Maharashtra groundwater bill gets presidential nod

Setting up regulatory authority, notification of overexploited areas and developing watershed development plans to get top priority

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Tuesday 28 January 2014

The much-awaited Maharashtra groundwater bill, meant to plan and regulate use of sub-surface water, has finally got the presidential nod. Implementation can start after a government order to this effect is issued by the state governor, say sources in the state water resources department.

Recognition of groundwater as public property forms the basic premise of Maharashtra Groundwater Development and Management Bill of 2009. It has penal provisions for violation of the law and for pollution of groundwater. Under the law, wells and borewells will have to be registered, and in areas notified as critical in terms of groundwater extraction, well-digging will be restricted. Depth of wells and borewells will be monitored and digging beyond permitted levels will not be allowed. Use of water from existing deep borewells and wells will be taxed. The law also provides for restrictions on excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides to prevent ground-water contamination.

A groundwater authority will be the implementing authority for the law once it comes into force. Groundwater boards will be formed at the district and tehsil levels to monitor ground-water use. People’s participation will be ensured through constitution of watershed and water conservation committees (WWCC), and by involving local-self-government institutions for groundwater conservation. As part of the implementation process, WWCCs will be required to prepare estimates of groundwater availability and decide crop profiles on the basis of it every year in October, taking into account the water needs of the human and animal population. The committees will also be empowered to declare a crisis situation as and when required.

Maharashtra Groundwater Survey and Development Agency (GSDA) director, Rupinder Singh, said that the first steps in implementation will be to constitute the Ground Water Regulatory Authority, the responsibility of which, he said, will be vested in the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulation Authority (MWRRA). Other priorities would be notification of overexploited areas, initiation of the integrated watershed development and management plan, and constitution of WWCCs. He said that officials of all related departments like water resources, GSDA and agriculture will be ex-officio members of the committees.

Another immediate step, he said, would be to ban digging of deep borewells beyond the limit of 60 metre in notified areas. However, he said that action on existing deep wells will be possible only after public consultations by the groundwater authority. “It is a highly technical issue, and wells cannot be banned unless it is proved that they are drawing up water from the deep aquifers,” he said. “The decisions will be taken by the authority and the communities, and it will take at least a year’s time to compile and put the requisite information before the communities.”

Problems with implementation

Those working with communities in the water sector have welcomed the news, since this is the first time that Maharashtra has taken initiative to regulate ground water. However, there are problems with the law and with the ground situation which might pose serious hindrances in implementation.

K J Joy of the Pune-based non-profit, Society for Promoting Participatory Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM), pointed out several lacunae in the Bill. “The Bill still operates within the premise of the Easement Act which has been the prime culprit in unsustainable extraction and inequitable access to ground water,” he said. “Unlike the MWRRA, which tries to spell out water entitlements, this Bill simply declares that everyone will be allowed to extract water up to 50 m. For one thing, this is equivalent to declaring this water as the land-owner’s property, which is contrary to the Bill’s basic premise of water as a common pool resource. Secondly, the 50 m cap is meaningless in the Maharashtra where the geology is dominated by basalt where the aquifers are mostly shallow.”

Joy also sees problems with the institutional structure proposed by the Bill. The institutional design, says he, is moving along administrative rather than geo-hydrological boundaries. “This could get problematic, as the two may not overlap,” says he. “Also, the watershed committees are to be constituted for a cluster of 11 villages; there is no rationale for arriving at this number.

It is not clear at all how this structure is going to be integrated with other existing water-use institutions—pani samitis for drinking water, water users associations in case of surface irrigation, and river-basin-scale associations.” He said that Maharashtra government would have done better if it had engaged with the both the model groundwater bill and the water framework law drafts being proposed by the Union government before finalizing the present Bill.

Parineeta Dandekar of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) sees problems with implementation in context of the history and culture around groundwater in the state. “Historically, our groundwater has been under private control and even under mafia control,” says she. “So it is difficult to see the law succeeding unless empowerment of and information transfer to communities precedes implementation.” She points out that the provisions for water availability-based cropping profiles in Section 10 of the current Bill have failed in the case of previous legislation. “We have heard that kind of language in several Acts, and even in the project plans of irrigation projects.

For instance, the project plan of the Ujni irrigation project in Marathwada, where watersheds are the most critically exploited, restricts sugarcane plantation to just one-third of the area. But such pieces of legislation have remained on paper.” She says that in the few pockets where ground-water exploitation has been reversed, like Ralegan Siddi (home of Anna Hazare), Hivre Bazar or Kolwan valley near Pune, it was made possible only through local participation and a strong element of community empowerment.

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