Context: The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has set stringent conditions for commercial groundwater use, asking authorities to be tightfisted in granting permits, initiating swift punitive action in case of breaches and mandating third-party compliance audit of businesses every year.

More about news:

  • NGT has also struck down the Central Ground Water Authority’s (CGWA) 2020 guidelines, saying they were against the law. The 2018 version of the guidelines had been struck down by the NGT last year.
  • NGT has nudged the authorities towards ensuring sustainable groundwater management, according to a SC mandate by which the CGWA was created.


  • Groundwater is the largest liquid source of freshwater which, along with soil moisture, surface waters such as lakes and rivers and snow and ice, comprises all the freshwater available on Earth.
  • While monsoonal rainfall contributes to groundwater recharge as water seeps through the soil collecting deep underground in the gaps between rocks and layers of porous rock, known as aquifers, pumping out stored water lowers the water table.
  • Unlike rivers or lakes, recharge of groundwater can take years.
  • Nowhere is groundwater more important than in India where a quarter of the world’s groundwater is extracted annually—the highest in the world.
  • Up to 80 percent of the population relies on groundwater for both drinking and irrigation.

NGT guidelines for groundwater extraction

  • NGT has specifically banned “general permission for withdrawal of groundwater", especially to commercial entities, without an environment impact assessment. 
  • Permits have to be for specified quantity of water, not in perpetuity, and should be monitored with digital flow metres and audited every year by third parties. 
  • Industries extracting groundwater must ensure that all conditions are complied with, else they may invite prosecution.
    • Swift action, including blacklisting and prosecution, should be taken against those who fail the audit. 
  • The authorities have three months to make water management plans for all overexploited, critical and semi-critical (OCS) areas. 
    • Around 800,000 companies fall in such areas, which account for about one-third of all 3,881 groundwater assessment units in India.

Issues with NGT guidelines:

  • The NGT move may amount to interfering with the legislative functions of the Jal Shakti ministry.
  • Proper implementation of the present order of the NGT could spell trouble for commercial units already hit badly by economic slowdown and the ill effects of the pandemic.
    • According to official estimates, 89% of groundwater withdrawal is by farmers and only 5% is by industry, while the rest is for domestic use. 
    • Non-renewal of the NOCs : About 20,000 applications are pending before the CGWA. Around 800,000 companies fall in overexploited, critical and semi-critical blocks, representing 36% of 3,881 groundwater assessment units.

Ground water regulation in India: Water as a subject belongs to the states which makes it their responsibility to regulate and manage it. But under the Environment Protection Act, the Central Ground Water Authority can issue guidelines to states.

  • Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA), has been constituted by the Government of India under Section 3  (3)  of  the  Environment  (Protection)  Act (EPA)  of  1986,  and it has the mandate to regulate and control development and management of water resources in the country.
    • CGWA guidelines: It grants NOC to industries requiring ground water for mixed use i.e. industrial process and drinking &  domestic  purpose shall  be  granted  only  for  such  cases  where  adequate  public  water  supply/ surface  water  source  does  not  exist. 
    • No industrial project is approved without water recycling norms. 
    • The above guidelines have been rejected by the NGT.
    • Groundwater surveys: The Authority also has the responsibility of conducting groundwater level surveys across the country. 
      • Categories for surveys: It divides the groundwater table across the country into different assessment blocks and categorises them based on “groundwater development”. This is a measure of how much groundwater has been extracted from an area compared to its recharge through rains.
      • If assessment units are classified as over-exploited then it means that the groundwater extraction is overall much higher than the groundwater recharge. 
      • The other categories are safe, semi-critical and critical. The over-exploited zones are notified by the authority to ensure groundwater use is more strictly regulated.
  • Govt. schemes: The CGWB is currently implementing a scheme for Groundwater Management and Regulation (GWMR); India's first attempt to support groundwater management at national level through the CGWB and the implementation capacity of States in local groundwater resource management. 
    • Jal Shakti Abhiyan: The govt. targeted all these water-stressed districts. Our aim was to capture the monsoon rain to alleviate their condition.
    • Atal Bujal Yojna:Atal Bhujal Yojana (Atal Jal) is a recently launched central sector scheme of Department of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Ministry of Jal Shakti with World Bank assistance. It aims to facilitate sustainable management of ground water resources with community participation with emphasis on demand management.
  • The Model Bills: The 2005 Model Bill mandates the formation of a groundwater regulation authority that would function under the control of the state government. 
    • The authority would also have the power to grant permits to anyone who wants to extract groundwater or sink wells.
    • Every new well and drilling machine would also have to be registered with the authority. 
    • The Code of Criminal Procedure would also apply if the authority would want to search and seize any machinery. 
    • Additionally, the Bill also stated that the authority would have to issue guidelines to state governments to adopt rain water harvesting in their development schemes.
  • Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017 was another Model Bill framed keeping in mind the decentralisation of groundwater regulation. It was under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. 
    • The new draft recognises water as a public trust. It also includes water security measures and groundwater protection zones.

Concerns with groundwater management:

  • Depleting water table: Though India is among the top 10 water-rich countries almost a third of the country is parched. According to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), blocks in 256 districts are water-stressed.
    • India's most water-stressed blocks are situated in Tamil Nadu (541), followed by Rajasthan (218), Uttar Pradesh (139) and Telangana (137).
    • Groundwater levels in 1,186 blocks in these districts are overexploited, which means people here have used up over 100 per cent of the available groundwater.
    • Another 312 are in a critical stage, where extraction level has reached 90-100 per cent; and 94 have least groundwater availability.
    • The latest report by the Central Water Commission (CWC) says per capita water availability in the country has already reduced by one-fourth to 1,368 cubic metres (1,368 kilolitres) a year over the past seven decades, and is set to reduce further.
    • Irrigation and Climate change: According to a global analysis on freshwater availability, northern and eastern India emerged as major hotspots of groundwater depletion mainly because of overexploitation for irrigation although eastern regions also faced low rainfall, while the central and southern regions showed stability owing to water policy changes and increased rainfall.
  • A weak central authority: There is currently no Central law on groundwater regulation. There is, however, a British-era law called the Indian Easement Act, 1882 which gives landowners the right to “collect and dispose” of all water under the land within their own limits.
    • The Central Ground Water Authority “has become a licensing body for groundwater that gives no objection certificates to industries to extract groundwater.
  • Issues with Model bills: They do not take into account all those people who do not own land and need access to groundwater.
    • It was practically impossible to implement an Act based on the Model Bill that was introduced after the usage of tubewells became more rampant.
  • Issues with state ground water regulation acts: Acts enabled by states did not “enable the authorities to re-allocate groundwater between different uses or take either precautionary or pro-active decisions, except for Andhra Pradesh, whose Water, Land and Trees Act, 2002, is a move to regulate groundwater in conjunction with surface water and other pressing environmental concerns.
  • Issues with Jal Shakti Abhiyan: It lacked scientific planning, community participation and sustainability of structures and was marred by corruption.
  • Subsidised electricity provided by state governments is largely to blame for the over-extraction as farmers use it extensively to run pumps that draw up groundwater. Punjab, Haryana, Telangana and Tamil Nadu offer completely free power.
  • Unsustainable agriculture: Punjab has a semi-arid climate but it grows rice, which depletes groundwater and is “highly unsustainable.

Way forward:

  • Curbing extensive groundwater withdrawals will require limiting agricultural electricity subsidies provided by state governments and rationing of power.
    • Other strategies include adopting more efficient irrigation techniques and training farmers on water conservation practices.
  • Incentivising conservation through regulations:  There is a need to replace the command and control mode in a legislation with a more protective mode that incentivises participatory, social norms of groundwater management and governance.”

The concerns expressed by the NGT on the issue of sustainable use of groundwater resource should be appreciated. However, a paralysis of the approval processes needs to be resolved immediately.