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Farmers take no permission, officers do not survey wells
The Water, Land and Trees Act (WALTA) was enacted in 2002. Meant to regulate groundwater use, the Act requires farmers to register their borewells with the mandal revenue office after getting clearance from the district groundwater office. Farmers like Muniratnam Naidu in Chittoor district laugh at the idea of taking permission. “All one needs to do is hire a rig, pay money to a geologist and drill a borewell,” he said.
T Basavaiah, deputy tehsildar of Chittoor district’s K V Palle mandal, admitted to widespread violation of WALTA in the district. “We have seized three borewells this year for which permission was not sought,” he said. But the Act has helped monitor and record the extent of groundwater use and generated awareness among farmers, said A K Jain, special secretary to the state’s irrigation and command area development department.
Farmers consider groundwater their right. “The authorities have not provided us with alternative sources of irrigation. How can they stop us from finding something that is ours?” asked K Basappa, resident of Ramanapalli village in Mahabubnagar’s Hanwada mandal. Basappa drilled three borewells between 2009 and 2010 and did not apply for permission. No one questioned him either, he added. Hanwada mandal’s revenue officer, Anjana Devi, maintained no one could drill borewells without their knowledge.
Basappa said at least 300 borewells are functional in his village; there is no count of failed borewells. But the data with the mandal office shows one farmer sought permission to drill a borewell and only one drilled borewell without permission, which the district officials stopped well in time.
Officials get to know of borewells only if there are complaints, which are rare, said Basappa. Often if one farmer strikes water, his neighbour attempts to drill a borewell close to that spot. If there is disagreement between two farmers, cases go to the mandal revenue officer. After investigation, either one or both the borewells are sealed.
Mandal revenue officers claim they submit monthly reports to the groundwater department on the number of borewells. The revenue inspector and the village revenue officer are mandated under the law to visit each borewell site for verification. Farmers say officials hardly ever conduct field surveys.
Then there are bribes
Bal Swami of Burugupalle village in Mahabubnagar district said he tried to get permission for two borewells six years ago. He was denied permission but decided to get them drilled.
“We are required to go through different departments and that makes it tough. Bribes for permission can be expensive,” he said. In some cases farmers bribe mandal officials for power connections instead of taking permission, said B Peddiraji, tehsildar of Butchayyapeta in Visakhapatnam district. He admitted to WALTA violations. He said he received 100 applications for drilling borewells in Butchayyapeta mandal this year but the actual number of borewells drilled would surely be double. “They are doing it illegally all the time,” he said.
|“To get permission for a borewell we are required to go through different departments. Bribes for permissions are expensive”
—BAL SWAMI, Burugupalle village
In East Godavari district some farmers drill borewells without permission but manage approval certificates and power connections. Narisi Srinivas of Pydikonda village in the district’s Thondangi mandal said he spent Rs 85,000 on his borewell, which included money paid for clearances. The practice is rampant in the area, he added.
The tehsildar of Thondangi, C H V R Sudhakar, denied the bribery charges but admitted WALTA is violated. “It is not possible to verify everything physically. We received 85 applications for borewells this year; 40 were granted permission. We found people had sunk borewells at sites different from the ones mentioned in their applications. We have cancelled a few permissions because some of the applicants failed to maintain a minimum distance of 250 metres between two borewells, as is stipulated in WALTA,” said Sudhakar.
Jain, though, claimed that the legislation had facilitated complaints. He gave the example of a water bottling plant in Ranga Reddy district, which was shut after residents complained about it last year. He also said his department was framing policies to demystify the belief that groundwater is farmers’ property. “Farmers need to realize that groundwater is not an infinite resource,” he added.
Although WALTA is one of the best pieces of legislation on groundwater use it has not been effective on the ground because of lack of coordination between departments, said Palla Narendra, a hydrologist and associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Hyderabad.
Bappu Reddy, a farmer in Medak’s Yavapur village, said technology is the need of the hour. “We need technological assistance to locate groundwater,” he said.
WALTA is under review, said C Suvarna, special commissioner at the state rural development department. “We will either improve it or bring in a new law. We will involve experts and NGOs before formulating the policy,” she said.