M.C. Mehta Vs. Union of India – Groundwater Case – Case Summary

Equivalent Citation: (1997)11 SCC 312
Petitioner: M.C. Mehta
Respondent: Union of India and Ors. 
Bench:Kuldip Singh, J., and S. Saghir Ahmad, J.
Date of Judgment: 10/12/1996


Groundwater is the water that seeps through rocks and soil and is stored below the ground.  The rocks in which groundwater is stored are called aquifers. Aquifers are typically made up of gravel, sand, sandstone or limestone.This writ petition was filed by advocate M.C. Mehta keeping in view the depleting levels of groundwater in the country.

Proceedings and discussion 

M.C. Mehta filed this writ petition on the basis of a news report published in the Indian Express captioned “Falling Groundwater Level Threatens City,” On the basis of this report the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central Groundwater Board, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Delhi Waterworks and Sewerage Disposal Undertaking.

In reply to this notice, the Director of the Central Groundwater Board filed an affidavit. He stated in his affidavit that from 1962 onwards, the water levels in India are declining at a fast rate. From 1971 to 1983, the fall in water level was from 4m to 8m in the National Capital Territory. There was a further fall of water level from 4m to more than 8m during the period 1983 to 1985. One of the reasons stated in the affidavit for the decline of water level was the enhanced extraction of groundwater. The Supreme Court also issued a notice to the Secretary of Ministry of Water Resources and to the Government of NCT, Delhi. Various authorities filed affidavits indicating the factual position regarding the fall of water levels in the country.

The Supreme Court ordered the Director of National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI), to examine the matter at the Institute level by a team of experts in the field and file a report. NEERI filed a report indicating an overall picture of the declining water levels in India and also the various schemes and activities undertaken by various Departments of Government of India to monitor groundwater levels.The report outlined the need for regulation of extraction of groundwater and emphasized on integrated water resources management.

The Supreme Court on 21st November, 1996 passed the following order –

“One of the suggestions under consideration is to accept the NEERI recommendation and constitute an Authority under Section 3(3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. The purpose can only be achieved if it can be done on all-India basis.”

NEERI in Para 6 and Para 7 of its report gave a logical approach to Water Resources Management and recommended that a Central Water Resource Management Authority with an objective to coordinate and implement all activities of planning, development, allocation, implementation, research and monitoring of all water resources need to be established to promote intra and intergenerational equity.

The mandate of the authority was recommended to include the following:

  1. To deploy river basins as the basis for regional planning for sustainable water resource management (along with commensurate land use).
  2. To prepare medium and long-term national land use plans inter alia including agricultural practices, human settlement patterns and industrial typology in consultation with Ministries/Departments concerned based on the regional water supportive capacity.
  3. To assess the present irrigation practices and cropping patterns, with respect to high water consuming crops and lay down National Agricultural Water Use Policy to encourage judicious use of water resources.
  4. To keep under review groundwater levels and quality, and surface water quantity and quality to devise and implement pragmatic strategies at plan and program levels *
  5. To ensure maintenance of minimum flows in the rivers so as to fulfill the riparian rights, to protect the flood plains, to as also to protect the vital ecological functions of the rivers.
  6. To ensure techno-economic feasibility and to implement programs on reuse of appropriately treated sewage for agriculture, reuse of industrial wastewaters as industrial process water, use of treated sewage in social forestry and public parks in municipal areas and reuse of treated wastewater in new housing complexes for non-consumptive usages.
  7. To protect, conserve and augment traditional water retaining structures.
  8. To protect, conserve and augment natural and manmade wetlands in the country.
  9. To promote rain water harvesting in human settlement practices, particularly in cities with more than 10 lakh population in arid/semiarid regions.
  10. To promote and implement modern and traditional water harvesting technologies to ensure minimal expenditure in groundwater harnessing.
  11. To design and implement programs to arrest alarming rates of decline in snowline in the country.
  12. To ensure catchment area treatment, including construction of check dams, contour bonding, and control of river bank erosion and plantation of endemic fast-growing tree species to arrest soil and water loss in all river basins.
  13. To ensure implementation of afforestation programs for achieving a minimum of 33% forest cover as per the National Forest Policy, 1988.
  14. To prepare and implement guidelines on water rate structure for various water usages commensurate with the production and scarcity value of the resource.
  15. To ensure community participation with a view to harnessing traditional knowledge at all stages in the holological approach to water resource management.

Mr. Mehta placed an organizational chart which recommended the establishment of offices of Central Groundwater Board all over the country. The recommendation stated that the Central Government may consider issuing a notification constituting the Board itself as an Authority under Section 3(3) of the Act. With the notification designating the Board as and authority under the Act, it would have all the statutory powers under the Act and it would be in a position to have effective control all over India.

Additional Secretary of Ministry of Water Resources also filed affidavit which stated that the organizational presence of the Board in the country is efficient to undertake the responsibilities desired by this Court.

Mr. M.C. Mehta contended that keeping in view the declining level of underground water all over the country, it is necessary to regulate withdrawal of the underground water. He stated that there were legislations in 6 States to regulate the water resources development but the underground water is being exploited all over the country without any regulations. It was therefore rightly suggested by NEERI in its Report that an Authority under the Act should be constituted with the powers necessary to deal with the situation created by the depletion of the groundwater levels

Final Order

The Ministry of Environment and Forest was ordered to constitute the Central Groundwater Board as an Authority under Section 3(3) of the Act. The Authority so constituted shall exercise all the powers under the Act necessary for the purpose of regulation and control of groundwater management and development. The Central Government shall confer on the Authority the power to give directions under Section 5 of the Act and also powers to take such measures or pass any orders in respect of all the matters referred to in sub-section (2) of Section 3 of the Act.

Case Comment 

India has many legislations and agencies dealing with environment protection and preservation of natural resources. Groundwater is one such resource. However, the enforcement of such becomes a problem in our country due to rampant corruption and inefficiency of public officials. The Supreme Court in this case has done a commendable job by constituting the Central Groundwater Board as an Authority under Section 3(3). More number of agencies are difficult to regulate. Therefore, the Supreme Court in this case ensured that an already existing agency should be given more authority and power to deal with its mandate.

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