The summer of 2017 exacerbated the crisis faced by Indian farmers. Several states in India experienced severe drought, a situation for which the government conveniently blames the nature gods. While it is true that rainfall patterns have been rendered unpredictable by climate change, even districts like Uttara Kannada in Karnataka, which receive over 100 days of rainfall each year, were parched. Reportedly, by July 31, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were facing a ‘near-calamitous situation’.
Conflicts over surface water in rivers and lakes are now frequent due to this ‘scarcity’ experienced by common people. However, researchers have pointed out that the scarcity of water is manufactured by corruption and bad decision-making that distributes water away from human living needs and natural processes, and towards industrialisation, mining, and urbanisation.
India’s groundwater situation is just as bad. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources, in its 2016 report, made it official that not only is India’s groundwater severely depleted, it is also heavily polluted due to industrial effluents and municipal waste. A model bill for conservation, protection, regulation, and management of groundwater drafted by the Ministry of Water Resources in 2016 also emphasises this crisis. However, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) — the agency responsible for addressing the crisis — has drafted a new set of guidelines that could worsen the situation. An August 7 report in a media outlet indicates that, if finalised, these new guidelines would allow packaged drinking water and paper manufacturing units to extract water even in ‘over-exploited areas’, provided they have an approval from the CGWA. The 2015 guidelines had identified 162 such areas where groundwater extraction was prohibited, except for household use.
The recent draft guidelines formalise water mining or the mechanised extraction of groundwater at rates much higher than the rate of recharge or replenishment. This practice has been carried on by expanding industrial sectors for several years now. Back in 2009, the owners of a 300 MW thermal power plant set shop in the water-stressed region of Kutch in coastal Gujarat, and had agreed to a condition that no surface or groundwater will be extracted. Within four years, the owners approached the regulators for permission and the CGWA allowed them to dig three tubewells and draw 19.5 lakh litres a day. Even as the approval was awaited, the plant had begun purchasing groundwater from some individual farmers who turned to extraction on their farmlands as a way of generating income to compensate for falling agricultural returns. When the local panchayat filed a complaint before the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) in October 2014, the regulators had already decided in favour of the power plant.
The contamination of groundwater by companies creates greater injustices. Villagers in Keonjhar district in Odisha have complained that the mines around them have dug several wells without permissions. The Supreme Court-appointed MB Shah Commission in its first report in June 2013 concluded that the large-scale mining operations in the district had completely polluted the groundwater. There has been no remedy so far for their problem, and now village after village is dependent on mine owners for their drinking water supply. The water is brought by tankers from other regions and their quality is untested.
Despite these difficulties, so far this crisis of groundwater grabbing is less fought over because it is extracted by (or with the permission of) landowners. Groundwater contamination cannot be seen and aquifers do not enjoy the attention that the Ganga or Cauvery get. The 2016 Bill reinstates the Supreme Court’s observation that the government should manage groundwater in public trust. This doctrine requires the Ministry of Water Resources and regulators to actively decide against handing over precious water in large quantities to profit-making corporations.