Dr Suman Bery
Dear Dr Bery,
For quite some time, I have been requesting both Niti Ayog and the Jal Shakti Ministry to take a long-term view of groundwater management and its implications for electricity subsidies and food security.
In particular, I invite your attention to my letter dated 15-9-2020 addressed to the Prime Minister and Niti Ayog (https://countercurrents.org/2020/09/need-for-a-law-to-regulate-the-use-of-groundwater/) in which I had specifically referred to NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite imagery with special reference to India (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/india_water.html) which brought out the following.
- The groundwater beneath Northern India has been receding by as much as one foot per year over the past decade
- During the past decade, groundwater beneath the northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan has decreased by more than 88 million acre-feet
- More than 109 cubic km (26 cubic miles) of groundwater disappeared from the region’s aquifers between 2002 and 2008 — double the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, and triple that of Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the U.S.
A more recent report (https://www.theweek.in/theweek/specials/2022/08/13/india-uses-more-groundwater-than-us-and-china-combined.html) refers to the enormous magnitude of groundwater use in india and indicates that the quantities of groundwater that India consumes annually exceeds those consumed in China and the USA taken together.
In India, groundwater is no longer a renewable resource, as it is being overexploited in several States. In addition, urban sewage and industrial pollutants have caused both chemical and pathogenic contamination. In other words, the groundwater situation in the country has become a crisis situation, calling for urgent action. Compounding this is the fact that most rivers in India stand heavily polluted (CAG Report No. 21/2011-12)
Rapidly declining groundwater table levels across the country have adversely impacted the farming community, who depend critically on lift irrigation for raising food grains crops such as paddy. They use more and more electricity to lift more or less the same quantities of groundwater for irrigating their crops and, in turn, unless the electricity consumed by them is correspondingly subsidised, their costs will escalate, which will have a serious adverse impact on the country’s food security. In other words, unless groundwater resources are prudently managed in conjunction with the surface water sources, it will indirectly add to the electricity subsidies for agriculture. Instead of dealing with such a formidable national problem in an integrated manner, some Central Ministries, not appreciating the bigger picture, have been trying to come up with highly fragmented, knee-jerk initiatives, by bringing in such legislations as the ill-advised farm bills and the equally ill-advised bill to amend the Electricity Act of 2003. Niti Ayog which looks at the economy as a whole should step in and provide the much needed overall perspective.
While the Central and the State Groundwater Boards are doing commendable work in gathering data and monitoring the status of groundwater resources, in the absence of a comprehensive legal framework, there is little they can achieve in tangible terms.
That there is no special law in force today to regulate groundwater usage is evident from the fact that the Central Ground Water Authority is in itself a body constituted under Section 3 (3) of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, a somewhat contrived way to deal with such a precious natural resource.
In the past, abortive attempts were made by the Centre and some States to introduce laws in this context. For example, the Tamil Nadu government had enacted the TN Groundwater (Development and Management) Act in 2003 but had to retract it under public pressure. The erstwhile Planning Commission had proposed a model groundwater Bill in 2011 but there have been no takers for it. The only States which have a live law for regulating groundwater drawals are AP & Telangana where the Water, Land & Trees Acts (WALTA) allows them to regulate the spacing of groundwater-based borewells but their scope is severely limited and their implementation tardy.
Perhaps, Niti Ayog should take appropriate initiatives in putting in place a comprehensive scheme to address the emergent groundwater crisis.
In 2020-21, the Jal Shakti Ministry did announce an ambitious Atal Bhujal Yojana proposing an allocation of Rs 6,000 Crores to be invested over a 5-year timeframe on both capacity building and a scheme of incentives to promote integrated management of groundwater aquifers. The scheme covers Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, MP and Rajasthan, though it is not clear as to why Punjab has been left out, keeping in view the intense rates of groundwater depletion in that State as per the satellite imagery studies referred above.
From the information accessible at https://ataljal.mowr.gov.in/, it appears that the actual implementation of the scheme is progressing at a snail’s pace. Against the proposed allocation of Rs 6,000 Crores for a 5-year timeframe, the allocations from 2020-21 till 2022-23 have been much lower. In terms of actual utilisation, during those three years, the amount spent is hardly Rs 1,153 Crores. Against this, the physical realisation of the goals seems to be negligible.
What is urgently required is, as stated earlier, a legislation that provides an independent regulatory authority that can not only ensure optimal utilisation of the replenishable groundwater resources in conjunction with the surface water availability but also their quality. Unless the continuing pollution of both surface water and groundwater resources is prevented forthwith, it will not only lead to a serious foodgrains crisis but also lead to downstream contamination of the food supply chain and the consequent health impacts. Random quality checks of vegetables and other food commodities by several professional agencies have corroborated this in an ample measure.
I would therefore request Niti Ayog to (i) come up with a comprehensive law to facilitate integrated regulation of the management of surface and groundwater resources, prevention of their contamination, (ii) coordinate with the States to help enacting such a legislation and (ii) review the coverage of the Atal Bhujal Yojana in terms of its coverage and monitor its implementation so as to secure a visible impact at the earliest.
I hope that Niti Ayog will take the necessary steps with a sense of urgency.
E A s Sarma
Former Secretary to Govt of India