Gujarat passes groundwater bill

The legislation makes it mandatory for farmers to get licence for extracting water

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Sunday 31 March 2013

IN 1973, Gujarat became the first state to introduce legislation that restricted farmers from extracting groundwater. For a water-stressed state the Groundwater Conservation Bill was godsend, said water experts. But the then chief minister, Chimanbhai Patel, refused to sign the bill fearing its impact on the state’s 0.3 million farmers.

Forty years later on February 27, the Gujarat government, led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, passed a bill which drew the ire of his opponents in the light of growing industrialisation. If implemented, the bill would require farmers to get licence to draw underground water exceeding proscribed depth (45 metres). As per the bill, all the 5.5 million farmers in the state have to declare their source of irrigation water.

The Irrigation and Drainage Bill of 2013 seeks to replace and repeal the existing Gujarat Irrigation Act of 1879. It proposes appointment of canal officers who would have the power to detain farmers violating the rules. It prescribes provisions to monitor irrigation schemes, water distribution, set up and maintain water-gauges. The bill makes it mandatory for a farmer to apply for a licence from the canal officer of his area if he wants to construct a tubewell or borewell or an artesian well, exceeding the depth of 45 metres. It also seeks to charge farmers for irrigation water reaching cultivated land within 200 metres of a canal either by percolation or leakage, surface flow or by means of a well-sunk from the canal.

The bill proposes penal action against “errant” farmers, including imprisonment up to six months or fine to the extent of Rs 10,000.

Source: Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board

“The bill is meant for equitable distribution of water resources,” says state water resources minister Babubhai Bokhiria. But leaders from the opposition, mainly the Congress and the Gujarat Parivartan Party, have challenged the bill, saying industry gets more water than farmers in Gujarat. “When it comes to groundwater extraction, there is no cap for industry. Why a poor farmer has to pay the price?” asks Congress leader Balwantsinh Rajput.

A recent report by the developers of Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR), which would feed the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, pegs water requirement at 947 million litres per day. The water resources would be used for activities like water sports and fish farms, says the report. In the absence of perennial rivers and groundwater, the nodal agency to oversee the completion of the Dholera SIR, Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board, demanded water from the Narmada dam.

But Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd, which regulates the distribution of Narmada water, declined, stating that two per cent of the Narmada water meant for industries is already being utilised.

Who will quench the thirst?

Despite the presence of a canal network, groundwater continues to be scarce in Gujarat. The state is yet to devise a plan to bring canal water to the arid parts, namely Saurashtra and Kachchh. A 2007 study by the Central Ground Water Board found that of the state’s 184 talukas, 131 were extracting more groundwater than the annual recharge. Data compiled by the state’s Groundwater Resources Development Corporation for 2011 shows the groundwater level in the state has declined by 80 metres in the past three decades. Decline in groundwater levels average about three metres per year.

Will the bill be able to stop overextraction of groundwater? Tushaar Shah of International Water Management Institute (IWMI) says such regulations can have a bearing on the voting trend, even as the decision to introduce the bill seems to be a planned move after Modi’s re-election. “Over the years, groundwater irrigators (those who extract groundwater) in Gujarat have become a powerful pressure group that can mobilise large numbers of votes in the state’s general elections around their common concern about irrigation,” Shah writes in his paper published in the journal Agriculture Water Management in 2008.

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