Pump and be damned

Pump and be damned

In its report released this month, Deep Wells and Prudence: Towards Pragmatic Action for Addressing Groundwater Overexploitation in India, the World Bank proposes a plan B to pull the country out from its hydrological madness.

The problem is India—which, at 230 cu. km of annual consumption, is the largest groundwater user in the world—lacks legal instruments to check its unscrupulous exploitation. With at least 60% of irrigated agriculture and 85% of drinking water supplies dependent on it, the social and economic consequences of shrinking groundwater reserves could be unprecedented.

The situation is already deteriorating to alarming proportions. A nationwide survey in 2004 conducted by the then Central Ground Water Board had revealed that 29% of groundwater blocks were already semi-critical, critical or overexploited. The number of overexploited blocks has tripled countrywide in the past decade.

If political expediency of subsidized power to farmers is anything to go by, this trend is unlikely to be reversed. According to Tushar Shah of the International Water Management Institute, the total annual economic cost of subsidized power is worth Rs26,000 crore and is growing annually at 26%. State governments know that this is madness but the political fallout of any cut in power subsidies could be fatal.

Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh had tried charging farmers for electricity, but were kicked out of office. No wonder effective regulation suffers on account of weak legislation.

Political sensitivity seems to neither warrant command and control over this estimated $8 billion sector, nor allow for extreme market measures. So the World Bank suggests a more benign pursuit, offering incremental improvements in the existing institutional framework. They suggest leveraging the limited success that community-based groundwater resource management initiatives have had in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra in engineering targeted regulation for recharging groundwater. Experience from the heavily groundwater- dependent states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh indicates that such sustainable management is feasible where the community understands groundwater’s occurrence, cycle and its limited availability. The World Bank highlights the Andhra Pradesh farmer-managed Groundwater Systems Project as a case where farmers with limited literacy skills analysed the available data to plan cropping patterns. The project did not offer any incentives in the form of cash or subsidies for this transformation.

Such cases do offer a glimmer of hope, but it isn’t the first time that groundwater replenishment has been advocated. The National Groundwater Recharge Master Plan of 2005 estimated that dedicated recharge structures can add a total of 36 cu. km to the groundwater. But with groundwater being a state subject, this plan remains on paper. Good intentions don’t always translate into action.

It must be noted that for any groundwater replenishment, a recharge zone must exist on the ground. But as Delhi’s ridge shows, there is a gap between intention and implementation. According to the Central Ground Water Authority, a 7 sq. km stretch of the ridge has the potential to recharge 3 billion litres of water from 60cm of annual rainfall. Yet, this has been choked because construction has encroached on it; 640ha of the ridge has yet to be liberated from the Delhi Development Authority and the Indian Army.

Such encroachments are widespread across the aquifer recharge zones in the country, since the Central Ground Water Authority lacks the teeth to enforce regulations. In that light, Andhra Pradesh-type community drives are mere oases. Unless there is a dramatic shift from this business as usual, 60% of all aquifers in the country will be milked to capacity in the next two decades.

Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert at The Ecological Foundation in Delhi. Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com