Water conservation fee: improving or increasing the crisis?

5 min read
Water conservation fee
Image: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

We need to find newer ways to reduce and regulate over-extraction and usage, than promoting further extraction and overuse of this already endangered resource.

To ensure a more robust groundwater regulatory mechanism, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, issued revised guidelines for groundwater extraction on December 12, 2018, which will come into effect from June 1, 2019 and supersede the guideline document dated 16.11.2015.    

The main feature of the revised guideline is the introduction of a water conservation fee (WCF), to be paid by groundwater users based on the quantum of groundwater extracted. Levying a WCF is, therefore, perceived as a silver bullet which would ‘discourage setting up of new industries in over exploited and critical areas’.

However, what the Ministry has overlooked is the legal provision for groundwater abstraction under the guise of WCF, thereby, promoting the idea of ‘pay more and extract more’.

In other words, the extraction of groundwater will be permitted for both drinking and domestic use; and industry, mining, and infrastructure projects, given a no-objection certificate (NOC) is obtained from relevant groundwater authority and user fee paid. 

The grounds for making and considering such a request are not very stringent; for example, an NOC application could be on the ground of failure of adequate provision of water by the water supply department or agency concerned for that location.

However, one of the good thing is that the applicant has to mandatorily install rooftop rainwater harvesting system, continuously monitor groundwater level and report it to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), as well as recycle and reuse waste water, in lieu of the NOC obtained for groundwater extraction.

In terms of WCF, the amount payable would vary by type of industry, quantum of groundwater extracted, and groundwater capacity of a particular zone. It’s designed to progressively increase from safe to over-exploited areas and from low to high water consuming industries as well as with increasing quantum of groundwater extracted.

However, the proposed rates are not very regressive and provide an easy way out to industries to go for higher extraction. For example, in the case of mining and infrastructure projects, the water conservation fee structure ranges between Rs 1 and Rs 3 per cubic metre/day for safe areas, which goes up to Rs 4 to Rs 7 per cubic metre/day for over exploited areas, depending upon the quantum of water extracted.

To add to it, the lesser abstraction fee at safe and semi-critical zones may create possibilities for water-intensive industries to set up projects in these areas due to the lower fee rates, thereby, even gradually bringing the safe zones to critical and over exploited zones.

Moreover, improper handling and storage of industrial waste can add to groundwater contamination in the region.

Groundwater Contamination
Image: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

The new guidelines also decentralise the process of monitoring compliance of conditions laid down in the NOC. The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) has now proposed that the district magistrates/district collectors/sub divisional magistrates and regional directors of CGWB will be the authorities to monitor compliance, check violations and seal illegal wells.

In case of any violation of the directions of CGWA and conditions laid down in the NOC, the district administrator is authorised to file a case under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

Nevertheless, currently, in the absence of any assessment on quantity and quality of water available in each aquifer at district level, the authorities would be giving NOCs on mere submission of approval letters or presence of a rainwater harvesting unit without understanding the science of water management, authenticity of the impact assessment report, or functionality of the rainwater harvesting unit installed.

As per the revised guidelines, exemption from requirement of NOC has been given to agricultural users, users employing non-energised means to extract water, individual households (using less than 1 inch diametre delivery pipe for single dug well/borewell/ tube well) and Armed forces establishments during operational deployment or during mobilisation in forward locations.

Groundwater extraction in India is primarily used for irrigation and amounts to 90 per cent of the annual groundwater extraction in the country. Here again, it’s worth noting that nearly 52 percent of India’s gross cropped area is rain-fed and rain-fed farmers are typically small and marginal farmers who own small plots of land (less than five acres) and engage in monsoon-dependent farming. 

The remaining cropped area is either under canal irrigation or tank, tube well, and well irrigation. By the very nature of the resource, groundwater abstraction for irrigation is largely by private initiative of large farmers and is conditioned by the size of their land holding, savings, and investment capacities.

The revised guidelines continue to enlarge this inequity in access to groundwater as pumping of groundwater by mechanised means for agriculture will be permissible and free of cost.

Within a week since the revised guidelines pertaining to groundwater extraction were notified, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) came down heavily on the ministry and termed the notification as against “national interest”.

The green panel has asked other parties, including the petitioners, to put forth their suggestions and objections to the guidelines.

In conclusion, while the government acknowledges the fact that India is the largest user of groundwater in the world, pumping more than the United States and China combined — the second and third-largest users — extracting groundwater to the tune of 253 billion cubic metres (BCM) per year, which is about 25 per cent of the global groundwater extraction, merely imposing a cost to curb the growing extraction is not enough.

What we must prioritise is the need to find newer ways to reduce and regulate over-extraction and usage, than promoting further extraction and overuse of this already endangered resource. For example, water intensive industries can look towards more feasible options like reuse of treated wastewater.

Moreover, while the revised guidelines suggest compensatory measures like installation of a rainwater harvesting unit for water extraction by households, infrastructure projects and industries, water harvesting is no substitute to large-scale water withdrawal.

Hence, groundwater regulation and governance in India should be reformed based on the grave realities around water scarcity, contamination and other challenges, else we will add to the irreparable damages that we have already created.


Nirma Bora is Coordinator - Policy Research and Advocacy Support, Programmes and Policy at WaterAid India. 

The Article was first published in DownToEarth