It is the case of a law remaining only on paper, even though 10 years have gone by since its enactment.
In fact, the law in question – Tamil Nadu Groundwater (Development and Management) Act – was originally in the form of an ordinance, which was promulgated on January 17, 2003. A couple of weeks later, the Assembly adopted a Bill to replace the ordinance.
From the start, the law ran into troubles. Within a few days of the promulgation of the ordinance, Tiruchi and Perambalur district units of a farmers’ body – Tamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam – called upon the government to withdraw it as the law sought to impose curbs on digging open wells and sinking of bore wells.
Later in the month when the Assembly took up the Bill, some Congress legislators wanted the government not to go ahead.
Considered stringent in certain quarters, the law made mandatory registration of wells and imposed a fine for unauthorised sinking of wells in notified areas, besides placing restrictions on transporting of water from the notified areas. It envisaged the establishment of Tamil Nadu Groundwater Authority, which would “develop, control, regulate and administer” groundwater.
It is not applicable to Chennai and 302 revenue villages of the neighbouring Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, all of which are covered under another law, Chennai Metropolitan Area Groundwater (Regulation) Act, 1987.
Immediately after the enactment of the 2003 Act, enumeration of nearly one crore wells was taken up in right earnest. Around four-fifths of the work was completed in about a year. But, rules for the Act were not formulated immediately. This was where the law got stuck.
After the regime change in 2006, the new government constituted a Cabinet sub-committee to go into the law. Some Ministers had reservations over the desirability of such a law.
The sub-committee was said to have proposed some relaxations.
Among the points deliberated by the panel was whether it was advisable to cover or not those groundwater sources, located in districts other than Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur, which might have to cater to Chennai drinking water supply in the event of a drought.
That the Act was put in cold storage could be gauged from the fact that from 2008, the Policy Note of the Public Works Department did not even have a reference to the status of the implementation of the law.
Nearly two years ago, while hearing a case, the Madras High Court directed the State government not to allow any person to draw and sell groundwater until the Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2003, was notified.
The Special Government Pleader then informed the court that the government was considering aspects such as encouraging the agriculture sector and socio economic aspects of certain classes of farmers and to introduce comprehensive amendments to the Act.
Conceding that the law is not a matter of priority, a senior government official says it will not be appropriate to insist on its enforcement when the State is about to face a spell of water shortage.
A former policymaker recalls that citing decisions of the Supreme Court, the Union government had, a few years ago, sent a communication to all States including Tamil Nadu, urging them to bring in a law to regulate groundwater.
It is time that the Centre made a renewed effort to persuade the State governments to adopt groundwater laws, the former official adds.