The National Green Tribunal Monday slammed the Centre over its submission that restriction on extraction of groundwater in over-exploited, critical and semi-critical (OCS) areas is likely to have an adverse impact on industrial production, employment opportunities and GDP of some States.
The green panel refused to review its order disallowing grant of ''No Objection Certificate'' to industries in OCS areas and said exemptions for infrastructure projects, Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises or other industries or commercial purposes except drinking water will be against sustainable development and public trust doctrine.
The tribunal directed the Ministry of Jal Shakti and the Central Ground Water Authority to ensure that no general permission be given for the withdrawal of groundwater, particularly to any commercial entity, without carrying out an environmental impact assessment.
"There has to be listing of priorities within available limited resources and unlimited demands and impact assessment of such activity and policy of permitting extraction has to be based on carrying capacity in the form of the water levels.
"There must be no general permission for withdrawal of groundwater, particularly to any commercial entity, without environmental impact assessment of such activity on individual Assessment units in cumulative terms covering carrying capacity aspects by an expert committee," a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice AK Goel said.
The green panel said that such permission to industries should as per Water Management Plans to be prepared in terms of this order based on mapping of individual assessment units.
"Any permission should be for specified times and for the specified quantity of water and not in perpetuity, and be necessarily subject to digital flow meters which cannot be accessed by proponents, with mandatory annual calibration by authorized agency at proponents'' cost," the bench said.
It said that an annual review by independent and expert evaluation must audit and record groundwater levels as well as compliance with the conditions of the permission.
"Such audits must be published online for transparency and to track compliance and year-on-year change in groundwater levels, and swift action taken against those who fail the audit, including withdrawal of permission, blacklisting, initiation of prosecution and recovery of deterrent compensation as per Central Pollution Control Board regime," the bench said.
The tribunal pulled the ministry over its plea to allow industries in as per old guidelines and said that mandate of law is sustainable development and only economic consideration is not enough for a policy, if it results in damage to the environment in violation of intra and intergenerational equity and the precautionary principle.
It said that no road map has been provided on how the new regime will check and neutralise falling groundwater levels.
"There is neither a claim that in the last 24 years of regulation by the CGWA, groundwater levels have improved nor any projection for future improved. Data compiled by Niti Ayog in its report published in 2018 ''composite water index'' is clear evidence of over exploitation at several locations.
"Moreover, CGWA itself has conducted a survey and identified 1868 out of 6585 assessment units as OCS areas. Its failure is in not having effective regulatory regime. There is no adequate implementation of conditions for drawal of groundwater for commercial purposes," the bench said.
The green panel said the failure is evident by falling levels and news of mafias engaged in illegal drawal of groundwater in OCS areas without effective check.
It said that further liberalisation will defeat the purpose of having CGWA and be contrary to the mandate of public trust doctrine.
It directed the Ministry of Jal Shakti to ensure requisite manning and effective functioning of CGWA so as to ensure sustainable ground water management.
The tribunal said that all OCS assessment units must undergo water mapping and water Management Plans need to be prepared for all OCS assessment units in the country based on the mapping data, starting with Overexploited blocks.
"The Water Management Plans, data on water availability or scarcity and policy of CGWA must be uploaded on its website for transparency and public involvement. Such exercise may be done expeditiously, preferably within next three months," the bench also comprising Justice SP Wangdi, said while seeking an action taken report by January 31 next year.
The green panel was hearing a plea filed by journalist Shailesh Singh seeking action against depleting groundwater levels in the country and prevention of its illegal extraction.