Groundwater anarchy runs deeper across the country

 Neither the fact that it has been a political tool to expand electoral base through electricity subsidies any revelation. The only surprise being that 230 cubic kilometres of annual groundwater withdrawal, the world’s highest, is largely unregulated without any credible entitlements to those who pump it. There is no check on its unstinted growth 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 up in the efforts to milk the remainder 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 a different matter that the affordable pumps helped the poor farmers break free of the hydraulic limits imposed by gravity and open channel flow.

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 borewells 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 borewells, a helpless Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) instead warns that at the present rate the city will have no groundwater 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 per cent of blocks is overdrawn; in Rajasthan the corresponding fraction is 60 per cent; 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, flouride and arsenic in 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’ makes 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.

State’s failure
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 recent past has proved an electoral debacle for two chief ministers, in Andhra and Madhya Pradesh.
Consequently, political sensitivity does not warrant command-and-control over a crises-ridden $8 billion groundwater sector. No wonder, the National Groundwater Recharge Master Plan of 2005 which promises 35 cubic kilometre of annual groundwater recharge remains good on paper.

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 subsidised; 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 crises 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 author is a water expert)

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