With the Groundwater Act passed, the BWSSB must map sub-aquifers in Bangalore, understand their recharge characteristics and draw up a plan to manage them so that they do not go dry and get contaminated, says water activist S. Vishwanath

The Groundwater Act has been passed and the rules and regulations drafted. Every borewell drilling rig and every borewell in the city has to be registered with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the deadline is March 31. This shows at best the complete lack of coordination between two wings of the government. In Karnataka, groundwater is accounted almost as a mineral and comes under the purview of the Mines and Geology Department, a rather strange way to look at an essential resource for domestic, irrigation and industrial purposes.

Prodded forever by various well meaning institutions including the courts, a Central Groundwater Authority was constituted, a morphed and rather toothless renaming of the Central Groundwater Board.

Water being a State subject then had to move to the domain of the State which too has very, very reluctantly and with a perfunctory debate in the House passed the Groundwater Act.

The fundamental criticism of this Act is that it does not promise any outcome, such as safe, sustainable groundwater of the best quality accessible to all. It does not discriminate between a city and its use of groundwater vis-à-vis irrigation use. It merely seeks to enumerate and perhaps restrict with no great logic the commercial use of groundwater as well as prevent its exploitation in so-called dark zones. Can it, for example, deny a citizen in a dark zone the right to drill a borewell if the State itself is unable to provide water either for drinking or for a livelihood?

The Bangalore scene

The BWSSB already levies a charge for every borewell in the city for a house or an apartment which has a sewerage connection with it. It calls this a sanitary cess arguing that the water used from the borewells enters the sewage lines and has to be collected, conveyed and treated. It levies the charge from nearly 180,000 such borewells. Why then a re-registration in another form and with another fee?

The BWSSB itself would be best advised to create a groundwater cell. It does not help if there are no hydro-geologists in the organisation and leaving it to engineers is a recipe for disaster. Once the cell is created and suitably manned it should be set the task to map every sub-aquifer in the city and layer with the micro-watersheds on top. It is important to understand the recharge characteristic of every sub-aquifer, the quantity and quality stress it is subject to and then draw up a suitable plan to manage the sub-aquifer so that it does not go dry and does not get contaminated. Given the remote sensing capabilities the State has, this should be a job done at best in a year.

The registered borewells in the city should then be mapped and put up on a publicly accessible GIS platform so as to wisely decide on whether fresh borewells should be sunk or not even by private individuals. Right now, individuals and apartments make the choice of sinking a borewell with a notion of water security not knowing what is the probability of striking water, at what depth and what will be the life of the borewell. Huge costs are therefore sunk in infructuous investments which could otherwise have been put to productive, sustainable use such as rainwater harvesting or groundwater recharge.

Conclusion

The current groundwater Act provides an opportunity to a regime of shared groundwater where recharge and sustainable use is based on demand management.

It is therefore opportune to work on the knowledge and implementation of such a participatory groundwater regime. Institution building is key and should be the first step instead of a licence permit raj.