The Punjab Cabinet Wednesday gave its approval for creation of a rather diluted version the Punjab Water Regulation and Development Authority (PWRA) that would not be empowered to issue tariff order or issue directions on groundwater extraction for domestic and agriculture use of water.
The authority would only be able to issue tariff order and directions on groundwater extraction for only industrial and commercial use. Most of the underground water is being used for providing drinking water in cities and rural areas besides for agriculture use. Over 14 lakh tubewells extract water from aquifers in the state. Fears have already been expressed that Punjab would go dry in 20 years.
The new version of authority is being seen as bypassing of Central Ground Water Authority’s guidelines that provides for every state to have its own authority that could ensure stringent steps to limit use of water in view of acquifers drying up fast due to over exploitation.
Giving in to the objection by several ministers, representing urban areas, the state government has amended its original plan of making the authority responsible for impose restrictions or tariff on extraction of water for drinking and domestic purposes. Originally, it had not included agriculture in the domain of the authority.
The government originally wanted the PWRA to be empowered to issue the tariff order but former Cabinet Minister Navjot Singh Sidhu and Food Minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu had objected to it. While Sidhu is no more in the Cabinet but the decision was made in the Cabinet in Ashu’s presence. Ashu told The Indian Express that with the authority not been given the powers to increase the tariff, he had no problems with the decision. Ashu’s argument has been that he represents an urban constituency and with an authority deciding on water tariff, the vote bank of urban MLAs would be affected.
For setting up the authority, the government will be promulgating an ordinance called the Punjab Water Resources (Management and Regulation) Ordinance, 2019. After the setting up of authority, the industry would not be required to seek clearance from Central Groundwater Authority, that used to delay several projects. The industries would be able to get the required clearances from the state authority only.
A statement by the government after the Cabinet meeting said that the proposed legislation is aimed at development, management and regulation of water resources of the state for ensuring their judicious, equitable and sustainable utilization and management.
“The Authority would be empowered to issue general directions related to extraction and use of ground water, besides ensuring optimal and efficient utilization of all water resources in the State, including canal irrigation. It will also issue guidelines on recycling and reuse of water and its conservation.” it added.
Further, the Authority would have the right to impose financial penalties upon non-compliance of its orders or directions. It has been vested with the powers of a Civil Court, and would also be required to present an annual report which would be laid on the floor of the House by the government, disclosed the spokesperson.
Chief Minister Amarinder Sigh has been in favour of the authority stating it was imperative for a state that was facing water crisis. The government has already signed an agreement with Israel’s National Water Agency, Mekorot, to help the state prepare a comprehensive plan for more efficient and sustainable use of the state’s water resources.
The proposed Authority will have a chairperson, who would be a person with ability and demonstrable experience in the field of water and its management with a sound understanding of public administration, law and economics. In addition, it will have two members who would be experts drawn from Water resources or connected areas of finance, law, agriculture and economics. An Advisory Committee of five experts would provide assistance, as required, to the Authority in its work, said the spokesperson.
The government shall constitute a Selection Committee headed by Chief Secretary and consisting of at least two other members, to recommend the names of the Chairperson and members. The chairperson or other members shall hold office for a term, as may be specified, but not exceeding five years at a time, from the date on which he enters upon his office, provided that no person shall serve as chairperson or other members for more than two terms.
As per the draft legislation, the government may also appoint a serving or retired officer who has worked on a post equivalent to the rank of Special Secretary to the Government of Punjab or higher, as Secretary of the Authority, with tenure of three years and extendable by another two.
The draft legislation also provides for a State Council for Water Management & Development, headed by the Chief Minister and comprising Water Resources Minister, Local Government Minister, Water Supply & Sanitation Minister, Rural Development Minister, Finance Minister, Industry Minister and Power Minister. The Council would be tasked to approve the State Water Plan, which would be based on integrated Water Plans to be prepared for every block.
The Council would also approve the State Water Policy and all other policies related to use and re-use of water in the State. The proposed regulatory Authority would be responsible for implementation of the State Water Plan, according to the spokesperson.