Deep wells and prudence - Towards pragmatic action for addressing groundwater overexploitation in India - A World Bank document (2010)

India is the largest user of groundwater resources in the world. It is estimated that approximately 230 cubic kilometers per year is used annually, this is more than a quarter of the total world consumption from this resource.

It is in this context that this World Bank report looks at the reasons for this quantum of groundwater usage.

The report delves into socio-economic and political reasons and looks at policies which inadvertently promote so much extraction. The report also analyses various attempts to manage this resource. These attempts range from government and international agency efforts directed to grassroots mobilisations. Finally the report comes out with suggestions to deal with this crisis.

The report is broken into 4 chapters and an introduction. These are:

  1. You cannot manage what you don’t know: Understanding realities under and above the ground
  2. A semblance of sufficiency: Institutional framework of groundwater management in India
  3. A groundswell of change: Potential of community groundwater management in India
  4. Pragmatic approaches for managing over-exploited aquifers in India

Each chapter ends with a 'conclusion' section that is both a summation of the points discussed and an introduction to the next chapter.

Chapter 1 - You cannot manage what you don’t know: Understanding
realities under and above the ground
As the title suggests the the chapter discusses the various factors that influence the use of groundwater. These include the physical environment which includes the hydrological characteristics of groundwater bodies, the socioeconomic environment, the institutional environment which encompasses the legal, administrative, political and macroeconomic environment.

While discussing the characteristics of aquifers in India the chapter points out that 65 percent of India’s overall aquifer surface area consists of weathered crystalline basement. These are mostly outside the command of primary irrigation canals of large rivers and are shallow aquifers. These are mostly found in central peninsular
India. The other type of aquifer is the alluvial aquifers of the Indo-Gangetic plains. A table provides information on the types of  aquifers present in various states.

The chapter also discusses the factors that push the demand for groundwater. The key factor is not resource availability nor well yield potential but the lack of proper water supply by the public water supply system. The other topics broached in this chapter include determining management approaches to groundwater exploitation for rural and urban areas, when the exploitation becomes excessive.

Information related to  stabilising groundwater use in urban areas, urban sprawl and water table decline, indicative costs of water supply from various sources are presented through diagrams, information boxes, charts and graphs.

Chapter 2 - A semblance of sufficiency: Institutional framework of
groundwater management in India

The chapter begins with the observation that though over-exploitation of  groundwater results from millions of individual decisions these decisions are influenced by a range of factors ranging from administrative, to legal, political and economic factors.

The chapter discusses in detail the types of groundwater management  instruments which range from regulatory and economic measures to  groundwater property regimes and community management. The chapter  notes that the Indian Easements Act of 1882 has given right to the groundwater to the owner of a property. However in 1996, a Supreme Court ruling established the Central Ground Water Authority. The mandate of this body was to regulate and control the development of groundwater to preserve and protect it.

Delving further into the various instruments, the chapter notes that though the Indian Constitution puts water supply under the State list,  though the Central Government also has concurrent power to make laws. Thus one of the functions of the Union Ministry of Water, as per this report,  is the planning for development of groundwater resources, formulation of policies of exploitation etc. Thus a Model Groundwater Bill was created in 1970 and revised many times, however only a few states have enacted this bill.

The report also highlights the fact that the Planning Commission's Expert Group on Groundwater Management and Ownership feels that there is enough teeth in the legislative framework to enable groundwater management practices.

The section on administrative and organisational environment points out that there are 11 institutions involved in someway or the other with central groundwater development and management; the institutions range from Central Groundwater Authority to the Oil and Natural Gas Commission. A table depicts the various groundwater related policies and the scope for  coordination between them. Policies that come under crop policies, subsidies on inputs, recharge programs, land use planning etc, are  highlighted.

The chapter also discusses the consequences of reform of regulatory measures, use of economic instruments to manage groundwater use. Concepts like trade-able groundwater rights, community management of groundwater are discussed threadbare.

Chapter 3 - A groundswell of change: Potential of community groundwater management in India

The chapter discusses community led groundwater management and the role of leaders in such movements. Mention is made of stalwarts like Anna Hazare and his disciple Popat Rao Pawar, Rajendra Singh and Anupam Mishra.

It is pointed out that each of the community led management systems promoted by them are different - everything from the need for community led management to the approach, and to results.

Special mention is made of the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Andhra Pradesh Farmer-Managed Groundwater Systems (APFAMGS). The project is being implemented in seven drought-prone districts of Andhra Pradesh. The project intends to equip groundwater user farmers with data, skills and knowledge to manage the groundwater resources available. The key is that this knowledge is used by the farmers to manage and monitor their own demand for groundwater.

The report notes that while APFAMGS is essentially converting farmers into 'barefoot hydrologists', it also facilitates access to information on water saving methods, better agricultural practices and ways to manage and regulate the farmers demand for water.

Chapter 4 - Pragmatic approaches for managing over-exploited aquifers in India

The final chapter grows from the understanding that policy level reforms from the top may not achieve the requisite goals because they may neither be may appropriate for groundwater management nor feasible in the current political and economic climate. Therefore the need for a Plan B. The Plan B mooted in this chapter is supposed to be a game changer which includes measures that have a low political cost and ensures action on the ground.

The elements of such a Plan B include creating a practise of groundwater management through community based resource management, targeted regulation and sectoral policy interventions. With this in mind, the report provides a table which suggests the missions and functions of individual units within a state groundwater management agency. The units include an information an and planning unit, survey and demand management unit, community management enabling unit etc.

The report makes a series of recommendations for community water management these include groundwater management should not require sacrifice, need for government support for such systems, adaptability of such systems to different regions.

In sectoral policy interventions the report recommends integrating groundwater in urban water supply planning. Interventions in agriculture like technical and political solutions to agricultural power pricing are also discussed.

The report in its summation states that the current groundwater crisis is a result of inappropriate measures and infeasible measures. Thus there is need for a pragmatic intervention as suggested which takes into account factors that influence groundwater use - everything from soil characteristics to the political and economic situation.

Download the report from the World Bank site here.