Modi's Gujarat passes law to regulate ground-water extraction

The Gujarat government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in a step that has predictably raised a storm, has got gubernatorial approval for a law that makes a licence mandatory for sinking a tubewell, borewell or artesian well on agricultural land.

State governor Kamla Beniwal has approved the new bill, making it a law for the business-oriented state led by Modi.

With its overwhelming majority, the state government steamrolled the Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Bill 2013 in the state assembly on 27 February against stiff resistance from the Congress and other opposition parties.

Most media commentators have gone along with the opposition in trashing the law – including the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the farmer wing of the Sangh Parivar, a generic term for India's Hindu-oriented parties including Modi's BJP.

The opposition says farmers have no options apart from sinking tubewells for irrigation, with as many as 17 out of Gujarat's 26 districts experiencing drought conditions.

On the other hand, more sensible observers are pleased that Modi has taken a step that is imperative across the country, with water-tables sinking fast and wells having to be dug deeper and deeper to tap a rapidly-dwindling resource. Moreover, most state governments supply farmers with free or heavily-subsidised electricity to facilitate the pernicious process.

Gujarat's upcoming law seeks to regulate sinking of deep wells on any agricultural land, as well as the use of groundwater obtained from such wells. Violators can be punished with imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of Rs10,000.

The Congress made a representation to the governor that the bill was against farmers' interests. The GPP organised state-wide protests against the ''draconian'' measure.

The law will replace the 134-year-old Gujarat Irrigation Act 1879 that freely permitted the sinking of wells with a depth of over 45 metres.

The new Bill is also tough on use of groundwater from wells or bores for irrigation.

Further, farmers owning cultivable land within 200 metres of a canal will have to pay for water reaching his fields through percolation, leakage, surface flow or by means of a well dug from the canal.

The Irrigation and Drainage Act replaces the 134-year-old Bombay Irrigation Act 1879. It will regulate the entire irrigation and water-distribution network in the state. It has certain provisions that the opposition has termed draconian.

One provision gives wide powers to proposed canal officers. Such officers will have powers to detain violators of the Act, which makes it mandatory for farmers to obtain a licence from the canal officers for digging a tubewell or a borewell exceeding the prescribed depth, on their land.

Kanubhai Patel, who heads the Gujarat Farmers-Power Consumers Association, had perhaps the most cogent argument against the new law when he said, ''All irrigation projects, including the ambitious Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project, are originally envisaged for irrigation; but as has happened in Gujarat, they end up getting milked by urban centres and industrial houses,'' he said.