Drill First, Ask Questions Later

The typical way to deal with dysfunctional urban governance in India – assuming you have the money – is to opt out. You buy a diesel generator. You drill a well. You live and work well outside the city center to avoid the traffic. . . at least until the city you left behind swallows you up. Or, in the case of Gurgaon, a swanky suburb of Delhi, the water runs out.

Gurgaon’s water table has been dropping by over a meter a year. Most of the natural lakes in the region are gone. The monsoon has been disappointing this year, so many residents are now relying on water tankers. Such residents, who bought “villas” on “sprawling greens” in a region with no surface water, are rightly (if somewhat hypocritically) alarmed.

And they just scored a win in court. The State high court just prevented the local development authority from issuing new development permits if the developers cannot certify they won’t use groundwater in the construction.

Okay, so it’s a partial victory – the target of the suit is the short-term construction impacts, not the long-term impacts of building Southern California in North India. That being said, it’s another sign that the while the sun may not be setting on the Wild West days of Indian real estate development, it’s at least starting to feel like midafternoon. Here’s what those crazy tree-huggers at the Economic Times had to say:

This ban may come as a jolt to many but the real issue at stake is larger than just construction in Gurgaon. It goes to the very heart of what kind of urbanisation we want in India. Should urbanisation proceed heedless of basic issues like where the water is going to come from and where the sewage will flow to? Clearly not. Urbanisation of this kind might seem like development in the short run but is obviously not sustainable since it puts an unbearable strain on natural resources.

Gurgaon isn’t alone in pulling the plug on the bring-your-own-straw party.

In Bangalore, anyone could drill a well without a permit until, hmm. . . let’s see. . . last week. Some parts of town are now at 176% exploitation – that is, sucking up water nearly twice as fast as it can be recharged. Like the Haryana ruling, however, the new rules are a small step on a long, hot, dusty road. Because water draw will be metered and capped, the main effect will be felt by the private tanker operators (and the customers that depend on them. Permits will provide much-needed data as well as to create an opportunity for low-level functionary to pocket what they consider much-needed bribes. (Think I’m cynical? Check out ipaidabribe.com .) Unfortunately, the registration fees are quite low (between about $1 and $10), so what it it won’t do is create a disincentive to opt out of the public system. And it stands true in the U.S. as well as India that when everyone opts out and games the system, pretty soon you don’t have a system to game anymore.

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2 thoughts on “Drill First, Ask Questions Later

  1. Rachel, Would you please explain what you meant by Southern California in Northern India? I didn’t understand that, of course, because I don’t know one side of the analogy.
    Also, what court ruling win did you refer to?

    • Hey Anurag,
      Southern California is a semi-arid climate where people build really big houses on really green lawns. It’s also often used as a symbol for unsustainable, auto-dependent development. The court ruling is cited in the article but I didn’t read it myself; it was the Punjab & Harayana high court.

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