Clueless in capital

Delhi's aquifers being bled dry, authorities all at sea

By Sutapa Ghosh
Published: Wednesday 31 December 2003

almost a year after the residents' welfare association (rwa) of a slum cluster filed the capital's first petition against illegal extraction and sale of groundwater, the Delhi High Court (hc) has ordered that a committee be set up to probe the matter. The case has brought to the fore another negative aspect: the inability of the authorities to prevent the city's water table from depleting further.

In December 2002, the Awasis Samajik Sudhar Samiti (asss), an rwa of the Budh Bazar slum colony in Sangam Vihar, moved the court against four residents of the locality. According to asss, the offenders were charging the residents a one-time fee of Rs 2000, along with a monthly amount of Rs 200 per connection, for supplying water. It was, therefore, alleged that the four were abstracting groundwater for sale and distribution in violation of the Central Ground Water Authority's (cgwa) notification. The cgwa notification, under Section 3 (3) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, imposes a ban on the sale and supply of groundwater in south and southwest Delhi, where extraction activity is rampant.

Even as the four-member committee formed in compliance with the hc's November 12 order is delving into the issue of groundwater extraction across the capital, cgwa seems to have failed to fully implement an October 21 court directive in the Budh Bazar case: while four borewells in the area were to be sealed, three of them are still functioning.

cgwa member secretary Saleem Romani clarifies: "We have issued directions to the concerned deputy commissioners to take action." V K Jain of Tapas, a non-governmental organisation, puts the problem into perspective: "Though cgwa has the authority to monitor groundwater level, it is hamstrung by inadequate infrastructure."

It is also true that people living in localities such as Budh Bazar resort to the use of groundwater simply because they do not have access to municipal water. In this regard, djb -- the nodal agency for distributing water in Delhi -- has filed a counter-affidavit in the case. It asserts that water supply has been ensured to the area's residents through the installation of deep-bore handpumps.

In a sense, djb is encouraging the use of groundwater. This despite agency chief P K Tripathy stating that "the djb Act of 1998 vests in it the authority to regulate groundwater extraction". djb's legal adviser, Gita Mittal, avers: "The djb (Amendment) Bill, 2002 -- under which a cess would be levied for groundwater withdrawal, existing tubewells will have to be registered and permits would be required for all new borings -- needs to be passed expeditiously so that the Jal Board gets more teeth."

"There are already enough regulations to check groundwater extraction. Yet no authority is willing to either shoulder the responsibility of enforcing curbs or of making available safe and reliable water," observes Jain.

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