The criticality of water as a resource in human development needs no reiteration. It is well recognized that quality water in the right quantity, at the right place and at the right time is essential to survival and sustainable economic development. Fresh water scarcity is as severe a hazard as global warming to this 21st century.
India has only 4.2 percent of world’s fresh water resources to sustain 16 and 17 percent of world’s human and animal populations, respectively.
From a per capita annual average of 5,177 cubic meter in 1951, fresh water availability in India dropped to 1,820 cubic meter in 2001. In fact, it is predicted that by 2025, per capita annual average fresh water availability will be 1,340 cubic meter approximately.
Per capita availability of water less than 1700m3 is considered as ‘stress’ level beyond which water availability gets classified as scarcity level. Below this level, availability of water is considered a severe constraint on economic development and environment quality.
Water management at the National Level poses both qualitative and quantitative challenges. Over exploitation is leading to water shortages with almost 65% of the Indian cities being water deficient as against the norm of 135 lpcd. Ground water has also been observed to be contaminated by high concentration of nitrates, fluorides, chlorides, toxic metals, pesticides, sulphates, potassium etc.
With a large scale urban and rural requirement for water, triggered by the vast expanding population, the problem is bound to aggrevate. Regulatory frameworks are limited and inappropriate being mostly controlled by individual or legal entities who own the land. There does not appear to be any authority which can decide how many wells can be sunk in a given area.
The drafting of a model bill and the setting up of the Central ground water Authority, mandated to regulate and control the uses of ground water have been important steps by the Union Government. The CGWA, however does not appear to have a broad mandate to regulate Ground water. It does have a mandate to notify over exploited and critical areas and, to regulate ground water withdrawal in such areas. The model bill also provides for an authority working under the direct control of the state Government and having the right to notify areas where it is deemed essential to regulate ground water. It also provides for a system of permits and registration of wells. U.P. has still to make legislation while Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have adopted in the given Bill in some form or the other.
It is notable that, within the current policy framework, the meager regulatory mechanism or any measures for positive affirmation are only available through the policies for environment protection. Therefore, the Deptt. Of Environment and the State Pollution Control Board have a substantive role & responsibility in the management, protection and augmentation of groundwater as a resource.
The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act 1977 is regulating wasteful consumption of water. It introduced a system whereby all industries and local bodies have to pay a certain amount of cost for water consumed in various operations. Till now water could be freely abstracted. The mere imposition of a cost brought down per capita water consumption drastically in industrial use. Further the legislation advanced higher values for worse polluting activities and higher values for using water beyond prescribed quantity norms. This further reduced the water consumption. The E.I.A. notifications of 2006 have introduced important water conservation practices. Domestic consumption of water was restricted to 86 lpcd as against earlier norms of 135 lpcd. A system was also introduced whereby permission of the Central Ground Water Authority was prescribed as conditions. This had mixed results as the CGWA was not empowered legally to issue permits. Rain water harvesting was made essential where technically feasible, wetland conservation issues were introduced. The entire E.I.A. process however suffered because of a lack of a robust post environmental clearance monitoring mechanism. Further the recharge from the rain water harvesting schemes was expected to be far less than the withdrawals. Surface area recharging was put to a stop because of its contaminating potential.
Wetland conservation is very important to ground water recharge and to regulating climate change. The fast disappearing wetlands need to be protected at any cost. The E.I.A. notification of 2006 and the wetland conservation rules of the Government of India made adequate provisions, action plans need to be drawn up as also schemes for augmenting such wetlands.
Given the integrated nature of the finite resource, the various departments such as Urban Development, Housing, Local Bodies, the various improvement trusts and development authorities as well as environment and pollution control have to draw a joint strategy to harness the available schemes and optimize on the land use.