Equity and justice in groundwater access: connecting the dots
Groundwater law and community practices need to go hand in hand to achieve equity and justice in groundwater access in India, argues this recent study.
29 Oct 2021
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Equity and justice in groundwater access, an urgent need (Image Source: India Water Portal)

India is drying up fast with low costs and the ease of availability of groundwater technologies triggering uncontrolled extraction of groundwater. And groundwater is not only important for irrigation in India. About 90 percent of rural drinking water comes from groundwater while 50 percent of the water supplied to urban areas comes from groundwater besides 70 percent for irrigation!

While groundwater deterioration is rising, inequity in accessing the available groundwater resources is also a growing concern in India informs this paper titled ‘ The need for co-evolution of groundwater law and community practices for groundwater justice and sustainability: Insights from Maharashtra, India’ published in the journal Water Alternatives. 

While governments around the world are undertaking groundwater law reforms to address inequity and sustainability issues, there is very little information on how groundwater laws have fared in India in terms of addressing access and equity issues.  

The state of Maharashtra provides an interesting case in this context. The state is often quoted as a 'model' state for water law and policy reform that started with the water law reform in 2003 with the Maharashtra State Water Policy, followed by the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA) Act in 2005 and,  the Maharashtra Management of Irrigation Systems by Farmers (MMISF) Act in 2005. The 2009 Groundwater Act and, the 2018 Draft Rules followed.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that aimed at examining and reflecting on the recent law reforms related to groundwater in India by taking up the case of Maharashtra. The study aimed at answering the following questions:

  • Do the law reforms in Maharashtra address groundwater justice and sustainability
  • How do they do that
  • How can they more robustly include justice and sustainability?

The study critically analysed the 2009 Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act (referred to hereafter as the '2009 Groundwater Act') (Government of Maharashtra, 2009), and the 2018 Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Draft Rules (referred to hereafter as the '2018 Draft Rules') (Government of Maharashtra, 2018) which operationalise the Act.

The study drew on existing literature on common pool resources, water justice, and sustainability and conducted a content analysis of the 2009 Groundwater Act and the 2018 Draft Rules and looked at the case of Hivre Bazar in western Maharashtra to understand how groundwater was managed at the community level in the village.

Forty seven in-depth interviews with government officials at different levels, as well as with community leaders, local residents and non-government organisations (NGOs) were conducted. Participant observations, direct observations, and open-ended discussions were made during a number of village activities.

The case of Maharashtra

With the MWRRA Act, Maharashtra became the first state in India to bring an independent regulatory system into the water sector. Prior to introducing the 2009 Groundwater Act and the 2018 Draft Rules, the Government of Maharashtra (GoM) launched the Maharashtra Water Sector Improvement Project (MWSIP), with the help of a US$ 325 million World Bank loan. The World Bank support of MWSIP  also reflected in some of the provisions of the MWRRA and the MMISF Acts in terms of  institutional reforms and water entitlements, which were explicitly mentioned in the MWSIP loan agreement.

The papers argues that these reforms have not led to any improvement in ground-level water governance. Water reallocations from agriculture and rural areas to meet the growing urban and industrial needs continue without the approval of the MWRRA.  A 2011 amendment of the Act took away the MWRRA’s mandate to allocate water for different sectors and granted this prerogative to state cabinet ministers.  The provision in the original Act to have public hearings on cases of water reallocation was also removed.

While more than 50 percent of Maharashtra is drought prone and has the highest number of large and medium-sized irrigation projects, only about 17 percent of cropped area is under irrigation, while 70 percent of this irrigated cropped area uses groundwater. The low percentage of area under irrigation is due to the sugarcane-centric water use in the state.

All the efforts and laws in the state have focused on supply side augmentation without emphasising demand management which has led to inequity and unsustainability rather than encouraging social justice and sustainability.

While participation is considered important, it is constrained by many factors such as size of the unit, top-down approach to crop choices and crop water budgets, and absence of clearly laid out participative processes. The recently introduced Jalayukt Shivar Yojana (JSA) scheme too focuses on supply-side interventions with very little regulation of this available water.

The story of Hivre Bazar

On the other side, Maharashtra also continues to lead in terms of a number of interesting community-led initiatives in groundwater governance. However, the state has treated such practices as exceptions and thus has not engaged seriously with them while devising groundwater law reforms, argues the paper.

For example, In Hivre Bazar, villagers have successfully addressed some of  the existing social and environmental problems and made efforts to move increasingly towards groundwater justice and sustainability. They have done this through:

  • Acknowledging the crisis and displaying willingness to engage with 
  • Creating a rule-bound community groundwater resource
  • Exhibiting leadership and generating a feeling of community togetherness
  • Utilising awareness, information and knowledge.

Thus people have evolved practical and day to day rules related to the use of groundwater for irrigation based on rainfall patterns, which differ from state-led groundwater law. While they may not be scientifically evolved, they are based on social acceptability and make groundwater use and access more broad-based and sustainable, which can be very helpful in taking the groundwater governance agenda forward by combining new data, experience, methods and knowledge.

Combining the two perspectives could show the way out

The paper argues that while such community led initiatives could contribute in finding a solution,  governments and government agencies treat such practices as exceptions, and they are only included in policy/legal/regulatory documents as 'box items' or as 'best practices'. However, no space is provided in the groundwater law for communities to contribute and bring in rules that promote greater equity, justice and sustainability.

The paper ends by arguing that the co-evolution of community practices and state-led groundwater law would greatly help in evolving perspectives and arrangements that would support both groundwater justice and sustainability in the long run.

The paper can be accessed here

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