The Central Ground Water Authority has drafted new guidelines to regulate the use of groundwater across the country. If these get approved, water-guzzling industries such as packaged drinking water and paper manufacturers could be allowed to drill for water even in areas identified as facing a groundwater crisis.

The draft does away with the special attention that is paid to the water-guzzling industries in the existing regulations and treats them like all other industries.

In addition, the draft shrinks the area identified as facing a groundwater crisis and where consequently stricter regulations apply. It also explicitly states that it will not regulate agricultural use of groundwater. Agriculture consumes 89% of India’s groundwater, whereas industry consumes only 2%.

The draft guidelines were put on the authority’s website on July 27 for comments from the public but removed on August 1 after sent in detailed queries about them.

The ground water authority officials said the draft was uploaded by mistake and that the final draft would be released for 60 days of public feedback only at the end of August.

“We are still in the process of modifying the guidelines,” said Akhil Kumar, joint secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources and chairman of the Central Ground Water Authority. “One of our colleagues went to one of these National Green Tribunal proceedings and he misunderstood that interim guidelines have to be uploaded.”

Kumar said he got to know the draft guidelines had been put on the website only after seeing’s emailed questionnaire. It was removed subsequently.

However, these draft guidelines are to be submitted to the tribunal in an ongoing case about large-scale illegal extraction of groundwater in Ghaziabad, an industry-intensive town that forms part of the National Capital Region.

“Our case was filed with reference to industries operating without no-objection certificates from the CGWA,” said Rahul Choudhary, a lawyer arguing on behalf of the complainants, referring to the central authority. “But after the 2015 guidelines [which made it mandatory for even existing industries to apply for no-objection certificates], industries went to court and said these rules will affect livelihoods and requested changes.”

The ground water authority had claimed on its website that the draft guidelines were prepared on the instruction of the tribunal. It had not called them “interim”, as the official did. The July 25 National Green Tribunal order, of which has a copy, clearly states that the tribunal instructed the authority to share the draft with the court and the applicant, as well as to upload the draft “on the website for the information of all concerned including respondents in this case”.

Regulating groundwater

The Central Ground Water Authority was created through a provision of the Environment Protection Act and it regulates the use of groundwater across India, issuing guidelines that states are meant to implement and monitor. That the states lack capacity to implement any guidelines requiring close scrutiny of around 300,00,000 groundwater structures across the country is common knowledge.

The authority can change these rules and guidelines easily as they do not need parliamentary approval, unlike a law.

The groundwater table across the country is divided into assessment blocks. These are classified on the basis of the level of “groundwater development”, or how much groundwater is being extracted in that area compared to the annual groundwater recharge.

The water assessment blocks are classified as over-exploited where the “groundwater development” is above 100%, implying that overall consumption is more than recharge. This is important to remember because this is where the authority has relaxed the rules for the industry. We shall come back to it. The other classifications are safe, semi-critical and critical.

Some of these over-exploited zones are notified by the authority for stricter norms about extraction to check depletion there.

The authority conducts not-so-regular groundwater level surveys every few years. The last was done in 2013 and before that in 2011. In the survey, the authority examines groundwater levels across the country.

“All state governments have to help in the survey,” said GC Pati, a member of the Central Ground Water Board. “But since some states don’t have groundwater departments, it is difficult for us to gather data.”

The next survey, scheduled for 2017, has been notified, but work has not yet started, he added.

The mapping tells the government how the groundwater situation is across the country in order to classify different aquifers. The authority notifies some (and not all) of the over-exploited aquifers for extra protection and its guidelines detail the kind of protection and limits put on extraction in these different classes of groundwater aquifers.

The all-India average of groundwater development is 62%.

According to the 2013 survey, there are 1,034 over-exploited units, or around 15% of the total 6,584 units assessed. Of these, only 162 have been “notified” for greater protection. The authority has not added to this list since 2012.

New guidelines

The latest draft guidelines, which the government has now removed from public domain, were prepared between May and July 2017. If applied, they will overrule the guidelines introduced in 2015. Those, too, had been drafted in response to a case before the green tribunal. Before that were the 2012 guidelines. The changing maze of regulations has rapidly altered the regulatory framework for the industry and other users of groundwater.

In May this year, the authority set up a committee to re-examine the 2015 guidelines, again by order of the National Green Tribunal. The committee, chaired by KC Naik, a member of the Central Ground Water Board, included industry and state government representatives. Naik declined to comment as he was not authorised to speak to the media about this.

Pati too did not comment on the new draft stating it was out of his purview.

So, what do the new draft guidelines say? A comparison with the 2015 guidelines shows that some norms for the industry have been eased.

One such change is that water-intensive industries – water bottling, textiles, tanneries, paper and pulp – are not separately treated for stricter regulations. Rules for these industries were stringent in 2015. At that time, the authority had said water-intensive industries would not be granted no-objection certificates to either drill new borewells or expand existing ones in areas it had deemed over-exploited. Existing industries could continue operations in the over-exploited areas, but with a lower withdrawal cap.

A no-objection certificate from the central authority is essential for industries to extract groundwater.

At the same time, the authority had clarified that water-intensive industries that held no-objection certificates from before the 2012 notification was issued would be permitted to renew their licences first for two years and then every third year. Other industries in non-notified areas are permitted to renew their licences once every five years.

The authority had granted only five no-objection certificates to water-intensive industries across India as of November 2012, Choudhary said, and fewer than 30 overall since.

Shrinking scope

In the 2012 and 2015 guidelines, the ground water authority listed separate rules for industries, households and other groundwater users in non-notified areas and those in areas notified or classified as over-exploited. This effectively meant that all over-exploited areas would be covered.

The 2017 guidelines shift this classification. While there still is one set of rules for groundwater extraction in non-notified areas, the other set of rules applies to notified areas and over-exploited areas that are at a stage of groundwater development that is more than 175%. The new classification thus omits over-exploited areas between 100% and 175% of groundwater development.

“This seems to be a huge climb down for the CGWA,” Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People said. “These rules do not debar industries from operating at all.”

This classification of 175%, he pointed out, had not appeared in any guidelines before.

“These are tentative ideas that we have,” said Kumar, the authority’s chairman. “We had a series of interactions with industries and other stakeholders over the last couple of months and found there were some problems with the previous guidelines and some new National Green Tribunal orders that we had to bring some changes.”

The authority was still in the process of making changes, he said, but the draft was almost finalised. “We will make some changes based on your today’s observations especially with regard to the [over-exploited] blocks and 175%,” he added.

Easing the rules

The draft guidelines have retained some clauses from the 2015 guidelines. This includes the clarification, introduced in 2015, that even those industries with pre-existing borewells would have to apply for no-objection certificates. The authority has published a prominent notice on its website inviting all groundwater users to apply for no-objection certificates before the end of December.

There are many more changes that the authority seems to bring about. In a move that is likely to ease the burden of compliance for groundwater users, the 2017 draft guidelines introduce the concept of a water conservation fee, along with a sliding scale formula that depends on volume and area of groundwater extraction.

This water conservation fee, to be paid to state governments, is an alternative to artificial groundwater recharge, which was mandatory for groundwater users to implement according to the 2015 guidelines. The authority did not specify then what form this recharge should take, but defined it as an artificial means of augmenting groundwater. In the 2017 draft, it mandates that this artificial recharge should be up to 200% of the groundwater extracted in over-exploited areas.

“We must get rid of this idea that you can pay to extract or exploit a resource,” said Amit Srivastava, of India Resource Centre, a non-governmental organisation that “supports movements against corporate globalisation”. “I don’t think there can be any discussion or debate to allow water-intensive industries to operate in water-stressed areas.”

The 2015 guidelines also made recycling of a fixed percentage of waste water mandatory for industries operating in all areas to qualify for a no-objection certificate. Now, this condition has been removed.

In another significant clarification, the authority has made it explicit that no farmer will have to apply for a no-objection certificate for tubewells or borewells. They will only have to register these wells online.

But the biggest gap in protecting groundwater is not whether one clause or another shifts between guidelines, noted Himanshu Kulkarni of Acwadam, which works to develop groundwater management across India. The problem is that there is no solid legislation behind the ground water authority to give it the heft it needs to implement these rules.

“All these actions have little recourse to a central bill,” Kulkarni said. “You have a Central Ground Water Authority but you don’t have a good law that will help them implement this.”