Sustainable water usage: Stricter rules for industry fine, but act on farm misuse too

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September 29, 2020 4:30 AM

Water-recycling, especially through the reclamation of waste-water, needs to be done on the front-foot.

Use by industry also doesn’t seem to have sustainability as a lodestar—a just-published Jeffries report points out how, of a sample of 500 companies analysed, just 49 made a quantified disclosure on water in their reports in 2019.Use by industry also doesn’t seem to have sustainability as a lodestar—a just-published Jeffries report points out how, of a sample of 500 companies analysed, just 49 made a quantified disclosure on water in their reports in 2019.

Sustainable usage of water in India has long been a concern, especially given policy’s reluctance to treat it as a utility that needs to be priced correctly to dissuade misuse. This is exacerbated by a host of other factors including inadequate storage, poor recycling, and even populist thinking on power and fertiliser subsidies to the farm sector. Use by industry also doesn’t seem to have sustainability as a lodestar—a just-published Jeffries report points out how, of a sample of 500 companies analysed, just 49 made a quantified disclosure on water in their reports in 2019.

Against this backdrop, the Jal Shakti ministry’s new guidelines for water usage—water is a state subject, though the Union government is empowered to make laws on certain aspects of water governance—are a step forward. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had struck down two draft guidelines since 2018 on account of the ministry having been too liberal for industrial users. The new draft guidelines make annual water audits compulsory for industrial users apart from mandating impact assessment for granting no-objection certificates (NOCs) for groundwater extraction.

The Jeffries report estimates India’s water demand to increase to 1,498 billion cubic metres (bcm) by 2030, with supply being only half of this. Industrial demand is expected to increase from 56 bcm in 2010 to around 151 bcm in 2050. The chronic supply shortage, Jeffries believes, could be an impediment to companies investing in India. To that end, if the new guidelines kick off sustainability thinking on water by industrial users, it could help make the situation less dire than Jeffries predicts.

However, the new guidelines seem to have gone easy on a major pain point: wasteful use of water in agriculture; while the sector accounts for 78% of the groundwater usage, the guidelines steer clear of outlining meaningful action on water for the sector. The guidelines merely say that “states/UTs are advised to review their free/subsidised electricity policy to farmers, bring suitable water pricing policy and may work further towards crop rotation/diversification/other initiatives to reduce overdependence on groundwater”; they exempt agriculture from the need to obtain an NOC for groundwater extraction.

This is despite several experts having flagged wasteful use of water, often rooted in populist policies. Agri-economists Ashok Gulati and Gayatri Mohan, in a 2018 paper for Icrier, detail India’s farm-led water problem. They talk of how, sans proper regulation of groundwater, the water table has become critical or overexploited in 1,592 blocks in 256 districts.

The problem is compounded by a host of agri-policies, from open-ended public procurement of grains to MSP. Gulati-Mohan specifically point to how paddy and sugarcane—both water-guzzling crops—now account for 60% of irrigation water consumption even though they account for only 24% of the cultivated area.

The focus will also have to be on expanding storage—India receives nearly 2,600 bcm of precipitation even in a bad year, but its total storage capacity remains under 300 bcm. Water-recycling, especially through the reclamation of waste-water, needs to be done on the front-foot. While Israel recycles nearly 90% of its water, India’s recycling capacity stands at just 30%. The problem is worse at the household level, where not even 5% of the water used is recycled.

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