Depleting groundwater levels across India has been a cause of concern for a long time. To address this, in September 2020, the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) under the union government’s Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation introduced new guidelines for bulk water suppliers – chiefly applicable to tanker water suppliers.
In a public notice issued in newspapers, the ministry explained that the nationwide restrictions were introduced for regulation and control of groundwater development and management and to issue necessary regulatory directions.
How did the restrictions affect Mumbai?
This led to chaos in Mumbai as the city depends on groundwater sourced by water tankers to meet its supplementary, commercial and industrial needs. The tanker water suppliers went on a strike between May 9-13 to protest these restrictions.
The strike directly affected major infrastructural projects like the Mumbai Coastal Road (which uses about 300 tankers of water daily, chiefly to wash the mud off its blades that cut off the ground for digging the tunnels) as also the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link Road (which sources about 80 water tankers every day). The strike also affected the washing of trains by the railways (it uses about 150 tankers daily).
Moreover, the abrupt halt in tanker water supply services impacted many residential societies that are dependent on these suppliers for potable water.
The strike was called off after the state government assured the tanker water suppliers that it would take up the issue with the Centre.
Why are new restrictions being enforced?
The guidelines or restrictions were introduced following orders from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking regulation of groundwater exploitation for commercial use since there were none in existence since India’s independence, according to Giriraj Goyal, director of Information, Education and Communication from Jal Shakti Ministry. Following NGT’s insistence, the CGWA intervened to frame guidelines and set up online systems to seek permissions for groundwater abstraction.
What is the role of the state government in groundwater management?
Water is a subject that falls under the purview of the state government. However, the Centre chose to issue guidelines to ensure groundwater conservation and management, a statement from the ministry of Jal Shakti stated.
Hence, though the guidelines have been decided by the Centre, the implementation has to be done by the state government. Here is where things get tricky. The CGWA has asked the collectors to look into the issue of groundwater restrictions but not much action has taken place. This has forced the CGWA to write to the states like Maharashtra to draft stronger laws in tandem with the new guidelines and to enforce these restrictions, according to The Times of India. The state government has now appointed a deputy collector and two sub-divisional officers for implementing the CGWA guidelines in Maharashtra, as per a recent notification.
These guidelines were a result of deliberations at various levels between the states and the Centre. While the rules have been framed by the central government, the implementation is to be done by states and union territories.
So, what do the guidelines say about bulk water suppliers?
The new guidelines mandate that bulk water suppliers like water tanker owners get no-objection certification to abstract groundwater, and it must be renewed every two years.
As part of this, the CGWA asked tankers to fill up the water tankers within the periphery of 200 sq metres of the well or water source. The CGWA asked the bulk water suppliers to provide proof of ownership of the 200 sq metres around the well and mandated that its operations such as drawing and filling up of water in tankers take place within this periphery. The owners of these wells, borewells or tube wells have to install tamper-proof digital water flow metres with telemetry to measure the proportion of water extracted. The tanker water suppliers have also been mandated to pay annual water charges in advance.
As per the Environment Status Report, 2020-21, Mumbai has 18,911 identified wells (including 4638 dug up wells, 12561 tube wells and 1712 ring wells). The report calculated that assuming the average per day withdrawal of approximately 20,000 litres (two tankers load) per well, it could be safely presumed that 378 MLD of groundwater was available every day in Mumbai. Considering the importance of protecting wells in the city to prevent future water crises, the BMC had prohibited burying existing wells since January 2003.
Why are low groundwater levels a cause of concern for Mumbai?
Groundwater levels sustain vegetation in a city. However, in Mumbai, the ramifications could be more dangerous. Over exploitation of groundwater is a genuine concern as it could lead to the ingress of seawater. S.D. Waghmare, a scientist with the CGWA Pune unit, says that because of its proximity to the sea, Mumbai faces more challenges with the depletion of the water table. “With over-extraction, the saline sea water ingresses and replaces the freshwater below thus weakening the foundation of buildings and bridges in the city. Preventive action and restrictions to avoid things reaching a critical stage in a city like Mumbai,” he says.
Read more: How Mumbai gets its water: A discussion
Mumbai is already feeling the impact of depleting groundwater levels. “So many borewells have started drying up, in others, the water levels have dropped down considerably. Trees, especially those that grow closer to the coast are registering stunted growth and failing to grow well as saline water has started ingressing the groundwater in the city. Many trees, including all-weather sturdy trees like Neem trees, are not surviving, due to drop in groundwater levels,” says Subhajit Mukherjee of NGO Mission Green Mumbai, who is a proponent of groundwater recharge pits as part of his role as a campaigner for Jal Shakti Abhiyaan. Mukherjee says this depleting groundwater level is responsible for weak tree bases as they are not able to develop deep roots resulting in large numbers of trees getting uprooted due to rains and strong winds.
How critical is our water table?
This is pertinent in the backdrop of the serious groundwater warnings issued by various government bodies including the NITI Aayog. The premier government planning body had in 2018 estimated that 21 major cities would run out of groundwater by 2030 in its Composite Water Management Index report. Groundwater depletion is a major concern across the country, especially since India is the largest extractor of groundwater. An estimated 25 per cent of the total available water is extracted in India, a burden on existing groundwater levels. Natural groundwater restoration has also been severely affected by cement concrete development over many catchment areas.
What is the current rule to extract groundwater?
Before these guidelines came into force, the tanker water suppliers had to take permission only from the health department of the BMC. “Our department is strictly concerned with the fact that well water should not breed mosquitoes, which would cause concern to citizens. Accordingly, if well owners follow provisions to avoid breeding of mosquitoes, they are granted clearance by us under section 381(A) of the BMC Act, 1888,” explains Rajan Naringrekar, insecticide officer (expert) from the public health department of the BMC. The water tankers have to get another permit from the health department under section 394 of the BMC Act, 1888 certifying that the water is being used for non-potable use.
What is the BMC doing to improve groundwater levels?
The BMC says that it is currently involved in the rejuvenation of water bodies to ensure water percolation along with beautification. “Currently, we are rejuvenating the Sion Lake, Sheetal Lake at Kurla and Digeshwar Lake at Charkop and we are hoping to take up more lakes in the coming years. We have already made 250 recharge pits and a provision of Rs five crores for rainwater harvesting projects,” according to deputy municipal commissioner (environment) Sunil Godse. Rainwater harvesting has been made mandatory in new buildings in Mumbai and incentives offered to introduce RWH in old buildings.
What is being done at the national level?
The centre has launched the Atal Bhujal Yojana for sustainable management of groundwater resources with community participation. The scheme includes innovative recharge structures including rainwater harvesting measures.