New Delhi: Amuch-anticipated Planning Commission report on groundwater management that came out earlier this week predictably focused on how farming and farmers need to be better managed to help deal with India’s mounting water woes.
But Okhla, the largest multi-sector industrial zone in India and a few miles from the commission’s offices, is evidence that India’s planners could be missing a key, emerging constituent of rampant abuse among water users in the country: an industry growing upwards of 10% annually.
For more than two decades, Okhla, on the outskirts of New Delhi, has been the engine of economic growth for the Capital, before satellite towns Gurgaon and Noida became homes to call centres and tech services firms. Pharmaceutical companies, automobile parts manufacturers and garment traders flocked here, eventually employing about 87,000 people and generating almost Rs300 crore a year in tax revenue for the city.
Though water-intensive, agriculture often depletes water at a rate that nature can sustain. But industries sometimes use more water in a day than what a whole farming village uses in a month
But six years ago, after a decade of sputtering and wheezing, the taps in Okhla finally ran dry.
“Day by day, the water levels kept going down,” said Harish Arora, general secretary of the Okhla Industries Association, who has run his own rubber and plastic products company, Universal Products, there since 1983. “And then finally, there was no more.”
In the early 1980s, when Okhla had less than 500 industrial units, groundwater supplies were plentiful—all Arora had to do was sink a borewell 10-20ft into the ground. By 2001, when the government placed a ban on any further tubewells, there were more than 3,500 units, and the wells went all the way down to 400ft before finding what little water remained.
All across India, Okhla’s story is familiar and playing out again and again. In cities as far apart as Nagpur and Hyderabad, just 15-20 years of industrialization has led to precious groundwater supplies being exploited far faster than nature can replenish them, leaving entire cities parched and industrial zones dependent on erratic water tankers that suck out water from nearby rivers.
The Planning Commission estimates that nearly 29% of groundwater blocks in the country are either in critical or over-exploited condition, meaning that for now, they are almost useless. “The percentage of over-exploited blocks has increased from 4% to 15% (between 1995 and 2004) making over-exploitation of groundwater a matter of concern,” wrote the apex team gu-iding the Union government.
“Everybody is responsible for this situation,” says B. M. Jha, chairman of the Central Ground Water Board, the country’s regulator for water, who has advocated a ban on groundwater exploitation in certain areas, including Okhla. “For now, the only thing that we can do is allow recharging where there is exploitation.”
Jha, who was part of the Planning Commission panel that released its report on Tuesday, insists that the situation is not alarming, but other experts say things can only get worse as India industrializes rapidly, adds dozens of so-called special economic zones, and manufacturing, beverages and other businesses suck out water quicker than can be replenished.
While the water-intensity of agriculture—farming uses about 90% of the country’s groundwater—may look like the natural culprit for India’s sinking water table, it often depletes water at a rate that nature can sustain, except in just three states, experts say. Even urban habitations use just 3% of groundwater and 9% of surface water from sources such as rivers and rains, A. Bhattacharyya, joint secretary, ministry of rural development, wrote in a recent research paper.
What is less widely known is that it is industries which are infinitely more water-intensive, sometimes using in a day what an entire farming village can use in a month. As more factories start humming in India to serve local demand, the World Bank has warned in multiple studies that the country will only become thirstier, digging deeper for water. “All industrialization in India has been on the backbone of groundwater,” said Sunita Narain, the director of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an activist non-governmental organization.
In the past 20 years, as the government encouraged the creation of Okhla-like industrial zones on the outskirts of major cities, business owners have taken advantage of an 18th century law that gives them ownership of both the water below and the air above their plots of land. Often, they paid nothing or less than a few hundred rupees a month for using thousands of litres of water each day.
At the same time, farmers embraced so-called hybrid cr-ops that were so thirsty that each hectare of farmland has consumed more water in the last 20 years than in the 60 ye-ars before it, according to the World Bank. Most of that water was sucked out from underneath the ground using incr-easingly powerful pumps and the free electricity that farmers received as subsidies, even as the country failed to harness the average 50 inches of rainfall it receives every year.
The result has been near-catastrophic: groundwater supplies are so scarce all over India that not one among its large cities, even those with a river nearby, is able to provide running water for more than a few hours a day, the World Bank said back in 2002. A survey a year later by the department of drinking water supply at the Union ministry of rural development showed that after decades of gains, almost 350,000 habitations have lost access to drinking water, mostly because groundwater supplies have dwindled, leaving hand-pumped village tubewells useless and hundred-year-old wells completely dry.
In large swathes of the country’s farmland, in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh far from the Ganges, groundwater levels have dropped by more than 4m a year between 1981 and 2000. Elsewhere, in tech capital Bangalore, where the population has grown by one-fifth in the last six years fuelled by a software outsourcing boom, it is not uncommon for residents to spend upwards of Rs1 lakh on borewell machines that drill down up to 800ft for water.
The World Bank, in another extensive October 2005 report on the country’s water scarcity, raised an alarm over the dropping levels of groundwater, which is often the only source of water for many cities in the non-monsoon months.
“Unless dramatic changes are made—and made soon—in the way in which government manages water,” said the report. “India will have neither the cash to maintain and build new infrastructure, nor the water required for the economy and for people.”
And in Delhi, where the demand for water far outstrips what the Jal Board supplies, there is no real possibility for relief: seven of the nine groundwater blocks below the vast city are in a critical condition. More hotels (and their swimming pools), massive residential colonies and air-conditioned malls have left few remaining natural sources through which groundwater supplies get recharged—lakes, marshes or small dams that collect rain water.
For Arora, who runs the rubber and plastics firm in Okhla, life has become a ritual of waiting for tankers of water to arrive. Every morning, water tankers line Okhla streets, charging between Rs750 and Rs1,500 for 10,000 litres of water, depending on the weather and the level of water in the Yamuna, the river that runs through the city.
“In Delhi, the situation is quite hopeless,” said CSE’s Narain. “But I still believe that overall, the crisis is a manageable crisis because groundwater is a replenishable resource.”
Some advocates for reform argue that an industrialized India will have to learn to treat water the way Western countries do, as a precious resource that needs to be recycled. “The coming crisis is not a crisis of shortage, it is a crisis of management,” said Ramaswami Iyer, who’s an ex-secretary of the ministry of water resources. “Industry should not just get more and more water as it wants. Instead, we should aim for a situation where 90% of the water is recycled. “
Iyer points to how Madras Fertilizers Ltd dealt with its water shortages in 1992 by agreeing to reprocess sewage water from the city of Chennai, and then cleaning up the water before transferring it to the city’s sewage plants.
Arora, in Okhla, has done the same, storing water in tanks and chilling it before running it through his machines again, reusing about 90% of the water they require. But every day he worries that the tankers of water that keep his business alive will stop showing up.
“The water in the Yamuna is drying up,” he says. “I am not sure what we will do after that is gone.”
Padmaparna Ghosh contributed to this story.