Farmer protests: India’s acute groundwater crisis is fuelling distress | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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Farmer protests: India’s acute groundwater crisis is fuelling distress

We have looked at water from a narrow engineering perspective, while water is in every sense a multi-dimensional resource requiring an understanding of many other disciplines for its sustainable management. So we have to bring in the social mobilisers and agronomists centrestage, so that farmers can effectively come together to manage their water in an equitable and sustainable manner

opinion Updated: Jun 13, 2017 15:31 IST
Farmers throwing vegetables on a road during a protest as part of the Maharashtra bandh, Nagpur, Maharashtra, June 5, 2017
Farmers throwing vegetables on a road during a protest as part of the Maharashtra bandh, Nagpur, Maharashtra, June 5, 2017 (PTI)

India has been witnessing high-decibel protests by farmers for some time now. From declining productivity to lack of adequate remuneration, there are several reasons, which are pushing this 118 million-strong community to the brink.

But if one has to pick a key problem that is aggravating India’s farm crisis, it is this: Water scarcity.

The situation could only become more difficult for farmers in the coming years, as this IndiaSpend story reveals: “Extreme rainfall events in central India, the core of the monsoon system, are increasing and moderate rainfall is decreasing — as a part of complex changes in local and world weather — according to a clutch of Indian and global studies”.

Moreover, groundwater levels, which provide water for two-thirds of India’s irrigated land, are also falling.

Water policy expert, member of the erstwhile Planning Commission and head of several panels tasked with reforming the country’s water laws, Mihir Shah, spoke to HT about the depth of the water crisis and what India needs to do to ensure a water-secure future.

HT: You have called for a paradigm shift in India’s water policy. What are the problems of the present policy and what should the new water resource governance scenario?

MS: First, we need to focus on the sustainable management of groundwater, which is our single most important water resource. With 30 million (and counting) groundwater structures, India is by far the largest consumer of groundwater in the world.

It is groundwater that fuelled the Green Revolution and brought us food security but today we are in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. Nearly two-thirds of India is underlain by hard rock formations, which allow water to recharge only very slowly.

We have drilled deep for groundwater, without taking this basic hydrogeological fact into account. Competitive extraction of groundwater has dangerously lowered both water tables and water quality, creating an unprecedented crisis of water in India. Today, in many parts of the country, our children are drinking water laced with arsenic, fluoride, and mercury, even uranium. A train plies daily from Punjab carrying patients to the medical capitals of India. It is cryptically called the “Cancer Express”.


We urgently need to shift focus from endless extraction to participatory sustainable demand management through crop-water budgeting, so that water tables are restored and we can continue to use groundwater. A million farmers in Andhra Pradesh have come together to manage their groundwater in this manner. So the proof of concept is there on the ground. We need to carry it to scale. And this is the only way ahead, as we cannot possibly police 30 million wells and tubewells through licenses and permits.

Of course, this needs to be supplemented by a fundamental change in our agriculture policies, which continue to incentivise the growing of water-intensive crops like rice and wheat, as these are the only two crops procurement operations focus on. You cannot expect farmers to shift to less water-intensive crops like millets and pulses if they are not assured of a market at remunerative prices. The best way would be to make millets and pulses, the nutritionally superior options, an integral part of the ICDS and MDMS programmes for children and focus our procurement operations more and more on these crops, creating a win-win for all.

Second, we need to make sure that the trillions of litres of water lying unused in the command areas of our large dams, actually reaches the farmers for whom it is meant. These dams were built at huge financial, social and environmental cost. But they have not yet fulfilled their promise. Our focus has been on building more and more dams and not on putting in place last-mile connectivity to ensure this water reaches the farm.

One reason for this is that we have looked at water from a narrow engineering perspective, while water is in every sense a multi-dimensional resource requiring an understanding of many other disciplines for its sustainable management. So we have to bring in the social mobilisers and agronomists centrestage, so that farmers can effectively come together to manage their water in an equitable and sustainable manner. This is again something we already see on the ground in many parts of India where farmers have been handed over the management of their part of the command and they have successfully ensured that every farm gets its required water. These farmers are happy to pay the price for this water, which they collectively arrive at and they use what is earned for the operation and maintenance of the system.

HT: Why do we need a National Water Commission (NWC)? Do we have enough professionals to look at the different aspects of the water crisis and find solutions to tackle them?

MS: The NWC is required to complete the paradigm shift we are trying to institute. The fourth element of the paradigm shift is that we must not continue to place groundwater and surface water in separate silos. Today, the Central Water Commission (CWC) looks after surface water and the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) is the custodian of groundwater. The sad thing is they hardly ever work together. But you cannot manage water like that. Water is one and needs to be understood in all its integral inter-connections.

Let me give you an example. One of the biggest tragedies India faces in recent times is the progressive drying up of its rivers. When we look at our peninsular rivers, we realise that their post-monsoon water flows come from the base-flows provided by groundwater. One of the largely unnoticed consequences of over-extraction of groundwater has been to completely dry up these base flows, which used to feed our peninsular rivers after the monsoon was over.

The country cannot afford to idly stand by as our water resources are destroyed in this manner. Water has remained an unreformed sector for far too long. We need to create a National Water Commission that integrates the CWC and CGWB and ensures that this “hydro-schizophrenia” becomes a thing of the past. The new NWC needs to be populated by professionals from a large number of disciplines, including Hydrology, Hydrogeology, Hydrometeorology, River Ecology, Ecological Economics, Agronomy and Participatory Resource Planning & Management. And not all of these need to come from within government.

The main focus of the work of the NWC’s professionals needs to be India’s river basins. NWC professionals must firmly abandon the command-and-control raj of the past centred in New Delhi and go out there into the field, working shoulder to shoulder with other partners, in a multi-disciplinary perspective, to devise solutions to India’s water problems, in a citizen-friendly manner.

There is a real constraint we face in terms of the availability of professionals from each of these disciplines. There are two ways forward here. One, for the NWC to build stable and enduring partnerships with other organisations in the water space and manage these partnerships in a way that gives confidence to its partners that they too belong to the NWC.

Two, we need to create academic programmes on water that recognise its multi-disciplinary character so that we can meet the national demand for professionals with a 21st century solution-centred understanding of water. I have recently been associated with one such initiative at the Shiv Nadar University, which is launching a two-year M.Sc. programme in water science and policy.

HT: In the last few years, we have seen states fight over river water (eg. Kaveri). There are more such conflagrations expected in the coming years. How can India tackle this problem?

MS: We have typically left these problems to simmer for so long that when our attention is finally drawn to them, it is almost too late. We must recognise that the fundamental problem India has is not of actual shortage of water but of its wasteful and unsustainable management. When States fight over water, what they forget is that the way water is being used in either State is completely unsustainable, which means that it has no reference whatsoever to how much water is actually available for use, and for how long that use can be sustained, given limited availability. If we continue to spend beyond our means, we are bound to go bankrupt. This is actually what is happening.

This is again where we are hoping the NWC would chart the course ahead. Once we have the NWC present in each of the major river basins, working closely along with all stakeholders, including all basin States, in a multi-disciplinary perspective, focused on demand management, it will become possible to together devise plans for sustainable and equitable sharing of all water resources, within and across States. It will then be clear in advance, well before a conflict situation arises, what kinds of water uses are feasible and States exceeding those would not be able to lay claim on a larger share.

I should mention here the great advances being made across the globe in water accounting, which can provide independent and objective data for appropriate actions and decision-making in each river basin. I am glad the ministry of water resources has begun to work in this direction.

HT: Can the ambitious river linking plan solve the water crisis that is fuelling agrarian distress…

MS: The comprehensive proposal to link Himalayan with the peninsular rivers for inter-basin transfer of water was estimated to cost around Rs. 5,60,000 crore in 2001 (the cost is officially stated to have risen to Rs. 11 lakh crore today). Land submergence and R&R packages would be additional to this cost. There are no firm estimates available for running costs of the scheme, such as the cost of power required to lift water. There is also the problem that because of our dependence on the monsoons, the periods when rivers have “surplus” water are generally synchronous across the subcontinent.

A recent study by top Indian scientists further indicates that deficit rainfall years are growing in river basins with surplus water and falling in those with shortages. A major problem in planning inter-basin transfers is how to take into account the reasonable needs of the basin states, which will grow over time. Further, given the topography of India and the way links are envisaged, they might totally bypass the core dryland areas of Central and Western India, which are located on elevations of 300+ metres above MSL. It is also feared that linking rivers could affect the natural supply of nutrients through curtailing flooding of the downstream areas. Along the east coast of India, all major peninsular rivers have extensive deltas. Damming the rivers for linking will cut down the sediment supply and cause coastal and delta erosion, destroying the fragile coastal eco-systems.

It has also been argued out that the scheme could have a serious negative impact on the very integrity of the monsoon cycle. The presence of a low salinity layer of water with low density is a reason for maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures (greater than 28 degrees C) in the Bay of Bengal, creating low-pressure areas and intensification of monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the sub-continent is controlled by this layer of low saline water. A disruption in this layer could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent, endangering the livelihoods of a vast population.