With the aim of completely changing the way groundwater is managed, the central government has proposed guidelines which stipulate that all industries, mining and infrastructure dewatering projects—whether existing or new—that draw or propose to draw groundwater will now need to obtain a no-objection certificate (NOC).

The draft guidelines, reviewed by Mint, also propose to levy a new water conservation fee based on quantum of groundwater extracted.

The fee proposed is based on use, area and quantity and varies from Re1 to Rs6 per cubic metre. A cubic metre is 1,000 litres.

However, water sector experts said that the proposed guidelines will seriously dilute the present rules and added that the fee is paltry.

“The proposed guidelines don’t seem to have any scientific basis… they are just ad hoc. They don’t talk about the extent of groundwater that can be extracted in a given area. The proposed fee also looks very paltry. There is a huge possibility of misuse of these proposed rules and can bring back inspector raj," said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organizations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector.

The Union ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation sent the draft guidelines for the issuance of NOCs to all state governments on Wednesday, seeking feedback over the next 60 days.

The draft guidelines come after several orders from the National Green Tribunal asking the government to ensure that groundwater withdrawal is in accordance with the law.

As per an official assessment of groundwater in India, of the 6,607 assessment units (blocks, mandals, talukas and districts), 1,071 are over-exploited, 217 are critical, 697 are semi-critical, 4,580 are safe and 92 are saline.

The Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) justified the guidelines, saying they were “considered necessary and expedient to ensure a uniform regulatory framework across the country so that the discriminatory practices in regulation are either mitigated or minimized".

The major revisions proposed in the draft guidelines are about pan-India coverage, decentralization of NOC issuing authorities and introduction of a water conservation fee in lieu of recharge mechanism which would be used by states for effective groundwater management.

It does away with provisions regarding artificial recharge and construction of artificial recharge structures by project proponents.

The guidelines state that the authority to issue NOCs for various uses will now be vested with the district magistrates, deputy commissioners, state groundwater authorities/state nodal agencies and the Central Ground Water Authority based on factors like category of groundwater assessment units and quantum of groundwater.

They also stipulate that “all industries, mining, infrastructure dewatering projects, whether existing, new, under expansion and drawing/proposing to draw groundwater through energized means shall need to obtain NOC for groundwater withdrawal from the CGWA".

Farmers are exempt from obtaining NOCs. “Since livelihood of farmers is dependent on agriculture, they should be exempted from obtaining NOC," the draft guidelines state.

However, the guidelines call for medium and large farmers to follow water conservation measures to ensure sustainability of groundwater resources.

The draft guidelines call for a water conservation fee based on quantum of groundwater extracted, to be paid to states. They state that government infrastructure projects, government water supply agencies and group housing societies/ private housing societies with only basic amenities will also be exempt from the fee.

However, infrastructure projects including societies/ builder-constructed apartments, townships having recreational facilities like club, gym, commercial places, and swimming pools will not be exempted from payment of such fees.

“Groundwater is a common property resource and should be used for greater good. But these guidelines are not doing that. Groundwater governance and management should happen in a transparent, participatory and accountable way but that too is not happening through guidelines," Thakkar said.

Explaining, Thakkar said that the guidelines are “trying to make a system wherein state or district level authorities will given NOCs but whether those authorities have capacity to give NOCs after understanding the implications is the question."

“The draft guidelines also take out the need to recharge groundwater. Present regulations say that you if you take out groundwater you need to put in recharge capacity but now they are saying that’s not necessary and are only seeking charges. These things will definitely lead to further destruction of groundwater," he added.

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