Groundwater: Time to Make it Legally Visible

Groundwater is the lifeline of India’s economy and society. India draws more groundwater every year than any other country, more than China and the US (the second and third largest groundwater using countries) combined.



UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water is launching the latest edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report, titled Groundwater: Making the invisible visible” at the opening ceremony of the 9th World Water Forum in Dakar, Senegal calling all the states to commit themselves to develop adequate and effective groundwater management and governance policies in order to address current and future water crises throughout the globe.

Although, India, in the year 2020 itself, through its new National Water Policy (NWP), argues that limits are now being reached on solving the country’s water problem from the supply side. The seven-member Mihir Shah Committee proposes a shift in focus towards the long-neglected demand-side management of water. the NWP gives the highest priority to sustainable and equitable governance and management of groundwater.

Also Read: India has a nationwide water crisis at hand, 21 major cities to run out of groundwater by 2020

Groundwater is the lifeline of India’s economy and society. India draws more groundwater every year than any other country, more than China and the US (the second and third largest groundwater using countries) combined.

Groundwater is the water that exists below the surface in the zone of saturation and can be extracted through wells or any other means or emerges as springs and base flow in streams and rivers. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates about 30% of all the fresh water on Earth exists underground. Groundwater accounts for nearly 62 percent of the total requirement of water in irrigation, 85 percent in rural water supply, and 45 percent in urban water supply in India.


In India, water resources are treated as common. It is not treated as an economic resource that has monetary value and a price to pay for its consumption. The groundwater scenario in India is beset by challenges due to the competing needs of agriculture, industrialization, and the pressures of increasing population in the context of uncertain rainfall. Contamination and depletion of groundwater also lead to vulnerability of livelihoods besides posing a serious health risk.

Therefore, sustainable development and efficient management of groundwater pose a complex challenge for governance in India. Additionally, because groundwater is a dynamic resource (there are variations in its input, such as rainfall; and output, such as agricultural uses), the magnitude of the water problem in India is not just large, but also complex. This means that working on water security entails ongoing management of water resources, demands, and behaviors.

As depleting groundwater levels threatens India’s long-term water security, inefficient management, contamination, and outdated policies affect accessibility for millions. A joint report by WHO and UNICEF in 2019 found that 9.1 crore people in India are without basic supply.

As per the Groundwater Resource Estimation Committee’s report (from 2015), 1,071 out of 6,607 blocks in the country are over-exploited; this is likely to have worsened over the years.

According to the Central Groundwater Board report (2017), close to 40 percent of the 700 districts in India have reported ‘critical’ or ‘overexploited’ groundwater levels.

 In rural India, 80 to 90 percent of drinking water needs are fulfilled by groundwater resources. What is worrisome is that groundwater levels in India declined by over 60 percent between 2007 and 2017, and of the extracted water, almost 90 percent is used in agriculture.

More than 90 per cent of groundwater in India is used for agriculture. Less than 10 percent of groundwater supplies drinking water to more than 85 percent of the country’s population that depends on it. Conclusively, the over-reliance on groundwater makes it the most exploited natural resource as well.

India is staring at acute water scarcity in the coming future due to over-exploitation, leading to a substantial drop in groundwater levels across India. As per a Central Groundwater Board report in 2017, as many as 256 of 700 districts in India have reported critical or over-exploited groundwater levels. Apart from overpopulation causing increased demand, wastage and inefficient use are also leading causes of over-exploitation.

With regard to groundwater condition, the audit report was presented by The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in the Parliament on December 21, 2021.  The main objectives were to ascertain the implementation of groundwater regulations, a mechanism for managing groundwater, targets, and objectives on the schemes of groundwater management, and appropriate steps taken to achieve the relevant targets under the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goal 6 that addresses water scarcity among other issues.

Legal Issues

Initially, The Central Ground Water Authority was constituted under Section 3 (3) of the “Environment  (Protection)  Act,  1986”  for the purpose of regulation and control of groundwater development and management. The current regulatory regime is in large part still based on principles inherited from the colonial period. These are both outdated and inappropriate. Current reforms fail to sever the link between land ownership and access to groundwater, a precondition for ensuring that groundwater law contributes, for instance, to the realization of the fundamental human right to water. Further, they add a layer of governmental control to a largely privately regulated framework but fail to recognize the constitutionally sanctioned rights of the panchayats in controlling local sources of water.

Safe management of fecal sludge is important to clean our surface water and groundwater for a safe and sustainable drinking water source.

Overexploitation of groundwater and dug-out wells running dry due to droughts are threats to the survival of these subterranean fish. The law has not stopped some farmers from continuing to deplete groundwater, and some water experts are unsure that it’s working.

To the best of our knowledge, there has not been any discussion in India about how unmanaged groundwater extraction and poor governance are impacting the unique subterranean biodiversity.

Many states have pioneered the way in this regard with excellent results. Volumetric estimates of groundwater use should be introduced through fees decided by the groundwater user groups. Electricity charges should be based on metered consumption and not on a pro-rata basis. For domestic water supply, it must be similarly ensured that water charges result from a truly bottom-up, user-driven, transparent, and participatory process, led by women, rather than one imposed arbitrarily from above. This would ensure cross-subsidization that incorporates considerations of social and economic equity and would vary based on each local context. Metering of urban water and volumetric charges need to be introduced while taking into confidence the urban local self-governments and water utilities. Charges of raw water for industries, especially those which use a lot of water in their products (all beverages, breweries, etc) must be revised and regulated to prevent excess water use.

Thus, The dramatic increase in groundwater use and the importance of groundwater as a source of water has led to significant debates but relatively little by way of concrete policy decisions. To date, the most significant initiatives at the union level have been the drafting of a model bill, 2016 for adoption by the states and the setting up of the Central Groundwater Authority mandated to regulate and control the use of groundwater. Its mandate includes the notification of ‘over-exploited’ and ‘critical’ areas and the regulation of groundwater withdrawal in such areas but it does not have a broad mandate to regulate groundwater in general.

Author – Sarvesh Kumar Shahi, Assistant Professor, School of Law, KIIT University, Bhubaneshwar

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Groundwater: Time to Make it Legally Visible
Groundwater is the lifeline of India’s economy and society. India draws more groundwater every year than any other country, more than China and the US (the second and third largest groundwater using countries) combined.
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