The government has for the first time said that citizens had a right to safe water and laid out stringent rules on how corporations and large entities can extract groundwater in two separate pieces of draft legislation uploaded on the website of the Union Water Ministry and open for public comment.
The Bills —in a first — also propose fines ranging from Rs.5,000 to Rs. 5,00,000 depending on the level of infraction and who the perpetrators were. Groundwater wouldn’t also be a free resource and those who could pay for it ought to be doing so while ensuring that it was equitably available to all. The Bill doesn’t detail a mechanism but lays down broad principles.
To be sure, previous governments have also tried to enact legislation to ensure that groundwater— a fragile resource and 80% of India’s irrigation supply— is used judiciously. However, these didn’t account for the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution vesting powers to panchayats and municipalities in the management of water that includes groundwater and was rarely adopted by States.
More power to panchayats
The draft bills — the National Water Framework Bill and the Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater will be open for public comment until the month end, aim to decentralise water management and give more power to panchayats and gram sabhas to decide how water can be better used.
“What have we learned from Maharashtra [drought]? That in spite of spending so much on large dams it is among the least irrigated States,” Mihir Shah, Former Planning Commission member and Chair of the committee that drafted the Bills told The Hindu, “and that’s because the end users of water had little say.”
The most fundamental reform that the Bill sought to make was to do away with the “British Common Law” concept — as Mr. Shah described it — that he who owned the land could extract unlimited groundwater. According to the provisions of the proposed Bill, corporations and industries extracting groundwater now had to submit plans to ensure that water was used responsibly and that any possible contamination was remedied.
Funds for river clean-up
The NDA government has announced massive budget outlays to clean up rivers such as the Ganga as well embark on interlinking rivers to improve storage capabilities. The present legislation doesn’t attempt to decide if the States or the Centre ought to have the final say in developing or conserving water bodies.
The Bills also say that the top priority in the use of groundwater ought to be in meeting drinking, sanitation, food security, sustenance agriculture, the needs of women and only after that for industry.
There would also be an incentive for those who cultivate less water-intensive crops. There would also be groundwater security boards and groundwater protection zones that would be overseen by State bodies.