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Strategies for Managing India's Groundwater

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This piece was originally posted on the Waterscapes Blog on February 11th.

Aditi Mukherji, water professional and researcher at IWMI, shares conclusions from her study on minor irrigation schemes in India.  Mukherji and her colleague Stuti Rawat found that the rate of growth of India's groundwater structures is slowing down; part of the reason may be attributed to electricity rationing.  The composition of India's groundwater sector is also changing, with fewer wells being dug wells. However, ownership of groundwater structures has not changed--most structures are owned and operated by small and marginal farmers.  Mukherji expands upon the policy implications from these findings in the following blog post.

Groundwater Irrigation in West Bengal Photo Credit: IWMI

Following up on my blog on MI Census yesterday, here are some of my preliminary thoughts on how to manage India’s groundwater economy. To repeat, there are wide regional variations in India’s groundwater economy, with some states further along the way and some lagging behind. The management strategies for the future therefore need to take these trends into account. Blanket groundwater regulations, like the one proposed by the 12th Five Year Plan, without considering that groundwater economies of eastern India are on an altogether different trajectory will not lead to sustainable and equitable regional outcomes. What could those strategies be?

Strategies for regions facing groundwater over-exploitation

The first are the regions facing groundwater over-exploitation and this covers much of northern, southern, central and western India. All these regions have one thing in common: they all lie in arid and semi-arid climatic zones characterized by low to medium rainfall leading to low natural recharge rates. The type of aquifers ranges from hard rock aquifers in much of southern, western and central India and deep alluvial aquifers in northern India. Electric tubewells are the main source of energy for water lifting devices.

Our analysis shows that none of these states require any further investments in creation of new groundwater assets and farmers here must be actively discouraged to dig new wells and tubewells.  Farmers in few states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are making intensive use of existing groundwater structures, but other states in this category are not. In these states, there is a need to make efficient use of existing groundwater structures through investments in water efficiency measures.

Primary fieldwork done in Punjab and Karnataka shows that such investments in the form of energy –efficient pumps, adoption of micro-irrigation and laser levelers have already underway. What is also happening across most of these states are separation of agricultural feeders from rural domestic feeders and investments in high voltage distribution systems which will allow rationing of high quality power to agriculture, thereby forcing farmers to make more efficient use of groundwater. Combining reduced pumping with more efficient water use will enhance crop per drop of groundwater.

Apart from innovations in groundwater sector, what is also needed is revitalization of surface water irrigation sector. All these states have made substantial investments in surface irrigation. However, at a time when farmers have become used to ‘on demand’ irrigation thanks to their tubewells, public canal irrigation systems needs to respond to farmers expectations of timely and reliable water supply. Some innovations like on-farm water storage (calleddiggies in Rajasthan and melon-on-vines in China) helps increase reliability and flexibility of canal water supplies. Further ideas on how to revitalize canal irrigation can be found here.

Rural electrification for groundwater abundant eastern India

In eastern India, where much of the topography is flat, groundwater is relatively abundant and rainfall and recharge are high.  But groundwater use is low and has contracted further from 2000-01 to 2006-06.  Investments in rural electrification are needed to will help intensify groundwater use and in the process boost agricultural productivity. In these areas, rates of pump electrification are as low as 10% it can be brought up to at least 50%.

The fact that farmers in eastern states of West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar and Assam already pay for electricity and diesel means that electricity need not be subsidized. For example, in West Bengal, all tubewells are metered and farmers pay a metered tariff which is very close to the cost of supply. Providing electricity together with investments in roads and market infrastructure will help increase agricultural production in this region. This will in turn take the pressure off regions like Punjab and Haryana which have been systematically over-exploiting their aquifers to feed the rest of India.

Intensifying agriculture in eastern India is also in tune with the overall policy thrust of the government of India. The state of West Bengal has already taken at least four policy decisions in this direction:

  • a change in Groundwater Law which will make it easier for small and marginal farmers to invest in wells and tubewells

  • reduction change in one time electricity connection charges for agricultural tubewells for the same purpose

  • one time capital cost subsidy for pump electrification to the tune of Rs. 8000 per farmer and capital cost subsidy up to Rs. 20,000 per pump set for those wanting to invest in pumps.

The state of Bihar has also launched a number of schemes such as diesel subsidy scheme, pump subsidy scheme and solar power schemes, all aimed at reducing cost of groundwater irrigation. That, small and marginal farmers own a major share of India’s groundwater resources also makes this a pro-poor strategy and can possibly pave the way for a second green revolution in eastern India. I talk more about green revolution in eastern India here and here.


From Linkedin
In India, the hydrogeological, social, economic, cultural and political factors vary greatly at local or regional scales. To manage India's groundwater economy, I think no single template for GW management can be developed due to the trend of indiscriminate exploitation induced aggregate impact of millions of individual pumping decisions and also pollution of ground water. The aquifers in India (particularly in the Ganga Basin) are likely to be in a critical condition in future if this trend continues. In order to achieve the goal of sustainable development of groundwater resources, it has to be managed by participatory water resources management taking into account the environmental as well as economic, social, geographical and political aspects and treat social & practical decisions ethically, i.e., moral principles and values that comprises of honesty, trust, treating others fairly & loyally, and govern the actions & decisions of an individual or group. There is a need to recognize these inextricable linkages, especially aggressive to GW depletion & degradation. The knowledge and status of ground water resources availability (both in terms of quantity and quality) and its use have to be systematically assessed and evaluated. It will be worthwhile to develop guidelines and policies to control opportunistic exploitation of ground water for meeting future water demand.
By Prof. Partha Sarathi Datta

I agree with Prof. P.S. Datta's comment emphasizing on deep other linkages on the issue of ground water. Economic, social, environmental and political aspects must be deeply studied for a solution. Agricultural pricing, self sustaining village economy, pollution of rivers and smaller water bodies, urbanization and its implications on our ground and surface water resources are all closely inter linked for a solution.