- The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has set stringent conditions for commercial groundwater use, asking authorities to be tightfisted in granting permits, initiating swift punitive action in case of breaches and mandating third-party compliance audit of businesses every year.
- NGT has also struck down the Central GroundWater Authority’s (CGWA) 2020 guidelines, saying they were against the law. The 2018 version of the guidelines had been struck down by the NGT last year.
- NGT has nudged the authorities towards ensuring sustainable groundwater management, according to a SC mandate by which the CGWA was created.
- Groundwater is the largest liquid source of freshwater which, along with soil moisture, surface waters such as lakes and rivers and snow and ice, comprises all the freshwater available on Earth.
- While monsoonal rainfall contributes to groundwater recharge as water seeps through the soil collecting deep underground in the gaps between rocks and layers of porous rock, known as aquifers, pumping out stored water lowers the water table.
- Unlike rivers or lakes, recharge of groundwater can take years.
- Nowhere is groundwater more important than in India where a quarter of the world’s groundwater is extracted annually—the highest in the world.
- Up to 80 percent of the population relies on groundwater for both drinking and irrigation.
What are the NGT guidelines for groundwater extraction?
- NGT has specifically banned “general permission for withdrawal of groundwater”, especially to commercial entities, without an environment impact assessment.
- Permits have to be for specified quantity of water, not in perpetuity, and should be monitored with digital flow metres and audited every year by third parties.
- Industries extracting groundwater must ensure that all conditions are complied with, else they may invite prosecution.Swift action, including blacklisting and prosecution, should be taken against those who fail the audit.
- The authorities have three months to make water management plans for all overexploited, critical and semi-critical (OCS) areas.
Around 800,000 companies fall in such areas, which account for about one-third of all 3,881 groundwater assessment units in India.
Legislative framework for water management
Water as a subject belongs to the states which makes it their responsibility to regulate and manage it. But under the Environment Protection Act, the Central Ground Water Authority can issue guidelines to states.
- Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), has been constituted by the Government of India under Section 3 (3) of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986, and it has the mandate to regulate and control development and management of water resources in the country.
- CGWA guidelines: It grants NOC to industries requiring ground water for mixed use i.e. industrial process and drinking & domestic purpose shall be granted only for such cases where adequate public water supply/ surface water source does not exist.
- No industrial project is approved without water recycling norms.
- The above guidelines have been rejected by the NGT.
- Groundwater surveys: The Authority also has the responsibility of conducting groundwater level surveys across the country.
- Categories for surveys: It divides the groundwater table across the country into different assessment blocks and categorises them based on “groundwater development”. This is a measure of how much groundwater has been extracted from an area compared to its recharge through rains.
- If assessment units are classified as over-exploited then it means that the groundwater extraction is overall much higher than the groundwater recharge.
- The other categories are safe, semi-critical and critical. The over-exploited zones are notified by the authority to ensure groundwater use is more strictly regulated.
Concerns with NGT guidelines:
- The NGT move may amount to interfering with the legislative functions of the Jal Shakti ministry.
- Proper implementation of the present order of the NGT could spell trouble for commercial units already hit badly by economic slowdown and the ill effects of the pandemic.
- According to official estimates, 89% of groundwater withdrawal is by farmers and only 5% is by industry, while the rest is for domestic use.
- Non-renewal of the NOCs: About 20,000 applications are pending before the CGWA. Around 800,000 companies fall in overexploited, critical and semi-critical blocks, representing 36% of 3,881 groundwater assessment units.
Q) There is an urgent need to overhaul the legislative and executive frameworks involved in groundwater management. Comment.