The World Bank last week released a report on the gamut of issues surrounding groundwater over-exploitation in India. While the report skirts the issue of pricing groundwater as politically sensitive and economically unsound, especially for backward rural consumers, we think charging groundwater use can act as a disincentive for its overuse and lead to conservation of one of our most threatened resources.
India is the largest groundwater user in the world, accounting for more than a quarter of the total global usage. Around 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water supplies rely on it. Yet, at least 29% of groundwater blocks in the country are under threat due to extensive overuse, according to a 2004 assessment.
That figure is likely to have increased considerably since then. Economic subsidies are the prime reason behind this overuse. Prolonged subsidies in the use of electricity has meant it is cheap to pump groundwater for agricultural and other purposes, and a poor public water delivery system has made groundwater use much more reliable. Added to this is a near complete regulatory gap on the construction of wells—it is estimated that there are at least 20 million well users now in India.
To be sure, putting a price on groundwater by removing electricity subsidies is a politically loaded issue that, given rampant vote bank politics, can make or break governments. Even assuming such a step is taken, the farmer who depends on groundwater will then need a reliable system of public water delivery and, more crucially, lesser controls on pricing agricultural produce to offset higher pumping costs and to ensure that output does not suffer. But the cavalier way in which farm produce is priced and the presence of strong farming lobbies mean this is unlikely to happen.
The problem, therefore, enmeshes issues of political interest, economic concerns, governance lapses and regulatory loopholes. Removing distortionary subsidies would be a start. But if we are to conserve groundwater, this will have to be complemented by local-level regulation and better delivery of water, not to mention targeted public investment in irrigation, something India has not seen for decades.
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