What is it?
- India’s groundwater resources have been overexploited, as experts have been warning for some time now.
- According to a sample assessment in 2011, groundwater in 19 of India’s 71 districts — about 26% — were critical or exploited, meaning that nearly as much or more water was being pulled out than their reservoirs’ natural recharge ability.
- In another assessment in 2013, they included groundwater blocks in districts that had gone saline, and this percentage was up to 31%.
- Groundwater is exploited unequally.
- The maximum overdraft is in the northwestern States of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.
- The latter two are key wheat granaries and, despite developed canal-networks, rely extensively on groundwater.
- The overall contribution of rainfall to the country’s annual groundwater resource is 68%, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures, taken together is 32%.
- Moreover, the population increase has meant that the national per capita annual availability of water has reduced from 1,816 cubic metre in 2001 to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011, a 15% reduction.
How has this come about?
- There are many reasons for the decline. Statistics show that right from the mid-1960s, India’s canal network was not keeping pace with farmers’ water demand.
- Therefore, many of them started installing tubewells to keep up with the needs of Green Revolution-crops that required more water and fertilizer.
- Free electricity, to pump this water, too helped.
- Over the last two decades, an overall decline in the quantum of pre-monsoon rainfall has increased dependence on groundwater. For instance, India has registered a sharp decline in its pre-monsoon rainfall this year. Between March 1 and the first week of May, the country should have got at least 70 mm of rain, but has only got 55 mm, or a 20% deficit.
- The immediate signs of deficit are visible in water storage.
- According to figures from the Central Water Commission, India’s key reservoirs are, as of this week, 10% short of their decadal average for this time of the year.
- Less water from these sources means increased pressure on India’s groundwater reserves for irrigating the summer crop, and drinking and industrial use.
- The fracas between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over sharing of Cauvery waters also has a groundwater angle.
- The Supreme Court, in a major judgment in February, directed that Tamil Nadu use 10 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of its groundwater instead of banking on Cauvery waters from Karnataka.
- The judgment even said groundwater, if not extracted regularly, “would be wasted,” thus sanctioning the use of groundwater as a reserve to be exploited at will.
Why does this matter?
- Other than groundwater being a reserve to be used judiciously, over-exploitation poses health risks. West Bengal, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand face severe problems of arsenic contamination, and one of the causes is drawing water from increasingly greater depths.
- Punjab and Haryana have for years reported a spike in cancer cases owing to chemical fertilisers leaching into the soil.
What lies ahead?
- There have been several attempts to get the States to use groundwater more responsibly.
- The Centre has a ‘model’ groundwater Bill that is not binding on the States.
- However, 11 States and four Union Territories have adopted it. But the legislation has had limited impact on groundwater exploitation.
- Last year, the Union Water Ministry brought in a Bill that would require various classes of users to pay for the groundwater they use.
- More importantly, it tries to change how groundwater is viewed as a resource.
- Currently, the owner of a piece of land is deemed the owner of the groundwater below it.
- This Bill attempts to put the State as the custodian of the groundwater.
- It remains to be seen whether the States will come around to this perspective.