Withdrawal of ground water in excess of natural recharge capacity has resulted in a ruinous decline in the water table

The Draft National Water Policy 2012, currently doing the States' round to get them on board, suggests the use of the three-tier system (Centre, the States and the local bodies—Nagar Palikas and Panchayati Raj) to ensure access to a minimum quantity of potable water for essential health and hygiene to all.

In fact, it goes far to recommend subsidies and spurs so as to encourage recovery of industrial pollutants and a well-crafted strategy for recycling/reuse. This is all the more important since meeting the future needs for water depend more on demand management than undertaking the uphill task of generating water from under the ground where in most cases the nadir has been reached long ago.

The ground reality makes a rather grim reading. India possesses an estimated 1,123 billion cubic metres (bcm) of utilisable water per year, comprising 690 bcm of surface water and 433 bcm of replenishable ground water. Out of the latter, the stark reality is that only 58 per cent is used for a host of purposes. On top of this, as much as over 80 per cent of the country's rural domestic water needs and about 50 per cent of its urban and industrial water needs are being met from ground water sources. Again, roughly 45 per cent of created irrigation potential is through exploitation of ground water resources. All this makes the demand on fast depleting ground water a colossal call.

Besides, there is the alarming trend in the last few decades of indiscriminate exploitation of ground water resources for domestic, irrigation and industrial uses and also for the unplanned urbanisation which have wreaked distressing depletion of limited ground water resources in certain parts of the country.

The Minister of State for Water Resources Mr.Vincent H.Pala told Rajya Sabha in December last citing an official assessment of ground water resources made in 2004 that out of 5723 assessment units (blocks/mandals/ talukas), 839 units in various States/UTs were categorised as ‘over-exploited', 226 as ‘critical' and 550 as semi-critical. This assessment was eight years old and today it is far worse because the withdrawal of ground water in excess of natural recharge capacity has resulted in a ruinous decline in ground water table in several parts.

The quality of ground water resources is another area for metronomic monitoring in perpetuity since human health and weal remain at stake. It is disconcerting that the presence of fluoride in ground water in excess of permissible limit of 1.5mg/l as prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) is found in as many as 227 districts in the country. The position concerning other inimical chemicals such as arsenic, nitrate, iron and also innate salinity which are collectively termed geogenic contaminants is reportedly perilous in certain agricultural pockets. The 10 report of the House Panel report on Water Resources has rightly adverted to the dismal situation whereby some industries in the name of aquifer recharge made structure for aquifer recharge, “but actually ended up discharging the polluted water to the aquifer below the ground”. This is the acme of folly as if the bowels of earth would bear any burden, little realising that such brazen and imprudent move would end up as being gravely injurious to humans.

No doubt, water being a State subject, the requisite measures for regulation of ground water development and promotion and implementation of artificial recharge steps need to be undertaken by all shareholders in development—the three tier-structure of governance. Even as the Centre and the States together spend humongous sums of resources for potable water and ensuring that existing water tables are in spick and span for efficient delivery of the precious life-sustaining water, the situation on the ground leaves a lot to be desired.

In the General Budget discussion in Lok Sabha, a member suggested that as part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), the restoration of water bodies could be undertaken. In his reply, the Union Finance Minister Mr. Pranab Mukherjee recalled that the restoration of water bodies programme was introduced by his predecessor Mr. P. Chidambarm in the 2005-06 Union Budget and he favours that the MNREGS would have to be linked with the restoration of water bodies programme.

Unfortunately, both the restoration of water bodies and the water harvesting programme announced by a few States including Tamil Nadu remained weak and still born. If the intention of the authorities is to give primacy to water for livelihood sustenance to legions of people, it is time concrete and innovative measures should be put in place on a war-footing. It would be a parody that in a land dotted with perennial rivers and estuaries, water should become a bone of contention in the years to come for the avoidable acrimony of internecine disputes among people.

geeyes@thehindu.co.in