NGT wants groundwater extraction based on EIA only

Tribunal calls for doing away with general permissions given to commercial entities to withdraw groundwater

By Shreya Verma
Published: Tuesday 04 August 2020
Permission to extract groundwater must not be for perpetuity, the NGT said. Photo: Samrat Mukharjee

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has called for commercial entities to follow new rules for getting permission to extract groundwater. Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) will now form the basis of granting such permissions, the NGT bench said.

The Union Ministry of Jal Shakti (water) and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) were ordered by the NGT July 20, 2020 to ensure no general permission was given for withdrawing groundwater, particularly to any commercial entity.

NGT Chairperson AK Goel said:

There must be no general permission for withdrawal of groundwater, particularly to any commercial entity, without EIA of such activity on individual assessment units in cumulative terms covering carrying capacity aspects by an expert committee.

The NGT May 15 said all overexploited, critical and semi-critical (OCS) assessment units must undergo water mapping.

Water management plans need to be prepared for all OCS assessment units in the country based on the mapping data, starting with overexploited blocks, the NGT order had stated.

The NGT decision to put a stop to general permissions will put around 20,000 applications seeking no-objection certificates from the industry on hold, an industry executive seeking anonymity, was quoted as saying by Livemint.

Around 800,000 companies are in such areas. These account for about a third of all 3,881 groundwater assessment units in India, the industry executive said.

The CGWB regulates and controls development and management of groundwater resources in the country. It said restrictions on the extraction of groundwater in OCS units will hinder industrial production, employment opportunities and the gross domestic product of some states.

The tribunal expressed unhappiness at the CGWB’s stance and pulled up the Jal Shakti Ministry over a plea submitted by it to allow industries to extract groundwater according to old guidelines.

The mandate of law was sustainable development and only economic consideration was not enough for a policy, the NGT said, citing damage to the environment in violation of intra- and inter-generational equity and the precautionary principle.

Permission to extract groundwater must be for specified times and quantity of water, not for perpetuity, the NGT said. “It must be necessarily subject to digital flow meters, which cannot be accessed by proponents, with mandatory annual calibration by the authorised agency at proponents,” the bench said.

The NGT also called for an annual review of permissions given to be conducted by independent and expert evaluation.

The groundwater levels must be audited and recorded in compliance with conditions given for the permission, according to the NGT bench. “Such audits must be published online for transparency and to track compliance and year-on-year change in groundwater levels,” the NGT said.

Swift action should be taken against those who fail the audit, including withdrawal of permission, blacklisting, initiation of prosecution and recovery of deterrent compensation according to the Central Pollution Control Board regime, the bench said.

There was no claim over groundwater levels improving, nor was there a projection for future improvement in the past 23 years of regulation by the CGWB, the NGT noted.

India was at the bottom of the water quality index, at 120 among 122 countries, according to a June 12 NITI Aayog report cited by the NGT. Most states achieved less than half the total score in augmentation of groundwater resources, highlighting a growing national crisis.

Fifty-four per cent of India’s groundwater wells have decreased in levels, with 21 major cities across the country expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, the report said.

Almost none of the states have built the infrastructure required to recharge groundwater in over-exploited and critical areas wither, while Bihar, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh lack in any regulatory framework for managing the groundwater.

In a ranking of the latest assessment in categories of OCS areas cited by the NGT, Delhi had the most assessed units (82 per cent), followed by Punjab and Rajasthan (81 per cent), Haryana (75 per cent) and Tamil Nadu (50 per cent).

In these notified areas, the abstraction of groundwater was not allowed for any purpose other than drinking and domestic use.

India extracted the most groundwater, according to another survey cited by the NGT bench. India accounted for 25 per cent of the total annual global water extracted, with the extraction level steadily increasing.

“The water management plans, data on water availability or scarcity and policy of CGWB must be uploaded on its website for transparency and public involvement,” said the NGT bench. “Such exercise may be done expeditiously, preferably within next three months,” it added.

The bench sought an action-taken report by January 31 next year.

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