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Importance of groundwater & declining levels

  • Groundwater is one of the most important water sources in India accounting for 63% of all irrigation water and over 80% of rural and urban domestic water supplies
  • The UNESCO World Water Development Report states that India is the largest extractor of groundwater in the world
  • NITI Aayog Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report states that the majority of states have scored less than 50% in the source augmentation of groundwater resource index
  • 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
  • India faces a dual challenge: to regulate the growing demand for groundwater while replenishing its sources

Reasons behind the groundwater crisis

Subsidies on electricity

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

MSP declaration

The government encourages farmers to produce water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane through increased minimum support prices (MSP). Research indicates that although MSP has led to assured incomes, it has also led to groundwater depletion, income inequality and unsustainable agriculture

Possible interventions

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. The NITI Aayog CWMI report is a timely reminder of the need for policymakers and researchers to come together and conduct rigorous evaluations in order to understand what works and what doesn’t work for groundwater conservation. Systematic analysis of groundwater conservation methods must be conducted to forestall the water crisis

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