Addicted to groundwater

High Court order fails to wean Gurgaon off illegal wells

 
By Bharat Lal Seth
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

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ACTING on complaints of severe water shortage in Gurgaon, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on May 20 asked the Central Ground Water Authority, or CGWA, to provide the details of groundwater levels in the fast-expanding industrial and financial hub. It set August 5 as the deadline.

In February, the court had ordered the city’s authorities to restrict the use of groundwater, depleting at three times the recharge potential, to drinking and domestic purposes. It also ordered sealing of borewells used by builders and industrial units, and installation of water meters at all wells to monitor groundwater extraction.

The court’s order was in response to two public interest petitions. The petition filed in 2008 by Sunil Singh, a lawyer, alleged that real estate giant DLF was illegally operating 28 wells to service its commercial office hub, Cyber City. The other petitioner, Qutub Enclave Residents Welfare Association of DLF, urged the court in 2009 to check rampant extraction of groundwater for 265 construction projects across the city. It also sought adequate supply from the piped water network to their area.

City magistrate K K Gupta says officials have sealed 172 illegal borewells since the order in February. But the petitioners say groundwater extraction for construction and industries continues unabated in connivance with the authorities. Very few are abiding by the directions (see ‘Switch to sewage’). The residents’ welfare association plans to file a contempt petition against the city authorities.

City in a fix

Gurgaon was completely dependent on groundwater until 1995 when the city authorities built a 69 km channel to bring water from the Western Yamuna Canal, an irrigation source for Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Known as the Gurgaon Water Supply Canal, it carries 3.3 cubic metres per second (cumecs) of water at the head at Kakori near Sonipat district. By the time it reaches Gurgaon, 2.2 cumecs of water flows in the canal. The rest is lost through evaporation and diversion to villages and a township en route, says Ajay Garg, superintending engineer of the irrigation department.

imageThe canal meets just 30 per cent of the city’s water needs, according to R S Rathee, president of the residents’ welfare association.

Since the city started expanding in the 1980s, Gurgaon’s water table fell by over a metre each year, says Rathee. In 2000, it was 40 metres below the ground level in low-lying areas. The alarming decline prompted CGWA in December that year to order the city authorities to register all wells and ban new wells without approval. But lax implementation of the order means the city has more wells than what the registration list shows.

Some people, who do not have wells, also approached CGWA for registration. The authority did not inspect the sites prior to validation. Builders say the premium on a plot with registered well is Rs 2 lakh.

CGWA blames it on staff-shortage. In March 2009 it authorised the deputy commissioner of Gurgaon to grant permissions for new borewells. When contacted officials said they are yet to compile a registry.

Switch to sewage
 
Unitech Group, one of the leading real estate companies in India, has stopped using its five registered tubewells for constructing phase 2 of its commercial project in Sector 21, Gurgaon. It treats the 500 kilo-litres of sewage water generated by the first phase of the 11-hectare property, and reuses the wastewater for construction. S D Mishra, senior manager (civil) of Unitech, says no public notice was issued to stop using registered tubewells. “We read the court order in newspapers and have only been using treated water for construction for the past three months,” he adds.
 
In March this year CGWA requested the Centre for more staff to monitor groundwater extraction in notified areas where groundwater is overexploited—and there are 43 such areas across the country, including Gurgaon.

“Most colonies and commercial buildings here depend on wells because of inadequate piped water supply. There are more than 30,000 borewells across the city and almost half of them are illegal,” says Vinay Shanker of non-profit Mission Gurgaon Development. But the authorities feign ignorance. “Some plots on Sohna road are not connected, else 95 per cent have access to piped water,” says Pankaj Kumra, superintending engineer of the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA).

Earlier, in case of an illegal borewell, officials would drag the motor out of it. But these days, they just cut the wire, allegedly as per a diktat from the chief minister to the office of the deputy commissioner. Industrial units and developers later get them re-wired at Rs 50,000 per well. “Builders and construction companies can pull strings; 95 per cent of their borewells are still functional,” says Raj Singla, president of the Chamber of Industries of Udyog Vihar, a locality of 2,000 industrial units. Many units now order water from the tanker mafia, who draw water from underground. Major players get away scot-free, while small industrial units are the fall guy, he adds.

So can the authorities support the water need of the expanding city?

HUDA claims it has the infrastructure in place for the city’s current population of 1.6 million, and is in the process of securing water for another 2.7 million (see ‘Securing water future’). The irrigation department has built another channel, NCR Canal, at a cost of Rs 275 crore that will draw water from the Western Yamuna Canal and for the most part align parallel to the existing channel. Its carrying capacity of 14 cumecs can be upgraded to 22.6 cumecs. More than 60 per cent of its flow will be for meeting Gurgaon’s needs. It will be commissioned towards the end of the year once the authorities put in place the storage structures, says V P Yadav, superintending engineer of the irrigation department.

But bringing water from distances in a canal is not the only solution since surface water sources are over allocated, says Darshan Singh of the Society for Urban Regeneration of Gurgaon, a think-tank. There must be a moratorium on the expansion of the city unless there is a better plan on where our water will come from. The authorities must seek to collect rainwater run-off in waterbodies to replenish the groundwater, he says. Shanker agrees, but adds: “Stopping use of groundwater, though desirable, is impractical.”

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