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New Groundwater Regulations in India to impact existing Coca-Cola, Pepsi plants

The latest guidelines could put an end to the excessive and destructive groundwater usage by industries that were “grandfathered in” under the last guidelines.

The new guidelines, brought by the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) – the national groundwater regulatory agency – become effective on November 16, 2015 and are significant because they will apply to industries using groundwater regardless of when the industry was established.

According to India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization, this has been one of their key demands and has campaigned to hold beverage companies accountable for excessive and unsustainable groundwater usage across India.

The India Resource Center and allies succeeded in getting Coca-Cola’s plans for expansion of its bottling plant in Mehdiganj, Varanasi rejected in August 2014 because the older CGWA guidelines prohibited bottling operations in areas where the groundwater was declared as over-exploited – but only for new and expansion projects (defined as those after November 15, 2012, the date of the last guidelines).

Campaigns across India challenging unsustainable use of groundwater by industries that were established prior to November 15, 2012 were frustrated by the lack of tangible regulations that could be used to end the blatant abuse of groundwater resources, particularly in severely water stressed areas declared as over-exploited by the government. Of particular note is Coca-Cola’s egregious bottling operation in Kala Dera in Jaipur since 2000 where the groundwater was declared over-exploited in 1998 and Coca-Cola continues to mine groundwater even today despite the devastating consequences.

Under the new guidelines, all industries that use groundwater and do not have approval from the Central Ground Water Authority now have to apply to the CGWA to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for groundwater withdrawal “with immediate effect”.

The new guidelines also have a separate category for “ Water Intensive Industries” which includes more stringent regulations for groundwater usage by industries such as soft drinks, bottled water, breweries, distilleries, paper & pulp, fertilizers and others, and prohibit extraction of groundwater by such industries in over-exploited areas. The stricter regulations for water intensive industries are the result of various community-led campaigns across India against companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico which have highlighted the unsustainable mining of groundwater in water stressed areas and sought restrictions.

“The new guidelines are a significant step forward but a lot depends on whether the CGWA will apply the guidelines in letter and spirit for existing industries in water stressed areas, particularly over-exploited areas. It is time for the government to stop water intensive industrial operations in over-exploited areas, as communities across India have been demanding for years. The new guidelines allow for such action immediately”, said Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, that has raised the issue of strengthening the guidelines on industrial groundwater usage with the CGWA and other agencies repeatedly over the last three years.

The new guidelines do allow for industrial use of groundwater in water stressed areas, and the quantum of groundwater permitted is contingent upon the amount of groundwater recharged by the industry. But the guidelines fail to stipulate measuring and monitoring mechanisms for groundwater recharge, and the guidelines are open to abuse by industries unless a rigid measuring and monitoring system is also articulated and implemented.

“Given our experience, we cannot expect that the government will take action on its own, it will have to be pushed. But we now have a much better, legally tenable path available to us, thanks largely to the community driven movements across the country that has moved the CGWA and the Ministry of Water Resources to bring in stronger guidelines applicable to all industries that mine groundwater”, said Srivastava.

Groundwater is a state subject in India, and the CGWA guidelines are applicable only to states that do not have well developed groundwater governance regimes.