Yesterday, Members of Parliament in Lok Sabha discussed the situation of drought and drinking water crisis in many states.  During the course of the discussion, some MPs also raised the issue of ground water depletion.  Last month, the Bombay High Court passed an order to shift IPL matches scheduled for the month of May out of the state of Maharashtra.  The court cited an acute water shortage in some parts of the state for its decision. In light of water shortages and depletion of water resources, this blog post addresses some frequently asked questions on the extraction and use of ground water in the country. Q: What is the status of ground water extraction in the country? A: The rate at which ground water is extracted has seen a gradual increase over time.  In 2004, for every 100 units of ground water that was recharged and added to the water table, 58 units were extracted for consumption.  This increased to 62 in 2011.[1]  Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, saw the most extraction.  For every 100 units of ground water recharged, 137 were extracted. In the recent past, availability of ground water per person has reduced by 15%.  In India, the net annual ground water availability is 398 billion cubic metre.[2]  Due to the increasing population in the country, the national per capita annual availability of ground water has reduced from 1,816 cubic metre in 2001 to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011. Rainfall accounts for 68% recharge to ground water, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32%. Q: Who owns ground water? A: The Easement Act, 1882, provides every landowner with the right to collect and dispose, within his own limits, all water under the land and on the surface.[9] The consequence of this law is that the owner of a piece of land can dig wells and extract water based on availability and his discretion.[10]  Additionally, landowners are not legally liable for any damage caused to  water resources as a result of over-extraction.  The lack of regulation for over-extraction of this resource further worsens the situation and has made private ownership of ground water common in most urban and rural areas. Q: Who uses ground water the most? What are the purposes for which it is used? A: 89% of ground water extracted is used in the irrigation sector, making it the highest category user in the country.[3]  This is followed by ground water for domestic use which is 9% of the extracted groundwater.  Industrial use of ground water is 2%.  50% of urban water requirements and 85% of rural domestic water requirements are also fulfilled by ground water. IMAGEThe main means of irrigation in the country are canals, tanks and wells, including tube-wells.  Of all these sources, ground water constitutes the largest share. It provides about 61.6% of water for irrigation, followed by canals with 24.5%. Over the years, there has been a decrease in surface water use and a continuous increase in ground water utilisation for irrigation, as can be seen in the figure alongside. [4]   Q: Why does agriculture rely most on ground water? A: At present, India uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and United States.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, power subsidies for agriculture has played a major role in the decline of water levels in India.  Since power is a main component of the cost of ground water extraction, the availability of cheap/subsidised power in many states has resulted in greater extraction of this resource.[5]  Moreover, electricity supply is not metered and a flat tariff is charged depending on the horsepower of the pump.  Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the effective price support is for wheat and rice.[6]  This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of wheat and paddy, which are water intensive crops and depend heavily on ground water for their growth. It has been recommended that the over extraction of ground water should be minimized by regulating the use of electricity for its extraction.[7]  Separate electric feeders for pumping ground water for agricultural use could address the issue.  Rationed water use in agriculture by fixing quantitative ceilings on per hectare use of both water and electricity has also been suggested.[8]  Diversification in cropping pattern through better price support for pulses and oilseeds will help reduce the agricultural dependence on ground water.[6]     [1] Water and Related Statistics, April 2015, Central Water Commission, [2] Central Ground Water Board website, FAQs, [3] Annual Report 2013-14, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, [4] Agricultural Statistics at a glance, 2014, Ministry of Agriculture; PRS. [5] Report of the Export Group on Ground Water Management and Ownership, Planning Commission, September 2007, [6] Report of the High-Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015, [7] The National Water Policy, 2012, Ministry of Water Resources, [8] Price Policy for Kharif Crops- the Marketing Season 2015-16, March 2015, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, [9] Section 7 (g), Indian Easement Act, 1882. [10] Legal regime governing ground water, Sujith Koonan, Water Law for the Twenty-First Century-National and International Aspects of Water Law Reform in India, 2010.

Last week, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, 2021.  The Bill seeks to regulate the slaughter and transportation of cattle and the sale of beef.   It replaces the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 1950, which only provided for restrictions on cattle slaughter.  In this post, we examine the Bill and compare it with other state laws on cattle preservation.  For a detailed analysis of the Bill, see here.

Cattle preservation under the Bill

The Bill prohibits the slaughter of cows of all ages.  Bulls and bullocks, on the other hand, may be slaughtered if they are: (i) over 14 years of age, or (ii) permanently incapacitated due to accidental injury or deformity.  Inter-state and intra-state transport of cattle is allowed only for agricultural or animal husbandry purposes.  This requires a permit from the competent authority (to be appointed by the state government).  Further, the Bill allows the sale of beef and beef products only at certain locations as permitted by the competent authority.  No permission for such sale will be granted in areas that are predominantly inhabited by Hindu, Jain, Sikh and other non-beef eating communities, or within a five-kilometre radius of a temple or other Hindu religious institution.

Provisions of the Bill may raise certain issues which we discuss below. 

Undue restriction on cattle transport in the north-eastern region of India

The Bill prohibits the transport of cattle from one state to another (or another country) through Assam, except with a permit that such transport is for agricultural or animal husbandry purposes.  This may lead to difficulties in movement of cattle to the entire north-eastern region of India.  First, the unique geographical location of Assam makes it an unavoidable transit state when moving goods to other north-eastern states.  Second, it is unclear why Assam may disallow transit through it for any purposes other than agriculture or animal husbandry that are allowed in the origin and destination states.  Note that the Madhya Pradesh Govansh Vadh Pratishedh Adhiniyam, 2004 provides for a separate permit called a transit permit for transporting cattle through the state.  Such permit is for the act of transport, without any conditions as to the purpose of transport.

Unrestricted outward transport of cattle to states that regulate slaughter differently from Assam

The Bill restricts the transport of cattle from Assam to any place outside Assam “where slaughter of cattle is not regulated by law”.  This implies that cattle may be transported without any restrictions to places outside Assam where cattle slaughter is regulated by law.  It is unclear whether this seeks to cover any kind of regulation of cattle slaughter, or only regulation that is similar to the regulation under this Bill.  The rationale for restricting inter-state transport may be to pre-empt the possibility of cattle protected under the Bill being taken to other states for slaughter.  If that is the intention, it is not clear why the Bill exempts states with any regulation for cattle slaughter from transport restrictions.  Other states may not have similar restrictions on cattle slaughter as in the Bill.  Note that other states such as Karnataka and Chhattisgarh restrict outgoing cattle transport without making any distinction between states that regulate cattle slaughter and those that do not.

Effective prohibition on sale of beef in Assam 

The Bill prohibits the sale of beef within a five-kilometre radius of a temple (which means an area of about 78.5 square kilometres around a temple).  This threshold may be overly restrictive.  As per the 2011 census, the average town area in Assam is 5.89 square kilometres (sq km) and the average village area is 1.93 sq km.  The three largest towns of Assam by area are: (i) Guwahati (219.1 sq km), (ii) Jorhat (53.5 sq km), and (iii) Dibrugarh (20.8 sq km).  Hence, even if there is only one temple in the middle of a town, no town in Assam – except Guwahati – can have a beef shop within the town area.  Similarly, if a village has even one temple, a beef shop cannot be set up in a large area encompassing several adjoining villages as well.  In this manner, the Bill may end up completely prohibiting sale of beef in the entire state, instead of restricting it to certain places.

Note that certain states such as GujaratRajasthanUttar Pradesh and Haryana completely prohibit the sale or purchase of beef within the state.  However, they also completely prohibit the slaughter of cows, bulls and bullocks.  This is not the case under the Bill, which only places a complete prohibition on slaughter of cows.  Further, in places such as Delhi, municipal regulations prohibit the sale of meat (including beef) within 150 metres from a temple or other religious place.  This minimum distance requirement does not apply at the time of renewal of license for selling meat if the religious place comes into existence after the grant of such license. 

The prohibition on sale of beef in areas predominantly inhabited by communities identified based on religion or food habits (non-beef eating) may also have an unintended consequence.  With the food typically consumed by a community becoming unavailable or available only in select locations, it may lead to the segregation of different communities into demarcated residential areas.  As per the 2011 census, the population of Assam comprises roughly 61% Hindus, 34% Muslims, and 4% Christians.

Onerous requirement for the accused to pay maintenance cost of seized cattle

Cattle rearing is essentially an economic activity.   Under the Bill, cattle may be seized by a police officer on the basis of suspicion that an offence has been or may be committed.  Seized cattle may be handed over to a care institution, and the cost of its maintenance during trial will be recovered from such persons as prescribed by the state government through rules.  Note that there is no time frame for completing a trial under the Bill.  Thus, if the owner or transporter of seized cattle is made liable to pay its maintenance cost, they may be deprived of their source of livelihood for an indefinite period while at the same time incurring a cost.

Cattle preservation laws in other states

The Directive Principles of State Policy under the Constitution call upon the state to prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves, and other milch and draught cattle.  Currently, more than 20 states have laws restricting the slaughter of cattle (cows, bulls, and bullocks) and buffaloes to various degrees.   Table 1 below shows a comparison of such laws in select states of India.  Notably, north-eastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland do not have any law regulating cattle slaughter.