In order to deal with water thefts in Gujarat, the state legislative assembly passed two bills – The Gujarat Domestic Water Supply (Protection) Bill, 2019 and The Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage (Amendment) Bill 2019 – Friday that imposed strict penalties for pilferage of water both for domestic use and irrigation respectively. The first bill also announced the setting up of a water appellate authority that would be the custodian of all water sources and have powers equal to a civil court.
Opposing The Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage (Amendment) Bill 2019, several Congress MLAs staged a walkout on the last day of the Budget session. The Opposition members said that the Bill that proposes to “increase the quantum of punishment and fine” for water theft from canals, was against farmers and cattle-herders and was a “black law” that would “even put the British to shame.”
“The availability of water is dwindling every day and it is the need of the hour to conserve and save as much as possible and use the available water judiciously, else some areas in the state may go without sufficient water for irrigation and domestic use,” said Saurabh Patel, the state energy minister while tabling The Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage (Amendment) Bill, 2019. This was one of the nine Bills that was taken up for discussion on the final day of the month-long Budget session.
Claiming that “unscrupulous persons” have been indulging in water thefts or polluting water in canals, the minister said, “In order to check water thefts or wastage of water, the punishment and fine which are already provided in the Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Act, 2013 are increased to cause deterrence so that “unscrupulous persons” do not indulge in their evil acts of water thefts or wastage of water… It is therefore considered necessary and expedient to amend Sections 37 and 38 of the said Act to provide for increase in quantum of punishment and fine.”
The new clauses inserted into the amended Bill empowers the canal officer to “confiscate the engine or pipeline or any other instrument uses for drawing canal water unauthorised and such instruments shall be returned by paying penalty up to Rs 1 lakh to canal officer.” A fresh clause introduced through the amended Bill imposes up to one-year imprisonment or fine of up to Rs 50,000 or both for polluting “canal water or releases liquid waste or solid waste shall be punished.”
Punishments on persons who willfully permit cattle to graze on canal or dam have been increased. Similarly, the quantum of fines have been raised for unauthorised lifting of water from canals, removing or damaging structures constructed for water management in canals. The Bill also seeks to punish offenders who cause permanent damage to canals with two years imprisonment or fine of Rs 2 lakh or both. Apart from this, the government also raised both the punishment and fine for those who divert “floor of river or damage flood-embankments” to 1.5 years imprisonment or a fine of Rs 1 lakh or both. Earlier, this quantum of fine and punishment were limited to six months imprisonment and Rs 10,000 fine.
During the discussion on this Bill, Congress MLA Pravin Maru asked the minister to apologise for describing farmers as “unscrupulous persons” in the Bill and saying that they “indulge in evil acts of water theft or wastage of water.” He said while the government is seeking to punish farmers, it has not taken any step against contractors, some of whom are members of the BJP, for over 200-odd breaches that have happened in the Narmada canal network.
Another Congress MLA from Kadi, Baldevji Thakor said that both the Bills were “black laws” and should be withdrawn. GPCC president Amit Chavda, too, aired similar views and said such legislation to punish farmers would “put even the British to shame.” Leader of the Opposition in the assembly, Paresh Dhanani spoke last on the Bill before the Congress members walked out shouting slogans against the BJP.
After the walkout, minister Saurabh Patel defended the government’s move saying that the punishments and fines for grazing cattle on canals and for water pilferage was first passed in the state assembly by the Congress headed by Madhavsinh Solanki in the 1980s. The Bill was later passed through a voice vote.
The Gujarat Domestic Water Supply (Protection) Bill, 2019 which was tabled by water supply minister Kunvarji Bavaliya seeks to provide “better water security and safeguard people’s interest to receive safe drinking water.” The minister told the House that the main purpose of Bill was to prevent “water-theft” and to ensure that the water distribution system is not damaged, contaminated or tampered with.
Recounting personal interactions with villagers in Kutch, Surendranagar, Kutch and Bhavnagar, the minister said that villagers have complained of not received drinking water due to thefts. “The main water sources are situated in South and Central Gujarat. From there the water is transported to water-scarce regions in North Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra through water grid,” he said explaining why it was necessary to safeguard the water distribution system consisting of 3,000 km-long bulk pipelines that “lifts” water up to 250 metres (which is equivalent to 180 floors) in height up to Narayan Sarovar in Kutch. The minister said that 8000 villages and 250 in Gujarat receive Narmada water for drinking.
A Water Appellate Authority will be constituted by the state government which will own waters sources. It will have “same powers as that of a civil court.” The Bill also gives sweeping powers to the Authority. “No civil court shall have the jurisdiction to deal with or decide any question which the assessing officer or appellate officers, as the case may be, the Water Appellate Authority empowered to deal with or decide with by or under this Act and no injunction shall be granted by any civil court in respect of any action taken or to be taken in pursuance of any of the provisions of this Act.”
This panel has been given sweeping powers, including powers to plan, design, execute, operate, manage and maintain public water distribution system. It will fix water charges for different category of users and prevent theft of water, misuse or wastage, as well as prevent unauthorised withdrawal of water. This authority is also empowered to install water meters. The authority can also “enter and inspect at any time in any premises where water is supplied.” The Provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 relating to search and seizure shall apply, states the Bill.
Punishments for damaging, destroying and defacing of the public water distribution system could lead to imprisonment terms that could be up to two years and fines as high as Rs 1 lakh.