New Delhi: Concerned over the declining water table across the country, the water resources ministry is working on an overarching law that will modify provisions allowing proprietary right to a land owner on groundwater and make it a community resource.
Ministry officials said the draft bill, seeking to declare water as a community resource, presently held by the state under the doctrine of public trust would be ready in six months. It will provide an overarching national legal framework on general principles of water preservation.
"While states have the right to frame laws on water, there is a need to evolve an overarching national legal framework and devolution of necessary powers to lower tiers of government... Existing acts may have to be modified as they appear to give proprietary right to a land owner on groundwater," a ministry official said.
The official, who did not want to be named, said the present legal situation gave a land holder in almost all parts of the country the right to pump unlimited quantities of water from a bore well. He said ground water extraction was not properly regulated and efforts by some states to frame guidelines had been ineffective in the absence of punitive action.
Annual extraction of groundwater in the country, estimated at around 243 cubic km, was the highest in the world, the official said and has led to rapid depletion of this resource.
Ministry officials said growing dependence on groundwater had led to over-extraction and alarming lowering the water table in almost a third of the country. Citing a study, they said groundwater depletion in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, and Delhi between August 2002 and October 2008 was equivalent to a net loss of 109 cubic km of water, which was double the capacity of India`s largest surface-water reservoir.
Groundwater provides for over 60 percent of net irrigated area in the country and has accounted for over 85 percent of addition to the net irrigated area in the last three decades.
He said the new water policy, which suggested river basin or sub-basin as a unit for planning and development of water resources, is expected to be approved by the government by the end of this year. "It has to be approved by the National Water Resources Council. We have approached the PMO (Prime Minister`s Office) for a date for the meeting," the official said.
The council is headed by the prime minister.
The official said the basin approach to planning was like a city masterplan which laid down parameters for future development in consultation with various stakeholders.
"The river basin approach will help remove politics from water management," he said.
The official said the suggestion for overarching national legal framework of general principles on water has met with resistance from some states, but the ministry hoped to convince them of its uses.
"A few states have said it is against the spirit of federalism... Each state looks to its limited interest, but we have common interest," the official said.
He said the ministry would seek to enact the overarching legal framework on water as a central act covering inter-state area.
"This way, all 95 percent of the country`s geographical area will be covered," he said.
The officials said between 1995 and 2004, the proportion of unsafe districts (semi-critical, critical, and over-exploited) grew from nine percent to 31 percent, the proportion of area affected from five percent to 33 percent, and the population affected from seven percent to 35 percent.
They said the Central Ground Water Authority had asked chief secretaries of 12 states and administrators of two union territories having over-exploited blocks to take specific measures for artificial recharge of groundwater and rain water harvesting.