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A Solution For India's Ailing Groundwater Governance

09/07/2015 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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In a bid to alleviate Delhi's water concerns, the AAP government on 25 February announced a scheme to provide 20,000 litres of water per month to each household with existing metered connections, and a waiving of sewerage charges. Such an effort is commendable, but there are a few questions that arise in every citizen's mind. Firstly, how does the Government plan to arrange the extra annual outflow of Rs 250 crore for this subsidy on a regular basis? Secondly, this scheme will only benefit metered households (12.8 lakh connections) -- what is in store for homes that lie outside the water supply distribution network? Supplying free water to houses and waiving sewerage charges does not seem to be a long-term solution to the water crisis of Delhi. It is the governance of water distribution that needs to be assessed and improved.

According to a 2012 study called "Excreta Matters" by the Centre for Science and Environment, only Chandigarh and Mumbai have 100% city-wide coverage. In terms of water losses through infrastructure shortcomings, the best performers are Jamshedpur (12.8%) and Mumbai (13.6%) while the worst performers are Delhi (52%) and Nashik (59.6%).

The pictorial representation below of litres per capita per day (LPCD) water supply in different parts of Delhi clearly highlights the issue of unequal supply through leakage and pilferage.

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Figure 1: Capital inequity in Delhi (in LPCD)

Source: Excreta Matters: Citizens' Report On The state of India's Environment, CSE

According to Global Water Intelligence, India is blessed with groundwater reserves to the tune of 433 km; there is sufficient water available for each and every citizen of India. Yet, India's urban citizenry, especially those living in slums, have to pay five to 10 times more for each unit of water than people with access to piped water supply according to a UNDP report.

"According to Global Water Intelligence, India is blessed with groundwater reserves to the tune of 433 km; there is sufficient water available for each and every citizen of India."

People's confidence in municipal bodies for adequate water supply in Delhi and elsewhere in the country has deteriorated significantly. Today, they divert their water-related expenditure towards alternatives such as packaged drinking water containers and tanker services. In order to safeguard their water requirements, builders and homeowners have even gone a step further and illegally tapped into the city's groundwater by installing personal bore wells without any regard for losses to nature. What is more worrying is that extraction from these bore wells is not even monitored. This kind of illegitimate extraction in and around Delhi has led to receding water tables and salinity intrusions in some areas.

What clearly emerges is that not only Delhi, but many other state water boards are dealing with significant inefficiencies.

Some measures could be adopted to monitor groundwater supplies.

1) Currently India's water laws are heavily state biased; different state and central legal and regulatory provisions do not coincide and may in fact be in opposition in certain cases. The Union government, according to the Inter-state Water Disputes Act of 1956, can only legislate on matters relating to inter-state water disputes and has no say in a state's day-to-day household water supply policy.

Hence there is a need to advance a national water framework that presents a roadmap for the Centre, state and local governing bodies to work collectively, similar to the Water Framework Directive (WFD) of the European Union (2000). The overarching directives commit European Union member states to achieve a certain high qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies by 2015. To safeguard this idea from rejection, the Union should ensure that it proposes this 'framework law' in a way that doesn't appear to strengthen its control over states.

2) Under the above suggested framework, the Central Ground Water Board could strengthen its existing role by adopting a groundwater monitoring system like the one installed by the German government (as shown in the figure below). According to this system, in order to comply with the European Commission's Directives, the state governments have been directed by the central government to develop a number of groundwater monitoring networks to assess the quality and quantity of groundwater. Regular inspections are conducted by these networks and the data is sent to the European Union and the European Environment Agency (EEA) for evaluation.

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Figure 2: Ground Water Monitoring Networks in Germany

Source: Water Resource Management in Germany, 2010

Such mechanisms should be considered after a careful analysis of the current challenges between central and state laws governing groundwater reserves is conducted. In order to ensure that a major hydrological imbalance is avoided, it will be beneficial for us to customise the European Union's water management strategies to the Indian context.

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