Groundwater To Be Public Property Soon

Groundwater, a precious natural resource, is for all practical purposes a private property in India. Anyone can bore and extract water from the land he owns with few rules to restrict over-exploitation.
By: Times of India
July 18, 2012 - PRLog -- But all this could soon change. Plans are afoot to alter laws and regulations to make groundwater a common property resource to ensure better regulation by govement as a public trustee with the involvement of communities in the management of underground aquifers. That would mean that nobody can withdraw water even from the land that he owns without a sanction from community-controlled authorities like panchayat.

The move would radically rewrite management of groundwater in India - giving community rights over aquifers instead of restricting these to landowners who can simply drill and exploit the resource.

To change groundwater management rules, the govement aims to pass a framework law under Article 252 of the Constitution. This can be done with two states required to pass a similar law before the central initiative. The particular provision helps the Centre make a law that impinges on federal conces but not override state govements' powers. Once approved by Parliament it makes it necessary for states to align their regulations in keeping with the principles of the central law.

This, the govement believes, would prevent the need to alter the constitutional position of 'water' as a state subject while penal provisions would be placed within states' powers.

Radical changes emerging from the Planning Commission envision Panchayati Raj institutions will become the real-time custodians of the common resource and help regulate the use of aquifers in their domains. Such a practice is in vogue in some states like Andhra Pradesh, but the implementation of a framework law could ensure other states too devolve power and assume control.

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world. Almost a third of groundwater aquifers are semi-critical, critical and over-exploited and some estimates suggest that at current rate of extraction 60% of the groundwater blocks could tu critical by 2025. Some 60% of irrigated agriculture and over 80% of the rural and urban water supply is now being met from groundwater.

The unchecked depletion of aquifers has led to a public health crisis across the country, besides leaving agriculture precariously placed in several states.

Bringing water into the concurrent list of the Constitution is seen within govement circles as a politically difficult shot with conces over federalism bound to play a spoiler. The framework law, the govement hopes, will leave the powers of the state untouched.

The govement intends to substantially increase financial support to states to also ensure a clear demarcation of aquifers - a task that remains incomplete so far — and so allow communities to gain information of the volume under their control.

The law would bring legislation in tune with Supreme Court rulings, including the Public Trust Doctrine, which can end the common law doctrine that has regulated groundwater use since the colonial era in India. The Indian Easements Act of 1882 and other regulations, including the various model bills legislated from time to time, still give landowners complete rights to draw as much water as they want without a liability or responsibility towards neighbouring landowners.

The govement intends to hold several rounds of consultations with states, including a meeting of the National Development Council, to ensure there is an early buy-in and worries are addressed.

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