Business Today

Who owns water and other questions

Water, as things stand today, is a state subject even though ground water management is a national priority.

twitter-logo E Kumar Sharma        Last Updated: May 30, 2016  | 19:44 IST

E Kumar Sharma, Associate Editor, Business Today
If you find oil or gold in your backyard, does it belong to you? It does not. Right? It belongs to the government. There are enough and more laws on this like the good old Indian Treasure Trove Act. But what if we are talking about water under your plot of land or a farmer with a farmland next to a river?
Water, as things stand today, is a state subject even though ground water management is a national priority.  To the best of what I could gather, legally, as a landowner,  you do not own the water but are only allowed to collect it and use it. Think of the local permissions you need each time you want to dig a borewell. But then, it still leaves you with a big missing element: a clear law that defines ownership of water and provisions that govern the exact rights over this resource.

Which is perhaps one reason why, talk to consumers (individuals) or venture capitalists, wanting to take a long term view on investing in water ventures or entrepreneurs involved in the business of water treatment and supply, and lack of clarity on the exact ownership of water and the monitoring of the norms for tapping it becomes apparent.

A typical gripe is that whatever regulations exist are being locally interpreted. We need more than this as, we are often told, battles over rightful tapping of this increasingly scare resource are only going to get more intensely fought in months and years to come. Even today, do a search on Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Kerala, and you will get an idea of the concerns and challenges in this space.

Already, scarcity of water is becoming a big concern across the country and especially in regions like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha and Telangana. From small pharma units unable to bear the expenses of water tankers contemplating shutting down in Aurangabad to units in Telangana trying out innovative ways to treat drainage water for flushing water in toilets and watering plants, stories of an uncertain tomorrow with water are the new reality.  

Inter-state disputes over tapping of water - be it Telangana and Andhra or Maharashtra and Karnataka - and concerns over water "thefts" are matters of frequent news coverage in these and other regions. Some of it driven by genuine concerns with studies pointing to per capita availability of water in India down to nearly half of what it was at around 3,000 cubic meters per annum in early 1950s. Part of the reason could be the high intensity of borewells in India. Remember, we are said to be a nation that draws the highest ground water in the world - more than the US and China.

Broadly, questions over water fall into four buckets: first, over ownership - who owns water and what can we do to get less fuzzy on this? Second, around regulations - what are the current regulations and how effective is their enforcement? Third, around the future of regulations - considering the debate on to get water into the concurrent list etc, how will the regulations expected to shape up?

Finally, from a commercial side on entrepreneurship in this space - for players getting into water business today, what is the prospect of their sustainability given that it is bound to attract local political involvement and is an emotive issue when deciding how water can be used or cannot be used.

After all, it is a no-brainer that in the next 10 years, if not five years, supply of water is going to be a big issue. While the price of water today may not be exorbitant (in a relative sense) - a 20 litre-can of water ranges between Rs 5 and upwards of Rs 70, depending on where one is sourcing it from. Tomorrow the value of this may be significantly higher.


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