India’s neglected groundwater crisis


  • India’s over-exploitation of groundwater is contributing to—as stated by NITI Aayog—“the worst water crisis in its history”. 

World Water Development Report:

  • Groundwater is one of the most important water sources in India accounting for 63% of all irrigation water and over 80% of the rural and urban domestic water supplies.
  • In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Water Development Reportstates that India is the largest extractor of groundwater in the world.
  • Fifty-four percent of India’s groundwater wells have declined over the past seven years, and 21 major cities are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020. Thus, India faces a dual challenge: to regulate the growing demand for groundwater while replenishing its sources. 

Subsidies on electricity

  • are thought to play a central role in the Indian groundwater crisis.
  • The vast majority of groundwater pumps are unmetered, and if charged, are billed at a flat, non-volumetric, and highly subsidized tariff .
  • This flat rate is responsible, at least in part, for inefficient usage and excessive withdrawal of groundwater
  • In addition, the government encourages farmers to produce water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane through increased minimum support prices (MSP). 

MSP has led to assured incomes

Need of the hour:

  • We require policies that promote judicious use of groundwater.
  • Although there are a number of potential interventions in the area of groundwater conservation, there are hardly any rigorous evaluations.
  • In absence of rigorous research, such as randomized evaluations, which can establish the causal impact of an intervention, it is a challenge to identify solutions that are highly effective.
  • However, researchers could draw lessons from existing solutions, and use them to design interventions that could later be rigorously evaluated. 

Reducing electricity subsidies

  • An analysis of panel data across 370 districts in India found that a reduction in electricity subsidy was correlated with a decrease in groundwater extraction
  • On average, a 10% reduction in electricity subsidy generated a 6.7% decrease in groundwater extraction
  • In order to avoid adversity on farmers, the government(s) can limit the electricity subsidy offered to farmers and compensate them with a direct cash transfer for every unit they save
  • This provides farmers an incentive to use groundwater judiciously without any additional cost to the government
  • The government of Punjab has entered into a partnership with a private company to conduct a randomized evaluation to test this model

Encouraging farmers to adopt micro-irrigation techniques

  • Techniques such as drip irrigation and micro-sprinklers can be used
  • According to the CWMI report, adopting micro-irrigation techniques can save roughly 20% of the groundwater used annually on irrigation in India
  • A study by has shown that the adoption of drip irrigation increased in areas where less water-intensive crops such as banana, grapes and coconut were grown
  • The adoption of drip irrigation was higher in regions where water and labour were scarcer
  • It would be prudent for policymakers and researchers to encourage adoption of drip irrigation practices and rigorously evaluate its impact on groundwater levels in such areas

Creating a bottom-up approach to conserve groundwater

  • This can be done by empowering the local community to become active participants in managing groundwater
  • In line with this, the central government in its 12th five-year plan proposed a policy of participatory groundwater management (PGM), which involves a collaborative approach among government departments, researchers, NGOs and community members
  • The plan involves training community workers to carry out aquifer mapping and implement innovative ways to use groundwater conservatively with the local community

Way Forward:

  • Groundwater has helped India overcome food shortage in the 1960s by playing an instrumental role in ushering in the green revolution. However, the NITI Aayog CWMI report is a timely reminder of the need for policymakers and researchers to come together and conduct rigourous evaluations in order to understand what works and what doesn’t work for groundwater conservation.


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