Summer of 2016 saw thirteen Indian states grappling with severest drought greatly fueling the ongoing depletion of aquifers. Then the supposedly surplus southwest monsoon also fell short by 3 per cent further stressing the falling groundwater table. At the same time the pollution of surface water sources, which function as recharge point for ground water, went uninterrupted.
All through the year, Central and many State Governments unveiled several new plans and projects targeting the sustainable consumption of groundwater. The judiciary made various orders to reign in illegal extraction of the finite resource. However, the situation continued to deteriorate.
Consumption Up; Depletion On
Groundwater is central to the water sector in India. At present 65 per cent of the total agriculture area is irrigated by the groundwater. It caters to about 85 per cent l drinking water supply in rural areas and meets almost 60-65 per cent of the urban water needs and supplies about 55 per cent of the industrial demand. With surface water sources dwindling, people have shifted to unregulated tapping of ground water for agriculture and drinking leading to levels dipping by 3 times over the last 60 years. Groundwater based irrigation underpins India’s agriculture. India is rapidly moving towards becoming water crisis.
Revealing the grim situation, a Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) 2011 report found that about 50 per cent of groundwater in country is contaminated. The CGWB has categorized 62.2% of the total assessment units of 6,600 blocks, mandals and taluks as over exploited. The report also said that 276 districts have high levels of fluoride, 387 report nitrates above safe levels and 86 districts have high levels of arsenic.
The groundwater board also said that contaminated water caused 10 million cases of diarrhea, 740,000 cases of typhoid and 150,000 viral-hepatitis cases between 2007 and 2011 and as many as 650 cities and towns lie along polluted rivers, which contaminate groundwater.
The latest CGWB 2016 report, finds that only 35 per cent of monitoring wells have registered some rise in water level whereas it declined in 64 per cent of the wells. Average water levels in January 2016 were found lower than the average water level between 2006 and 2015. The CGWB has hinted at further increase in number of over exploited zones.
According to a United Nation report, behind the trend of falling water levels is India’s 251 cubic kilometer (cu km) annual groundwater extraction rate–equivalent to 26 times the water stored in the Bhakra Dam–making India the world’s biggest consumer of groundwater.
According to Government excessive withdrawal of ground water were responsible for decline in ground water levels and in many areas groundwater recharge was reduced due to varied and erratic rainfall pattern as well as change in land use.
Central Government Efforts
Aquifer Mapping CGWB has been implementing a plan in which aquifer mapping is a component. In Feb 2016 the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR for short) reviewed the national aquifer management project. Under the project the MoWR has targeted to map about 23 lakh sq. km of aquifers across.
Under the 12th Plan period an area of 8.89 lakh sq.km was targeted for mapping but that mapping could be completed for only 1.04 lakh sq. km area till December 2015. Similarly, the target for 2016 was set as 2.38 lakh sq.km area, out of that 2.28 lakh sq. km area was mapped till March, 2016. Mapping in Haryana is reported to be completed by May, 2016.
For next 5 year period (2017-2022) the govt. has proposed to undertake mapping an area of 14 lakh sq.km. The States selected in the first phase included Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telengana where the ground water situation has reached a critical level. The final objective of the programme is to prepare Management Plans to identify the recharge and other measures to replenish the declining trend of groundwater.
In Feb 2016 the Union Water Ministry organized Jal Manthan-2 to discuss the ground water conservation and need for a National Legislation on water, however, critical voices were kept out of the meeting. The first Jal Manthan was organized in July 2014.
Restructuring of CWC & CGWB In a significant move, restructuring of Central Water Commission (CWC) and CGWB to pave way for a National Water Commission (NWC) was proposed in this meeting with an idea to manage water resources in holistic manner. Officials in favor of the decision said that adequate attention had not been given to management of ground water till now, leading to indiscriminate pumping. It was also revealed that despite elaborate emphasis on large irrigation projects the result was sub-optimal.
A team under Mihir Shah, a former member of the then Planning Commission of India, was already preparing a blueprint for better management of water resources. The idea of institutional restructuring is said to have the backing of this panel. The panel was likely to submit its report in the next two months while the restructuring was expected to be completed within 2016 itself. The Prime Minister’s Office was also learnt to be in favor of formation of NWC merging the CWC and CGWB. But the civil engineers and hydrologists from CWC were reported as opposing to the restructuring.
See a detailed submission on the issue that was presented before the Mihir Shah Committee, on invitation, by SANDRP Coordinator in January 2016 and this was submitted in this form to the committee on February 2, 2016. Shripad Dharmadhikary has drawn attention to some of the major shortcomings of recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee on restructuring of CWC & CGWB. Nirmal Sengupta too has observed some blind spots including non-inclusion of water bodies and absence of floodplain zoning in the proposal and recommended word of cautions. Rajeswari S Raina argued that the Mihir Shah committee governance reforms, though essential, were not enough to enable the paradigm shift necessary for sustainability and ecological justice.
Groundwater Budget Union Government in March 2016 while increasing the budget allocation for Groundwater Scheme by 85 per cent, has separately proposed a Rs 6000 crores major program for sustainable management of ground water resources through multilateral funding.
New Water Bills The Ministry of Water Resources in May 2016 inviting comments from States and stakeholders released a model bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of groundwater and a draft bill National Water Framework (NWF) Bill 2016.
The model bill aimed to ensure groundwater security and proposes a penalty for its misuse. It also had provisions to charge a fee for industrial and bulk use of groundwater. The bill said that industrial or bulk groundwater use shall be priced and a water rate set by the appropriate government and funds collected under this section would be used for groundwater conservation and augmentation activities. As per the bill industries could only use recycled water, and activities such as gardening would require the use of treated sewage water.
Experts doubted over the utility of the bills as water was a State subject and States were free to adapt, enact and implement them. Even if the adopt them, they would remain like a guideline for states to follow and could not be strictly enforceable law. They claimed that water management could not be seen in isolation of policies that promote balanced, sustainable practices in both rural and urban spaces. The draft NWF Bill 2016 also faced criticism for showing globally challenged reductionist arithmetic hydrological approaches towards determining environmental flows in the rivers.
In same month, the ministry also unveiled a draft bill titled National Groundwater Management Improvement Program (NGMIP) to build on current national and state efforts targeted at the long term goal of reducing groundwater level decline. Five states were selected to participate in the program—Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, Karnataka, and Rajasthan. New states could be added through the implementation period. The current states were selected as they had some of the most heavily exploited groundwater areas in the country.
The Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) also mulled over a national Water Mapping Program aimed at finding groundwater hot spots, mapping the structures, and measuring salinity and other characteristics. With a funding of Rs 25 crore from Water Ministry the CSIR had already carried out pilot surveys for aquifer mapping in Rajasthan desert, Indo-Gangetic Plains in Bihar, the Deccan trap region in Maharashtra, South Indian granites in Tamil Nadu, and the east coast sedimentary zone in Karnataka.
To promote discussions on groundwater recharge potentials through palaeo channels, CGWB in June 2016 organized one day workshop on the issue. According to report CGWB had already organized three such workshops at Ahmadabad (July 2015), Allahabad (October 2015) and Jodhpur (March 2016). Similarly, during Bhujal Manthan-2 workshop in November 2016, the Water Ministry decided to come out with a draft model law to conserve ground, surface and rain water and increase use of treated water for non-potable purposes. A committee would be formed to suggest ways to conserve fast depleting groundwater levels through aquifer recharge, particularly in drought-hit areas such as Marathwada and Bundelkhand. The committee was expected to submit its report in a month.
Notably, the decline in groundwater level had prompted the Centre in 2013 to come out with a master plan for artificial recharge of ground water, specifying how different states would go about it on priority. But majority of the States have not implemented the master plan. Only six states –Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka have taken follow-up actions despite the fact that the number of ‘dark’ units increased from 802 in March 2009 to 1,071 in March 2011.
Other Relevant Decisions by Central Government
In January 2016, the Environment Ministry notified stricter environment standards for sugar industries operating in various states in the country to minimize water pollution. The new standards made it compulsory for industries to discharge water through one dedicated point to facilitate online monitoring protocol through the sensor-based centralized system. The protocol has also made it obligatory for the industry to install flow-meters at all water abstraction points to minimize the fresh water usage.
In January 2016, the Central Government decided to create one millions farm ponds and wells in next two years across the country. In March 2016, admitting fall in ground water table in many parts of country PM Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat talk show promised to construct five lakh farm ponds to augment water for irrigation. Again in April 2016, the PM talked on drought and water crisis in the country but provided no clarity why we are here, there is not even an acknowledgement of seriousness of the crisis, nor any clearly defined road map that the Government would follow to tackle this.
As per 4th Minor Irrigation Census the total number of water bodies for minor irrigation in the country was 523816 in 2006-07, of which 443688 were in use and 80128 were not in use. See the detail fund released to different States for restoration of the water bodies here.
In March 2016, the Union Cabinet approved US $ 1,500 million project of World Bank Support to Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G). The Central Government was also learnt diverting National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) funds to the SBM. There were reports revealing that non-availability of water had hit the mission adversely.
The Union Cabinet in April 2016 approved implementation of the National Hydrology Project (NHP) with an outlay of over Rs 3679 crore to set up a centralized system for water resource management. The project is also expected to assist in promoting “efficient and equitable” use of water, especially groundwater, down to the village level and provide information on quality of water as well.
In June 2016, the Central Government decided to make public the performance water conservation works done by various State Governments in 2015-16. The Rural Development Ministry also demanded for more funds against the Rs 38,500 crore allocated in the 2016-17 Budget for water conservation works like building farm ponds, canals, bunds, revitalising traditional water resources, and other such projects. Same month, a MoU was signed between India and Tanzania for bilateral cooperation to enhance cooperation in water harvesting, surface and groundwater management and development and aquifer recharge.
In September 2016, Environment Minister Anil Dave linked the rampant extraction of ground water to the free electricity supplied to farmers and mooted a fresh approach towards rivers and water bodies to impose discipline on water consumption. The Minister also said free electricity has made people drill deeper to get water for irrigation and is turning large parts of States such as Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana barren.
GROUND WATER SITUATION: Punjab The land of five rivers is starting at a dark future on the water front. Tube wells are being bored at between 300 and 400 feet. Every year, the level is reported falling down by 10 feet. CGWB has declared 110 blocks out of 145 as “dark zones” notifying nearly 45 per cent of the blocks. Against the national average of just over 40 per cent area under agriculture, Punjab has over 83 per cent of cropped area. The paddy crop in the State guzzles 10 times more water than other crops. Further 73 per cent of irrigation is being done through ground water resulting in fast depletion.
Groundwater accounts for 1.2 million hectare meters (38 per cent) of the total water available (3.13 million hectare meters) in the State. The 80 per cent area of the state had witnessed an average level of 200 feet or deeper. Experts have been warning of a sharp fall in the agricultural output and a severe shortage of drinking water if efforts are not made to regulate the use of water for agriculture, industrial and domestic purposes.
Alarmed by the reports the Punjab’s Local Bodies Department in April 2016 restricted the use of water; the state proposing penalties for the violators. Official statistics revealed that the water level had dipped in 80 per cent of the total area in the state. In May 2016 Local Bodies Minister asked the Industries Department to regulate the use of groundwater by the plants manufacturing beer and distilled spirit. Official figures for the 2015-16 financial year (up to January 2016) revealed that around 3 lakh kilolitres of distilled spirit was produced at 16 distilleries across the state at the cost of about 60 lakh kilolitres of water. The figures did not include the groundwater consumed by the three breweries and 22 bottling plants in the state.
The same month, Government decided to use more canal water for potable use and contaminated ground water for other purposes. A sum of Rs 310 crore is given for this purpose for 140 villages in Moga and 36 villages in Barnala districts suffering from higher iron and fluoride concentration. In Doaba and Majha regions potable water is being withdrawn from 600 feet deep through 5000 tube wells.
In March 2016 the Government announced to allow 1.25 lakh new tube well connections for irrigation. Punjab already has 12.76 lakh electricity operated tube well connections and and 1.50 lakh diesel operated tube wells. The total agricultural land in the state is around of 42 lakh hectares, of which around 11 Lakh hectares is under canal irrigation. If new tube wells connections are added, the 11 lakh farmers in state would be using over 15.5 lakh tube wells.
According to Director Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) the release of 1.25 lakh tube well connections would cost over Rs 500 crore. In 2015-16, the Government waived off Rs 5,484 crore as power bills of farmers. Even in the Annual Revenue Requirement for 2016-17, the PSPCL has mentioned that the “power subsidy for agriculture sector (AP consumers) will jump from the existing Rs 6,000 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 6,500 crore” in 2016-17.
During the paddy season, power consumption is peaked between 9000 to 11000 MW which otherwise, it varies between 3500 to 5000 MW. Department helpline number 1921 normally receives over 1 lakh power supply related complains per month but complaints during the paddy season often rise to 2-3 lakh a month. The decision is feared to deplete the water table and increase the power demand by 12-15 percent.
Experts fear that this scheme would encourage farmers to go for more paddy cultivation dealing a setback for crop diversification scheme. Already, the area under cotton in the state has gone down by over 1.5 lakh ha compared with last year. Despite all crop diversification efforts the area under rice cultivation remained about 28 lakh ha in 2016.
Punjab Agricultural University in June 2016 advised farmers to restrict Basmati sowing to less than 5 lakh ha; it was cultivated on 8.62 lakh ha in 2014-15. The cultivation of basmati on 7.60 lakh ha during 2015-16 led to a crash in basmati prices. In 2015, Punjab produced 180 lakh tonnes of paddy. Now, the State Agriculture Department estimates record paddy harvest of 186 lakh metric tonnes for the 2016-’17. At present, only 1 per cent of total cultivable land in Punjab is under drip irrigation.
Notably Punjab has hardly received above-normal rain for the past one decade. The state witnessed drought in 2014 as rainfall deficit was 50 per cent. Rainfall was deficient in 2012, 2009 and 2007 as well, but farmers saved their crop by running all 14 lakh tube wells. In sharp contrast, the average annual rainfall in Punjab is 650 mm-700 mm which has declined in the last two decades, putting an additional burden on groundwater, as farmers have sunk deeper tube wells to irrigate their paddy fields.
CGWB fears that if the present trend continues, then 50 blocks in 14 districts of Punjab may completely run out of groundwater in the next one decade. The mapping of Punjab’s aquifers is underway and is expected to be completed by next year. This will give a clear picture of the state of its aquifers.
GROUND WATER SITUATION: Haryana In February 2016 Haryana was reported to be the first State to complete the mapping of underground aquifers. Haryana was among the eight States selected for scientific mapping in the first phase. The State Agriculture Department in July 2016 claimed that 18 districts out of 21 had witnessed alarming decline in the water level in the state since June 1974. There were a total of 71 overexploited blocks across the state where groundwater had been exploited above 100 per cent while 15 blocks were listed in critical category and 7 blocks were in semi-critical category.
Interestingly, as per Central Soil Salinity Research Institute around 10 per cent of the State’s land had water table less than three meter deep hitting the 9 districts with the twin problem of soil salinity and water logging. As per Haryana Kisan Aayog report (2013), out of 44.21 lakh hectares of area in state, more than 50,000 hectares was having shallow water table turning it into a waste land. The problem was being aggravated by the use of ground water, which was either saline or alkaline in two thirds of the state.
According to Agriculture Minister, the groundwater level was dropping by 21 centimeters every year in paddy-growing areas resulting in the increase of dark zones. In many areas, the groundwater level has dropped by eight meters in last five years. The water intensive cropping pattern of wheat and paddy, had severely affected the fertility of farming land and the use of organic fertilizers was limited to 20 per cent.
GROUND WATER SITUATION: Uttar Pradesh In December 2016, replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, Union Water Minister Uma Bharati revealed that out of 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh, 34 districts are over-exploited for groundwater on the basis of 2011 assessment report. According to report, Shamli and Pratapgarh districts top the list, with groundwater exploitation rate exceeding 140%, followed by Saharanpur (132%), Firozabad (117%) and Agra (113%). State capital Lucknow along with Aligarh, Allahabad, G B Nagar, Ghaziabad, Kanpur (city), Kasganj, Kaushambi, Mathura, Meerut, and Varanasi among others.
According to Jal Nigam, Agra is losing 700,000 litres of groundwater reserves daily because of indiscriminate extraction. The Jal Nigam supplies over 310 million litre water daily (MLD) to a population of around 18 lakh in the urban areas of the district through 60 tube wells and estimates that scores of illegal borings in the city extract more than 300 MLD water. Scientists say dependency on groundwater has increased in the state from 67 per cent to 80 per cent over a decade. As per State Agriculture Department more than 70 per cent of farm irrigation is being done by using groundwater.
In Agra, the situation is grim as the groundwater level continues to deplete at an alarming rate due to unregulated and excessive extraction and relentless concretization of green zones. According to officials, out of the 15 blocks in the districts under Agra division, 10 are in over exploited category while one block has been listed as critical. A recent survey has also found that industrial units are consuming excessive quantity of groundwater. On a daily basis, they are taking 18 times more water than the total water requirement of the entire human population of the district.
OTHER DEVELOPMENTS: Conservation Efforts According to August 2016 report farmers of the country’s first solar cooperative at Dhundi village in Gujarat were opting to sell water to neighbouring farmers. The cooperative is learnt to have found that selling water to famers is 2.5 times more profitable than selling power to companies. Some of them even have laid PVC pipes routing water to neighbouring farms. The cooperative was formed to check the falling groundwater table however it seems the opposite has happened. Similarly, India Water Portal report shows in absence of proper management and cultivation of water intensive crops the prolonged water harvesting efforts were failing in Tijara block of Alwar district of Rajasthan.
Sugarcane As per a study, in the last 10 years, cane cultivation has increased 103%, from 2.21 lakh hectares to 4.5 lakh hectares. The annual increase was roughly 6 per cent. The sowing area of wheat, one of the two major winter crops, has shrunk by 30 per cent from normal 2.57 to 1.52 lakh hecatres. Farmers are opting for cane cultivation at a time when the state’s groundwater levels are depleting. Fresh groundwater that was available at a depth of 33 ft in the 1990s has now fallen to 132 ft, according to data from the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board.
More area under cane cultivation however does not mean higher yield and better income for farmers. In Bidar district, 22 farmers have ended their lives since the start of the year. A majority of them are sugarcane farmers. The distress is stark in Maharashtra, where more than 1,100 farmer suicides were reported in 2015, most of them in its Marathwada region, which has 80 sugar factories across eight districts.
Cane farmers often fall into huge debt trap as mills that owe them money delay payments. Citing overproduction by growers and glut in the domestic and foreign market, sugar mills in Karnataka owe farmers roughly Rs. 4,000 crore as arrears since 2013. In Maharashtra, 35 factories continue to have pending arrears of about Rs. 250 crores for 2014-15. In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s second largest sugar grower, the sugar mills have an accumulated arrears of Rs. 3,373 crore.
Rain, Surface Water Better Options to Deal with Groundwater Contamination
In January 2016, NITI Aayog decided to provide Rs 1000 crore for installation of community water purification plants to save a large population in various states where people are forced to consume arsenic and fluoride contaminated groundwater. According to official data, groundwater contamination had affected over 3.61 crore people in 63,831 pockets across half of India’s districts. Rajasthan (86,83,403 people in 21,927 pockets) and West Bengal (89,74,986 people in 10,807 pockets) were top two worst affected States. For Karnataka, the number stands at 7.79 lakh people in 1,044 pockets. States such as Punjab and Assam were facing both arsenic and fluoride problems.
Central Government in April 2016, decided to provide special financial assistance to 15 fluoride and arsenic affected States. The government had already released Rs 72676 lakh for the states following an advice from NITI Aayog. In the north, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Jammu & Kashmir figure on the list and would receive Rs 3935 lakh, Rs 266 lakh, Rs 43129 lakh and Rs 47 lakh respectively. Water experts however attributed the fast depletion of groundwater level due to excess use and destruction of recharge systems as root cause of contamination and suggested rainwater harvesting as most cost effective and appropriate option.
Contrary to Government claim, 60 people died due to fluorosis while several others were, slowly dying in the absence of treatment in Gatiyahi & Harijan villages of Ranchi. The entire area was reported of having a high fluoride concentration in groundwater. Villagers also complained of Government failure in providing safe water. A ambitious effort to provide piped drinking water to this village from a nearby river also lied in limbo for the last three decades.
About 850 people living in Charasada village in Jaipur district, Rajasthan for years were suffering from salinity in groundwater caused by Sambhar Salt Lake. Due to high fluoride content in water table, the hand pump near the village was giving toxic water. Hence villagers were walking kilometers for potable water. But since 2012 the villagers have started harvesting rainwater at their homes. Gradually, the small intervention helped cater to their drinking water needs. Village development council also has created many rainwater harvesting structures around the village. As a result, families are growing vegetables and fodder using the stored water. A milk cooperative has been formed in the village helping villager generate significant income as livelihoods.
Similarly, several villages in Khagaria district of Bihar have started reviving their dug wells to get rid of diseases caused by arsenic and iron contaminated ground water. Decades back, villagers have shunned consuming dug well water in the wake of water borne diseases. Health experts were also unknowingly advising them to go for deep groundwater. But over the time many villages started suffering from cancer like diseases. It was then, that they realized importance of dug wells. Multiple studies have also shown that dug well water was free of contamination and far safer and potable than arsenic affected groundwater.
Likewise, the arsenic affected people in Madhusudankati village of West Bengal have also been benefited greatly by consuming treated rain and surface water in place of contaminated groundwater. Interesting the villagers initially set up an arsenic removal plant attached to a deep tube well. But that plant failed to solve the crisis as contamination level with arsenic of the groundwater was increasing.
In Conclusion While groundwater remains India’s water lifeline, the year saw no real progress in achieving any change in terms of acknowledging that reality, making sustainable groundwater use focus of our water resources development and management, ensuring bottom up, effective steps for groundwater regulation or protecting existing groundwater recharge systems and enhancing the recharge through natural and artificial ways. The tide is yet to turn the situation is likely to worsen before it improves.
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org) SANDRP