New Delhi: Taking advantage of a loophole in the guidelines issued by the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) pertaining to groundwater extraction, massive quantities of it are being exploited without clearances by silica sand washing plants across the country. Silica sand, which is the primary raw material for glass manufacturing industries, is mined in different states of the country including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Silica is also used for the purpose of smelting in furnaces of iron-cast foundries owing to its high melting point.
Guidelines issued by the CGWA in November 2015 enlist 14 different activities under the category of ‘water intensive industries’, that is, industries using groundwater as raw material. This list, contained in Annexure 5 of the guidelines, includes packaged drinking water industries, mineral water plants, tanneries, distilleries, breweries, soft drinks, paper and pulp industries, fertilisers, textile dyeing, textile printing, textile spinning, sugar, dairy product, and water park and amusement centres.
The list, however, does not include silica sand washing plants under the category of water intensive industries. In these plants, groundwater extracted through tube wells is used to separate silica from its ore through ‘beneficiation’ – a process in which sand is washed through a sieve into large tanks to separate silica from the gangue material. Silica, which settles at the bottom of the tank along with the water after passing through the sieve, is further purified through several repetitions of the washing procedure.
As per legal experts working in the field of environment as well as environmental activists, no official data exists to establish the exact quantity of water required for washing each metric ton of silica sand that is mined. However, a panel of experts constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to study the extent of groundwater extraction by silica sand washing plants in one particular silica-rich area of Uttar Pradesh – Shankargarh block under Prayagraj (Allahabad) district – found massive exploitation of natural groundwater by 83 medium and small silica sand washing plants operating there.
Also read: No Immediate Assessment, Env Min Allows Transfer of Old Environmental Clearances to New Miners.
The three-member panel, comprising senior officials of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), UP Pollution Control Board and Central Ground Water Board, conducted a field study in July 2019. As per the panel’s estimates, approximately 550 cubic metres (that is, 5.50 lakh litres) of groundwater were being exploited by these 83 washing units on a daily basis.
Around 70 to 100 litres of water per head per day (lphd) are enough to meet drinking and domestic use needs of a population of up to 20,000 persons, as per a CGWA notification that has been framed in accordance with the National Building Code of 2016. Using this parameter, the amount of natural groundwater extracted daily by the washing units in Shankargarh block alone can meet daily needs of 5,500 persons assuming that each individual utilises his or her full quota of 100 litres of water per day.
“It can emphatically be said that the plants involved in washing silica sand also fall within the ambit of the term ‘water intensive industries’ as groundwater is used as raw material for washing silica sand. Reports submitted by the three-member panel do not deny the fact that these plants are water intensive industries. Like tannery units, these plants should mandatorily obtain no-objection certificates from the Central Ground Water Authority before extracting groundwater. In future, the CGWA can amend its guidelines to include silica sand washing units as water-intensive industries,” said environment lawyer Parul Gupta.
A petition regarding groundwater exploitation by silica sand washing plants – and the adverse environmental consequences thereof in Shankargarh of UP – is at present being adjudicated upon by the NGT. The petition had been filed by UP-based social organisation Jagriti Sansthan, which works in the fields of social, economic and environmental issues, last year. The green tribunal had formed the three-member panel, which has been referred to in the paragraphs above, to inspect silica sand washing plants operating in Shankargarh on the basis of issues raised by this organisation in its petition.
The panel, in its report submitted to the tribunal, recommended for making it mandatory upon silica sand washing units to obtain clearance from the CGWA before exploiting groundwater. On the basis of the panel’s report, the tribunal ordered for the immediate closure of 71 of the 83 industries operating in the area for the lack of necessary clearances (consent to operate) from the competent authority, that is, UP Pollution Control Board.
“There has been no decision yet, however, on whether the sand washing units should obtain clearances for extraction of groundwater,” said Ram Kishore, Director, Jagriti Sansthan.
The case pertaining to Shankargarh block holds the key to arrive at a decision on whether no-objection certificates are required from the CGWA for extraction of groundwater by silica sand washing plants across the country.
The CGWA has classified Shankargarh block as a ‘safe’ zone in its latest data on state of groundwater resources potential which had been compiled in the year 2017. Shankargarh is also not included by the CGWA within those areas across the country which have been ‘notified’ for the purpose of regulation of groundwater development.
However, major and medium industries operating in ‘safe’ zones within areas not ‘notified’ by the CGWA are also required to obtain no-objection certificates for groundwater extraction. The CGWA guidelines mention that granting of no-objection certificates in ‘safe’ zones is subject to adoption of mechanisms put in place to ensure artificial recharge. The guidelines further make it mandatory upon industries operating in safe zones to ensure 40% of the waste water is used for recycling or reuse.
Also read: Water Crisis Intensifies in Urban as Well as Rural UP
“Waste water is not recycled by these industries. Shankargarh block abuts the Bundelkhand area of eastern Uttar Pradesh and faces drought-like situation during summers when tankers are deployed by the local municipal body to supply potable water to households. Under no circumstances can the block be categorised under the ‘safe zone’ for extracting groundwater,” added Kishore.
In January this year, the green tribunal ordered the Divisional Commissioner of Prayagraj (Allahabad) to conduct a re-assessment, in association with the CGWA and UP Pollution Control Board, of the availability of water levels in Shankargarh block in order to ascertain whether the area is fit to be declared as a ‘safe zone’. The tribunal had further ordered upon the state government to shut down those units which do not have CGWA clearances for extracting groundwater.
The central government has exempted ‘activities incidental to mining operations’ from the 21-day nationwide lockdown to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, enforced from the midnight of March 25. Mining of silica sand and operation of washing plants have therefore continued unabated. However, the case scheduled to be heard on April 21 following the action taken report of the state government now hangs in balance.
The author is an independent journalist.