MUMBAI, Jan 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian authorities are imposing a new fee and stricter laws to rein in groundwater use, as the world's biggest extractor struggles to find ways to conserve the fast dwindling resource.
The Water Conservation Fee for use for drinking, and domestic and commercial purposes is due to take effect from June 1, even as several states tighten laws around extraction.
But conservationists and campaigners say these efforts will fail unless the government also separates water rights from land ownership, and empowers communities to manage and use groundwater, and recharge aquifers.
"The approach so far has been: this is my land, so the water below it is mine, and I can use as much of it as I want," said Himanshu Kulkarni of the Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management, an advocacy group.
"But we need to think of groundwater as a common pool resource and look at it from a rights perspective," he said.
India is the world's largest user of groundwater, drawing about 250 cubic kilometres per year, or more than a fourth of the global total, according to the World Bank.
More than 60 percent of the country's irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater, the World Bank estimates.
With a growing population, rising demand from agriculture and industry, and increasingly erratic monsoon rains, India is suffering the "worst water crisis in its history", according to government think-tank NITI Aayog.
About 600 million people - nearly half India's population - face acute water shortage, with close to 200,000 dying each year from polluted water, NITI Aayog said in a report last year.
A draft Groundwater Bill, 2017 proposed a new regulatory framework that recognised the fundamental right to water, the need for decentralised control and protection of aquifers, and sought to give control to local users.
But the legislation was not passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, and with national elections due by May, it has been relegated to the backburner.
"Availability of water is an issue everywhere. But water management - which should be a raging election issue - is not, because we don't pay a meaningful price for it," said Mridula Ramesh, founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute in Madurai.
"The Water Conservation Fee is a necessary first step," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
With its dependence on seasonal rainfall, India has long managed water with an elaborate network of canals, tanks and wells. Water was regarded as a communal resource that was managed by the community.
This approach changed with the British, who imposed a centralised system, and the common law principle in the late 1800s, emphasising the rights of landowners to access water, according to Kulkarni.
The conflation of the right to water with property ownership led to landowners treating groundwater as a private resource with no thought of its conservation, said Kulkarni, who helped draft the 2017 bill.
The Green Revolution - launched by the government in the 1960s to increase food production - led to the widespread use of tubewells, which were heavily subsidised, resulting in faster depletion of groundwater for irrigation.
India has built dams and plans to link rivers to ease availability, measures that are opposed by conservationists.
The country is also entangled in disputes across the border, with its eastern and western neighbours - Bangladesh and Pakistan - accusing it of monopolising water flows.
To the north and northeast, India fears a loss of water to upstream China, which plans a series of dams over the Tsangpo river, called the Brahmaputra as it flows into eastern India.
A groundwater law was first introduced in India in the 1970s, and about a dozen states began introducing measures to control use from the 1990s.
But the legislation has failed to tackle falling water tables, and lacks provisions to protect and conserve groundwater at the aquifer level, said Philippe Cullet, a professor of environmental law at the University of London's SOAS.
"Access to a source of groundwater has progressively become a source of power and economic gain," said Cullet, who also helped draft the 2017 bill.
"Groundwater is essentially a local resource, yet the present framework remains mostly top-down, and is incapable of addressing local situations adequately," he said.
Groundwater reserves are under pressure worldwide, with warmer temperatures affecting how quickly they replenish, resulting in an environmental "time bomb" for future generations, according to a study published this week.
In India, the world's second-most populous country, the crisis has serious implications for food security.
Nearly 600 million people are at high risk of being unable to rely on surface water - including in the northwest and south, where much of India's staple wheat and rice are grown, according to Washington D.C.-based World Resources Institute.
Some states including Maharashtra are enacting tougher laws to regulate tubewells, prevent pollution, and limit the type of crops that can be grown in water-deficit areas.
The conservation fee will charge users based on the amount of water extracted in resource-scarce areas.
But the fee exempts agricultural users - the largest consumers of groundwater, and a key voter base.
Helping farmers manage water can help limit crop failures from failed monsoons, said Kulkarni, whose organisation helped establish "pani panchayat" - or water village councils - that were popular in the 1970s.
In these projects, farmers delinked land and water rights, and collectively managed harvesting and distributing surface water and groundwater. Individual wells were banned, as were water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and bananas.
A similar farmer-led project in seven drought-prone districts of nearly one million people in Andhra Pradesh state was described by the World Bank as the "first global example of large-scale success in self-regulation of groundwater use."
"Ensuring the rights of the landless, community participation, equitable distribution, and sustainability of the resource is key," said Kulkarni.
"It is a fairer, more democratic way to manage water, and prevents the kind of conflicts we now see over surface water."
Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, editing by Zoe Tabary.
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