A law for water conservation

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The Andhra Pradesh government brings forward legislation to regulate the exploitation of ground and surface water resources, but shortcomings in the decentralisation of powers and allocation of funds to local bodies may prove to be the undoing of its initiatives in the battle for water.

IN June, the Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Trees Act, 2002, extolled as one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on water conservation and green cover implemented by any State, will come into effect. It is part of a series of measures attempted by the N. Chandrababu Naidu government to combat the crisis of water scarcity and pollution in the State.

A field in Mahboobnagar district. Drought has been a frequent occurrence in several interior districts of Andhra Pradesh. Population pressure combined with the neglect of tanks and ponds, indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater and lack of maintenance of the surface water system has added to the stress.-A. ROY CHOWDHURY

Drought has been a frequent occurrence in several interior districts of Andhra Pradesh. The ever-increasing population pressure combined with the neglect of traditional structures such as tanks and ponds, indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater and improper maintenance of the surface water system has added to the stress. In the last decade, the influx of seawater has led to rising salinity levels in the fertile coastal farmlands. This has been caused by unplanned, heavy drawal of underground water, encroachment of irrigation tanks and a steep fall in river inflows.

The first serious attempt by the government to conserve water resources began in 1994, which it declared as the year of minor irrigation with focus on rejuvenation of tanks. In 1998, a report prepared jointly by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the WWF (formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund) placed Andhra Pradesh among those Indian States that faced the spectre of a freshwater crisis, with millions of people denied access to safe water supply. The crisis, as the report specified, would be largely human-induced and attributable to the existing system of 'water rights', which ensures that groundwater is still seen not as a common resource but as belonging to the landowner. Water, more often than not, is used as a political tool, controlled and cornered by the rich; for the poor, their poverty of incomes, capabilities and opportunities is compounded by water poverty.

In recent years Andhra Pradesh has also seen an increase in the number of energised wells drilled to irrigate cash crops in water-scarce regions, abetted by the provision of subsidised electricity. But the benefits of such subsidies are often cornered by the big landowners, while uncontrolled sinking of borewells led to groundwater being extracted at a rate faster than the rate of recharge. Some 60 per cent of the water used for irrigation is also lost through seepage.

The UNICEF-WWF report suggested legislation to protect groundwater resources in water-scarce areas. The legislation should aim to regulate water extraction and the types of crops grown in identified areas, ensure mandatory construction of recharge structures and prohibit the drawal of water below certain depths for purposes of irrigation and industry. The report recommended the decentralisation of management and regulation of water resources, devolving to local communities - panchayats - the authority and responsibility to manage the water environment. For this purpose they will be given financial support.

Access to water resources is another important issue. In the rural areas, women have to trek long distances to fetch water for household use. In Gurrabbadu village in the Rayalaseema region, for instance, women on an average walk 5 km to fetch 150 litres of water. Among children, it was mostly girls who fetched water; they had to walk long distances and as a consequence faced long-term health problems.

The government projected its Janmabhoomi programme, launched in 1997, as a step forward in the decentralisation of administration. While the Janmabhoomi programmes saw the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) increase its grip on the local bodies, its critics allege that it was widely used to bypass the panchayati raj institutions. The pattern of development and Chandrababu Naidu's concept of micro-planning benefited some areas and groups such as landlords, more than others. The naxalite groups have staunchly opposed the Janmabhoomi programme and entire districts of the State, including the backward districts in the northwest (Telengana), remain excluded from the reform process.

Besides, the All-India Panchayat Adhyakshas Sammelan that concluded in New Delhi earlier this year criticised the Chandrababu Naidu government for failing to meet its constitutional obligation of constituting district planning committees. The DPCs were provided for in Part IX of the 73rd Constitution amendment to consolidate plans prepared by panchayats and municipalities with regard to spatial planning, sharing of water and other natural resources, integrated infrastructure development and environment conservation.

IN May 2000, the government renewed its drive to give an impetus to water conservation efforts by bringing under one mission the various water conservation programmes set up until then. It launched the Water Conservation Mission or "Neeru-Meeru" (water-you) programme to focus on drought and water shortage at a time when groundwater levels had fallen by over three metres in some places.

An ambitious Rs.100-crore project was launched to conserve water on one crore acres (about 40 lakh hectares) of land, across different climatic and geophysical zones. Its success depended largely on the efforts of the local community, especially in the rural areas where gully-plugging, rockfill dams and percolation tanks facilitated better water storage. The programme thus saw the constitution of committees at the State, district, constituency, municipal, mandal and gram panchayat levels, duly involving elected representatives, officials, non-governmental organisations and other agencies concerned. In order to execute conservation works, at the local level separate stake-holder groups or committees such as the Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS), water users' association (WUA) and watershed committee were set up.

The new programme also harped on decentralisation by referring to people's participation and the need to facilitate coordination of the conservation efforts of different government departments - forest, irrigation, rural development, horticulture, animal husbandry, mining and groundwater.

In its first year (May 2000 to April 2001), the programme succeeded in raising groundwater tables by a modest one metre. The original goal was to increase the total quantity of rechargeable water from 35,000 million cubic metres (mcm) as recorded in 1993 to 50,000 mcm over the next five years - the maximum achievable. In January this year, another round of reorganisation occurred when the Chandrababu Naidu government modified the village administrative system. The office of the grama sachivalayam will now function as an executive support to the elected sarpanch and replace the village administrative officers (VAO). According to the government, of the 21,930 gram panchayats in the State, only 1,319 notified ones had executive officers. The absence of officials in the others implied a heavy burden on the sarpanch. The office of the grama sachivalayam would function under and be responsible to the sarpanch and will coordinate revenue, development and welfare activities. This will, in effect, ensure government presence in every panchayat rather than bring about greater decentralisation.

It was in October 2001 that the government prepared the draft legislation that comes into effect in June as the Andhra Pradesh Land, Water and Trees Act, 2002. It was conceived as a comprehensive piece of legislation that would regulate the exploitation of ground and surface water resources, while providing for punishment to those violating the guidelines. The Act, prepared by the departments of environment, forests, science and technology, provides for the institution of a water, land and tree authority. The Act will also set up another authority to oversee the progress of efforts made thus far to promote water conservation and increase tree cover.

The authority will include Ministers of the departments concerned as members besides experts in different fields and eminent persons in the field of conservation of land-based natural resources. It will have the powers to ensure that all wells are registered with this authority, which can also prohibit groundwater drawal in certain areas. It will also have the power to order the closure of wells. This authority will have its own separate finances. Proceeds of all cesses, penalties and grants levied by the government will accrue to a separate fund set up to finance the authority. Only with the government's prior approval can it delegate powers to district and mandal level authorities or any government official to carry out the provisions of this legislation.

At the same time, the State government's recent decision to institute "Jala Mitra" awards for outstanding performance in the "Neeru-Meeru" programme shows its continued viability. Its progress measured until February 2002 bears this out. Despite a 4 per cent deficit in rainfall, the average depth to water level in the State was 10.3 metres compared with 10.70 metres at the same time last year. The number of seasonal borewells drying up too plummeted - from 5,747 to 1,361 over the same period. And the number of habitations where drinking water has to be transported dropped from 48 to 18.

On the other hand, in Hyderabad and the once-fertile southeastern parts of Andhra Pradesh there is a need for drastic conservation measures. To tackle the drinking water problem in the cities on a war-footing, the Cabinet recently cleared an action plan to supply 162 million gallons a day (mgd) to the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad and the surrounding municipalities, besides sanctioning an additional Rs.875 crores to ensure supply of water from the Krishna river. Meanwhile, there is also a contingency plan involving a cost of Rs.93.71 crores in place for rural water schemes. This would cover emergency repairs to existing water sources and the supply of pipes that would be taken up as part of the Food-for-Work programme.

The battle for ensuring adequate water supply needs to be multi-faceted. Unfortunately, while the efforts have been well-intentioned thus far, and may even have brought initial success, frequent changes and revamps of existing programmes, the existence of multiple heads instead of one consolidated authority and even inadequate decentralisation of powers and allocation of funds to the local bodies may well prove to be the bane of the ambitious conservation programmes.

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