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Above: The NGT committee wants anyone destroying water bodies to be punished

An NGT panel has suggested that water bodies be given a Unique Identification Number after tracking them through the Global Positioning System in order to revive and protect them

By Ramesh Menon

India is in the midst of a water crisis. It is affecting over 100 million people. Cities like Chennai are seeing even Metro stations closing down washrooms as there is no water. Niti Aayog has warned that demand for water is going to be twice what is now available and 40 percent of the country’s population will struggle for drinking water in another decade.

Water bodies all over India are dying due to neglect. In the 1960s, Bengaluru had 262 lakes. Today, only 10 have water. In 2001, Ahmedabad had 137 lakes. By 2012, 65 were already destroyed and built upon. Hyderabad is another example. In the last 12 years, it has lost 3,245 hectares of wetlands.

A monitoring committee headed by SP Garg, a former high court judge app­ointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), has suggested that all water bodies in the National Capital Region (NCR) must be given a Unique Identification Number (UID) and put on the Global Positioning System so that they can be properly mapped, monitored and protected.

Vikrant Tongad, an environment activist and founder of Social Action for Forests and Environment, told India Legal: “The idea of issuing UIDs for every water body in NCR is welcome. Had we done it soon after Independence, we would not have been in such a sorry state. However, just issuing UIDs is not enough. There must be real time monitoring of encroachment by the district administration which must swing into action to stop it. Areas which have been encroached must be transformed to revive the water bodies they earlier had.”

The committee told an NGT bench headed by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel that water bodies should be secured by boundary walls and their details entered into revenue records. Those who were defaulting or destroying them need to be penalised, it suggested.

The committee told the court that it found that most of the lakes it visited were affected by eutrophication, which happens when water bodies are starved of oxygen and become overly enriched with minerals and nutrients, resulting in excessive growth of harmful algae and aquatic weeds. This disturbs the ecology of the water body.

To make it worse, polythene, plastic bottles and other material had been dumped into the lakes. To clean up these water bodies and enforce regulation, there must be dedicated staff, the panel said.

It also recommended that CCTV cameras be installed at prominent places to detect polluters. Signboards or banners prohibiting throwing of waste should be put up near the lakes, warning polluters of legal action and prosecution, it said.

Last year, the Delhi government admitted that out of around 1,200 water bodies in the city, some 600 could be revived. While the Delhi Jal Board is attempting to revive 200 of them, the irrigation and flood control department is trying to revive another 100. In July last year, the NGT directed Haryana to restore 123 water bodies in Gurugram and Faridabad districts and assign UIDs to them.

India was earlier blessed with diverse and distinctive water bodies that helped maintain an ecological balance and meet the water requirements of millions. Over time, these got neglected and were destroyed with piped water coming in. Many were encroached by illegal construction, with authorities looking the other way. Rapid urbanisation added to the problem, as in areas like Jaipur, traditional water harvesting systems and rivulets to carry rainwater were blocked by buildings being built over them.

Environmentalists have clearly blamed the destruction of water bodies for flash floods witnessed in Mumbai, Uttarakhand, J&K and Chennai. Other lakes and rivers have more poisonous sewage and industrial effluents than water.

The Yamuna in Delhi is a stark example of how an erstwhile clean river has now become a gutter. Health activists have warned that fish and vegetables that survive on water from the Yamuna must not be consumed as they contain heavy metals that come from industrial effluents.

SK Sarkar, a Distinguished Fellow and Senior Director, Natural Resources and Climate, The Energy and Resources Institute, and former secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, said that a wetland ecosystem would aid the treatment of wastewater in a natural way. Wetlands have important ecological functions such as maintaining the groundwater table and preventing excessive soil erosion. It also captures run-off and clean water. For instance, the East Kolkata Wetland acts as a kidney for Kolkata for its wastewater treatment, and has 254 sewage-fed fisheries, garbage farming fields and agricultural land, he said.

There are innovative water management solutions as individuals like Anna Hazare in Maharashtra and Rajendra Singh in Rajasthan have shown. Both created water bodies in areas that are drought-prone. They used traditional knowledge to do so, using the help of villagers and not the government.

Sadly, this has not been replicated in other parts of the country though it is quite simple. It might catch on as the water crisis will soon get more serious in the hinterland as wells run dry.

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