University, Vienna. He writes about environmental justice, ecocide law and illiberal democracies.

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