India’s first census of waterbodies is a much awaited one but experts question the methodology; here is why

There is confusion regarding the definition of waterbodies used; there are also discrepancies about whether waterbodies are in rural or urban areas and whether or not they have been encroached upon

By Swati Bhatia
Published: Sunday 28 May 2023
A stepwell in Jaipur. Photo: iStock

In March 2023, the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti released the “Water Bodies First Census Report”. Since 1986, India has conducted a census of minor irrigation every five years, exclusively on rural waterbodies.

The “Water Bodies First Census Report” is a broader version of the sixth minor irrigation census and covers all types of rural as well as urban waterbodies —such as those used for irrigation, industry, pisciculture, drinking, recreation, religion, groundwater recharge, conservation—natural and human-made, and owned by the government and private individuals. It has also quantified the encroachment of waterbodies created under various water conservation programmes.

The findings show that there are 2,424,540 waterbodies in the country, of which 97 per cent are in rural areas. Of the total waterbodies, 59.5 per cent are ponds, 15.7 per cent are tanks, 12.1 per cent are reservoirs, and the remaining 12.7 per cent are structures created under water conservation schemes.

The share of privately owned waterbodies is 55.2 per cent while the rest are government-owned. Less than 2 per cent of the waterbodies have been encroached upon.

Though the census is by far the widest such survey, experts doubt if it can be called national in scope. India has a total of 7,933 towns and 0.64 million villages, as per Census 2011, but the waterbodies census covers only 3,009 towns and 0.36 million villages—less than half of the total.

Does this mean that half the country’s towns and villages house its 2,424,540 waterbodies? Also, since 97 per cent of the waterbodies are in rural areas, does this mean that just 3 per cent of the waterbodies are located in the 3,009 towns?

Mohit Ray, head of the Kolkata-based non-profit Vasundhara Foundation, who has tracked the waterbody economy in West Bengal for over two decades, points out a significant discrepancy.

The census says that West Bengal has the country’s highest number of waterbodies at 0.74 million; but the state’s own data, published on the website of the state’s Jal Dharo Jal Bharo programme, says it had 0.31 million structures in 2020.

Ray attributes this mismatch to the improper definition of waterbody used in the census. It defines a pond as a small body of water and a tank as a shallow waterbody, usually larger than a pond. Unless the area of the pond is defined, the term tank becomes useless.

Waterbodies are called in different names in different parts of the country. The term tank is hardly used in eastern India but is common in southern India. In West Bengal, a waterbody is defined as a water area measuring 0.035 hectares or more (as per the West Bengal Fisheries Act 1984).

Similarly, the waterbodies census has poor definitions of lakes and reservoirs too. It defines a reservoir as a large human-made impoundment of varying magnitude created by erecting bunds, dams, or barrages.

But a number of very well-known lakes in the country have been made by constructing bunds or dams on rivers or streams to store water for varying purposes by erstwhile rulers of those regions. They are not called reservoirs. So there remains a problem with nomenclature.

Source: “Water Bodies First Census Report”

S Janakarajan, retired economics professor from the Madras Institute of Development Studies and an expert in urban and rural water, adds that there is a concept of a temple tank in every village in Tamil Nadu.

“Chennai at least has 70 temple tanks. Whether these have been counted as tanks or ponds in the waterbodies census is not clear. As per the data given by the Wetland Authority of India and the Wetland Authority of Tamil Nadu, they are calling the tanks and waterbodies wetland, which is adding to the confusion,” he says.

Hence, a discrepancy may be created in states when they try to use it for planning purposes, as state-based nomenclature is not addressed in the census.

“The survey has been done by a Union ministry without the involvement of local governments and committees, who are the first and most critical custodians of water commons. While the intent is laudatory, the methodology lacks the democratic spirit essential for the wise use and conservation of the commons,” says Leo Saldanha, coordinator and trustee of the Bengaluru-based non-profit Environment Support Group (ESG).

In Karnataka, for instance, ESG has worked with the Karnataka High Court, Karnataka Legal Services Authority, local governments and committees and the Karnataka Tank Conservation and Development Authority to protect and rehabilitate 43,000 lakes and thousands more ponds. But not once did the Centre reach out to learn from this process, which is unprecedented and transformative, says Saldanha.

Similarly, on the encroachment of waterbodies, Janakarajan says the census does not clarify whether they lie in urban areas or rural areas. “Most of the waterbodies in rural areas exist but are poorly maintained or silted up. Tanks and lakes in major urban cities are encroached upon and hence either do not exist or have completely vanished and the census does not provide clarity on the same either,” he says.

The census has reported no encroachment on waterbodies in West Bengal. Mohit cites this finding as “impossible”. “In the city of Kolkata, in the last three decades, hundreds of waterbodies have disappeared. There are 351 pending first information cases of encroachment in East Kolkata Wetland, a Ramasar site. This mismatch of data adds to the confusion,” he says.

Analysis: Pulaha Roy
Source: “Water Bodies First Census Report”

Uneven distribution

The idea of the census was first suggested in 2017 by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources as the lack of an inventory of waterbodies made estimating water potential in the country for use in schemes or for conservation difficult.

The census started in 2018-19 under the guidance of a central-level steering committee, with members from NITI Aayog, and various Union ministries, state governments, Central Water Commission, and the Central Ground Water Board.

It found that nearly two-thirds of the waterbodies are in five states, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Assam. Most of the ponds are concentrated on the eastern part of the country, while tanks are mostly concentrated in the southeastern India and Gujarat.

Odisha and West Bengal have the maximum number of ponds, Tamil Nadu has the most lakes, and Andhra Pradesh the most tanks. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have the most waterbodies under water conservation schemes.

This was first published in the 1-15 May, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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