Status of Groundwater Management Approaches and Associated Problems in India

This is in continuation of my previous articles posting in Mission Ganga Knowledge Community, based on my four decades of experience......

The availability of this vital natural resource has been taken for granted. During the past decades, there has been a phenomenal increase in the growth of groundwater abstraction structures due to implementation of technically viable schemes for development of the resource, backed by liberal funding from institutional finance agencies, subsidies, improvement in supply of electric power and diesel, good quality seeds, fertilizers, etc. In India, now there are over 20 million private wells, in addition to the government tube wells. Over the last two decades, the groundwater development was 84-109% in Haryana, 106% in Delhi, 60-70% in Uttar Pradesh, 41-51% in western states, 17-30% in central states; and in some areas in Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan, over-abstraction is 100-260%. Groundwater being a ‘common property’ resource under the state governments’ jurisdiction, competition remains among the users to extract as much water as each one can. In rural areas, farmers depend on groundwater due to apparent reliability and flexibility of groundwater exploitation by the wells owned and controlled by them; and electricity subsidies to pump groundwater in the political landscape; but, remain indifferent about quality unless the groundwater is saline. Much of the groundwater over-exploitation is taking place in the arid/semi-arid northern, western, and central India, receiving low/medium rainfall and low recharge. This dependence on groundwater is causing rapid depletion and degradation in the resource base.

Although, in India, the rules/responsibilities for effective governance of water is divided between the central and state authorities, yet, due to lack of desirable coordination among departments, implementers and regulators; there is limited vision and passion, and fragmented approaches for the overall sustainable development, conservation and management of water. The National Water Policy, debated in 2012 seems to be indifferent on a commitment towards ‘right to water’ as distinct from ‘water rights’. The validity of the per capita water availability index may not be so relevant in relation to the socioeconomic disparities in water usage. So far as India’s groundwater situation is concerned, due to large variation in the hydro-geological, social, economic, cultural and political factors at local or regional scales; the aggregate impact of millions of individual pumping decisions and the emerging problems vary greatly, and no single template for management can be developed. For groundwater management, attention has been paid mostly towards drilling tube wells, rural electrification with subsidized power to pumping, and credit facilities from financial institutions. Groundwater exploitation is regulated mainly through control of borehole drilling or licensing their pumping. Due to absence of strong enforcement of regulations, indiscriminate groundwater exploitation, its wasteful utilization, and wastes disposal continued.

Moreover, large-scale, publicly funded tube well development tend to be supply driven; legal and regulatory provisions at national level cannot be policed adequately; and, sustainability of long-term water use is compatible with limited depletion of aquifer reserves only in the short term. Therefore, management choices are adopted between the two generally acceptable approaches: (i) Optimal yield; i.e., merely tapping an often-minimal renewable resource, allowing for deliberate short-term limited use of groundwater between recharge events; and (ii) Controlled exploitation of a more plentiful nonrenewable resource till it is exhausted; recognizing the necessity to promote socioeconomic development in areas receiving very limited natural recharge; but, introducing water conservation measures like rainwater harvesting. Moreover, the groundwater as well as surface runoff in such areas being highly polluted, if such structures are not maintained properly, water quality may be a problem. Also, indirect recharge enhancement may work for shallow groundwater circulation, but deeper systems require sophisticated injection and alternative sources of high-quality water.