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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. The 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.  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. 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. 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. 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. Diversification in cropping pattern through better price support for pulses and oilseeds will help reduce the agricultural dependence on ground water.  Water and Related Statistics, April 2015, Central Water Commission, http://www.cwc.gov.in/main/downloads/Water%20&%20Related%20Statistics%202015.pdf.  Central Ground Water Board website, FAQs, http://www.cgwb.gov.in/faq.html.  Annual Report 2013-14, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, http://wrmin.nic.in/writereaddata/AR_2013-14.pdf.  Agricultural Statistics at a glance, 2014, Ministry of Agriculture; PRS.  Report of the Export Group on Ground Water Management and Ownership, Planning Commission, September 2007, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_grndwat.pdf.  Report of the High-Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015, http://www.fci.gov.in/app/webroot/upload/News/Report%20of%20the%20High%20Level%20Committee%20on%20Reorienting%20the%20Role%20and%20Restructuring%20of%20FCI_English_1.pdf.  The National Water Policy, 2012, Ministry of Water Resources, http://wrmin.nic.in/writereaddata/NationalWaterPolicy/NWP2012Eng6495132651.pdf.  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, http://cacp.dacnet.nic.in/ViewReports.aspx?Input=2&PageId=39&KeyId=547.  Section 7 (g), Indian Easement Act, 1882.  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.
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.