When UNICEF brought borewell rigs to India in early 1970s to help deal with water shortage, little did we know that it would become a tool for privatising the groundwater in the decades to come. Today, this practice of treating groundwater as a private resource has led to over-exploitation and an increase in mineral contamination as we drill into deeper aquifers in search of water.
Several parts of the country have been marked as grey and dark zones by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) indicating the excessive abstraction in these areas in comparison to recharge. India now has around 33 million borewells, making us the largest user of groundwater in the world, even higher than China and USA combined.
Populist programmes and subsidies have created this perverse shift towards management of water as a common resource (managed collectively) to an individually controlled resource (private property) in the last five decades. The rapid spread of private extraction mechanisms of groundwater brought in more areas under irrigation, displaced traditional cropping systems and enabled farmers to grow geographically unsuitable crops.
The shift resulted in the breakdown of institutions that evolved over centuries, displaced the age-old scientific learning of building and managing tank cascades, disturbed the legacy irrigation systems, and encouraged severe neglect of the surface water systems.
The change has been so obscure, sporadic and spread temporally in the form of technology changes, individual irrigation sources and gradual crop changes that the communities have not been able to realize the trap they are falling into.
One cannot call these interventions a part of the design. Even today, despite all the available data, we continue to have slogans such as ‘har khet ko paani’ in national programs or states like Andhra Pradesh coming up with schemes like Navaratnalu Welfare Scheme that aims to irrigate every acre of arable land in the State.
Over the years, the decision making in agriculture has shifted from being a collective decision of a community to an individual farmer primarily because of the decentralised/ individual sources of irrigation readily made available through these schemes.
Instead of taking a holistic picture of water at the village level, we have designed institutional mechanisms to manage surface water and groundwater separately. Little attention is given to the degrading catchments, or to the conjunctive relationship between surface and groundwater. Although these committees are designed to aid better implementation of programmes, these have created a deep divide in understanding of water and their governance.
There is an emerging discourse that conjunctive use of surface and groundwater is an effective strategy for climate change adaptation, improve resilience of water and sustainable resource use. However, there is a lack of institutional framework to implement conjunctive management of water.
The first change needed is the shift in mindset towards approaching water as a common pool resource. It has to be understood that livelihoods of the local communities are dependent on the effective management of the resource and therefore, it must be recognized that the communities are the primary stewards and are best suited to manage it.
Being stewards, they would be responsible to manage their water, take cropping decisions, partake in land-use decisions (for water conservation) and evolve rules for governance of the resources.
The institutional framework for conjunctive management of water would evolve through the overall understanding, but also through devolution of responsibilities to the village level. While the National Water Policy 2012 has outlined the principles, there is a need to design the structure, provide authority and design long term support to make this a reality.
All these years, we have focussed our attention on improving the storage of surface water through watershed development and improved water harvesting. Programs such as Jalyukt Shivar in Maharashtra and Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Yojana (MJSY) in Rajasthan have made considerable effort in improving supply and recharge of groundwater.
However, it is also important to focus our efforts on managing the demand for water and evolving mechanisms for better governance of the water resources like crop selection, water sharing or installation of water saving technologies (drips and sprinklers). Another important aspect is to build awareness among communities to bring in behavioural change in water use for long term sustenance of demand side measures.
A key gap that exists in the water sector and its governance is the lack of data and information for decision making at the community level and at subsequent levels. There have been experiments by various programmes (APFAGMS and APWELLS) and civil society organisations to support this through community level water budgeting or through crop water budgeting exercises in villages.
There has been reasonable success in community governance of groundwater under these programmes but they need to be scaled up with a much clearer architecture to support the village institutions and the gram panchayats. With appropriate precautionary principles in place, exercises like crop-water budgeting can enable interactions among community members and evolve principles of governance of water in their vicinity. Simulation games can lead to improved understanding and help in evolving governance mechanisms for water.
A Water Management Game evolved jointly by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Arizona State University and Foundation for Ecological Security suggests that communities would be willing to collaborate to improve the governance of water when they understand how the individual actions have negative impacts on the common water resources.
There is a need to bring in a paradigm shift towards democratisation of water - with focus on breaking the silos in the water sector by bringing in drinking water, surface water and groundwater together.
We need to support the evolution of institutions for conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater and pay attention to protecting and rejuvenating the Commons (the hydrological sinks) by enabling information (data) based decision making, along with emphasis on equity and sustainability by delinking water rights from land rights.
This would also require building dedicated cadres/functionaries to support communities through reliable data and in enabling better governance of the water resources.
States must work on holistic solutions to overcome the complex problems and help build an ecosystem to appreciate the commons - farming system linkages. By ensuring that the right crops are grown in the right area will create resilient systems to manage climatic risks. Instead of announcing subsidies for borewells or providing free electricity that distort farmer behaviour, long term work is needed for a coherent and collaborative engagement of various stakeholders in enabling a better future.