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Hydrological madness runs deeper
By Sudhirendar Sharma

With the world water day gone by and a hot summer in the waiting, the case of groundwater anarchy should be back into contention.


With such exploitation, can we save groundwater reserves from depletion?

That the country's groundwater reserves have shrunk beyond redemption is no breaking news. Neither the fact that electricity subsidies remain a political tool to expand electoral base is any revelation. The only surprise being that 230 cubic kilometers of annual groundwater withdrawal, the world's highest, is still largely unregulated without any credible entitlements to those who pump it. There is no check on its unstinted intensification either.

It may have worked thus far but not before pushing one-third of 6,572 groundwater blocks into 'overexploited' category. And there is no let down in the efforts to milk the remaining groundwater reserves dry if growth of affordable water extraction pumps is any indication. An estimated 27 million of such pumps are belching out groundwater, a 120 times growth in the number of pumps that existed in 1960. It is however different matter that the affordable pumps helped poor farmers break free of the hydraulic limits imposed by gravity and open channel flow.

The fact that 85 per cent of drinking water and 60 per cent of irrigation supplies are dependent on it must however warrant a serious look at the depleting resource.

In the urban centres, however, cheaper pumping devices have created groundwater anarchy. Gurgaon, the bursting suburb of Delhi with 2 million inhabitants, is a case in point wherein unrestricted number of bore wells are consistently depleting groundwater at an average rate of 2 meters per year for the last three years. Lacking authority to ban further digging of bore wells, a helpless Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) instead warns that at the present rate the city will have no ground water left by 2017.

Gurgaon is not an isolated case; groundwater anarchy has tripled across the country in the past decade. In Punjab, groundwater in 75 percent of blocks is overdrawn; in Rajasthan the corresponding portion is 60 percent; and for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu the figure is around 40 per cent. The hard-rock peninsular region is the latest hotspot, where groundwater pumping for irrigation has run the aquifers dry. In addition, excessive extraction has led to unwarranted rise in Geogenic contaminants like iron, fluoride and arsenic in groundwater.

Unrestricted drilling of borewells increases pressure on groundwater

But for the updated data, the groundwater story treads a familiar script. The fact that 85 per cent of drinking water and 60 per cent of irrigation supplies are dependent on it must however warrant a serious look at the depleting resource. The sheer number of individual beneficiaries in the country's 'informal groundwater economy' make it a formidable 'command and control challenge'. Far from attempting to manage it, the fractured policymaking and an out-of-sync bureaucracy has thus far added to the crises by following the colonial prescription.

Else, planners would not be writing new canal projects to tide over the crises which rarely help the end users. But they have done so to keep the issue of groundwater management in abeyance. Since the colonial times, civil engineering route to water management has been relentlessly pursued regardless of the fact that irrigation economy is vastly different from what the British left behind and that it doesn't respond to the groundwater recharge question. The state's failure in making common cause with the multitudes of users is baffling!

Could there be an opportunity cost of sustaining the informal water economy? Seems so, as coercive politics in the matter of groundwater governance in the past has led to electoral debacle for two Chief Ministers, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh. Consequently, political sensitivity does not warrant command-and-control over a crises-ridden US$ 8 billion groundwater sector. No wonder, the National Groundwater Recharge Master Plan of 2005 which promises 35 cu. kilometer of annual groundwater recharge remains good on paper.

The trouble with groundwater is that any reasonable hole in the ground is enough to abstract groundwater but replenishing the same can only be done through specific aquifer recharge zones.

It is seemingly free for all; own a piece of land and the vast groundwater reserves come along as a package. Farmers have been unscrupulously pumping water because power has been subsidized; beverage companies are mining groundwater because regulations don't exist; and municipalities enjoy unwritten impunity for wasteful utilisation of extracted water. It is a safety valve for millions of dispersed users that nobody dares to cap.

India's groundwater crisis is undoubtedly worsening, as policymakers seek shortcuts to redress water sector anomalies. The trouble with groundwater is that any reasonable hole in the ground is enough to abstract groundwater but replenishing the same can only be done through specific aquifer recharge zones. Without doubt, most recharge zones are either encroached upon or sold at a premium to realtors, over which the toothless CGWA has little control.

From electricity rationing to groundwater cess, from credible entitlements to vigorous enforcement and from change in cropping pattern to farmers managed groundwater systems, there are range of credible options that have been put on test. There is a need for the state to engage with people in a participatory mode, such that resource developers become resource managers. But as long as the political economy of land grab reins supreme, the life-saving fluid will be at the receiving end - both on and below the ground.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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Feedback /Comments on this article
Ground water as common property

The article 'Hydrological madness runs deeper' is timely and interesting. I agree that this is a problem of regulation. The issue of ground water is linked to the rights/ownership of land and the land owner can mine as much water as he/she wants to mine as a matter of right. The issue is complicated further due to the subsidies for tubewells, subsidies on electricity etc. Further, the lack of water from the irrigation structures (water diverted to industries) leading to such problems. I feel there is a need for considering 'ground water as common property' as the aquifers cannot be seen as property of the land owners. We are not sure why the draft policy of Rajasthan is under the carpet? There is a need for a larger discussion on declaring/legislating 'ground water as common property'.

Posted By: Subrata Singh
Dated: Sunday, April 04, 2010

What is the alternative?

Lack of irrigation facilities force the farmers to extract groundwater to sustain his crops and thereby livelihoods. It is a bad excuse by the political class that farmers don't want to pay for electricity. If supply is ensured, farmers won't mind paying for power. After all they pay for health, education and transport, all of which used to be very cheap.

Posted By: Kaushik Rao
Dated: Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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