Groundwater depletion in Punjab: Time for a major policy overhaul

Pumping groundwater with the energy generated from solar panels (Image: Prashanth Vishwanathan/IWMI; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Pumping groundwater with the energy generated from solar panels (Image: Prashanth Vishwanathan/IWMI; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Punjab, a small state in northwest India, derives its name from the Persian words panj (five) and ?b (water), meaning the "land of five rivers". Ironically, this state is now regularly in the news for its rapidly depleting groundwater levels. The most recent government report on Punjab's groundwater resources notes that groundwater extraction has increased from 149% (of naturally available recharge) in 2013 to 165% in 2018, and the state has maximum percentage of wells showing groundwater depletion among all states in India.

As alarming as this sounds, it is not news to anyone, be it researchers in universities, bureaucrats in secretariats, or farmers in the fields. Groundwater levels have been falling swiftly for many years now, and the need of the hour is to diagnose the root cause of the malady instead of focusing on the symptoms.

The seeds of the unsustainable groundwater depletion being observed today were sown with India's Green Revolution in 1960s. If measured in terms of food production, the Green Revolution was a stellar success story that increased national crop output and transformed India into a net exporter of food crops due to rapid growths in crop yields, especially wheat and rice across the northwestern states. The success of India's Green Revolution is deeply intertwined with swift and widespread development of groundwater irrigation in this region.

Groundwater offered an edge over other sources of irrigation (canals, for instance) because it could be tapped where needed, was not dependent on the slow bureaucratic machinery for infrastructure development, and was more reliable during droughts when surface water reservoirs dried up. Governments, both at the central and state levels, subsidized the cost of establishing power supply networks to provide electricity to farmers. Simultaneously, massive power subsidies were provided to encourage groundwater irrigation.

Some researchers attribute the success of the country's Green Revolution primarily to these policies and the groundwater use they encouraged. Punjab occupies just over two percent of the national agricultural land, but its agricultural output today accounts for a third of the wheat and rice procured by Food Corporation of India. This has been possible through an over-reliance on groundwater irrigation (which covers over three quarters of Punjab's agricultural land), causing excessive groundwater depletion across the state.

Since groundwater consumption in Punjab is primarily driven by agricultural demand, its conservation needs concrete and well-planned steps directed towards reducing agricultural consumption. But to suggest that Punjab's farmers should abruptly reduce their groundwater consumption is wishful thinking. The issue is more complex than that, and it is myopic to discuss and diagnose groundwater depletion in isolation. Instead, lawmakers and bureaucrats need to approach it from a broader perspective of the complex food-energy-water nexus. Groundwater depletion is but one thread of the web, and viable solutions can only be found after acknowledging the complexity of this web.

While there have been numerous campaigns and proposals advocating for reduction of power subsidies to farmers, one needs to realize that farmers are not the sole beneficiaries of those subsidies; low cost of production translates into cheaper food for all. Farmers do not operate in silos, but are a part of a larger nation-wide economic system that connects all citizens: any impact on farmers' cost of production will have unintended consequences on cost of food for everyone.

So what is missing in most discussions is a "viable alternative". The cost of agricultural production in terms of groundwater depletion, which has hitherto been externalized to the environment, needs to be internalized into the cost of production, while compensating farmers to mitigate any adverse economic impacts. This may necessitate significant steps like financial incentives for encouraging farmers to shift to less water-intensive crops in groundwater-scarce regions.

A very powerful tool that governments can readily use to control agricultural consumption of groundwater is electricity pricing. In a recent publication, we analyzed the role electricity tariff policies play in driving groundwater over-consumption across India. We present strategies that can assist policymakers create tariff structures to ensure adequate irrigation facilities for farmers without jeopardizing the country's limited groundwater reserves. For states like Punjab where groundwater overexploitation is already causing rapid aquifer depletion, primary focus should be on policies that promote groundwater conservation through electricity reforms and financial incentives.

While reducing subsidies should be the long-term goal of governments, this initiative has to be complemented with farmer compensation so that their livelihoods are not impacted adversely. In 2018, the Punjab government launched a pilot project called "paani bachao, paisa kamao" ("save water, earn money") in partnership with the World Bank and prominent research organizations. In this project, a select group of farmers is being offered monetary compensation in lieu of reducing their agricultural power consumption. The preliminary results of the scheme are encouraging, and one hopes similar initiatives will be scaled up to state-level soon.

For formulating future agricultural policies, Punjab needs a holistic approach that takes into consideration electricity supply, groundwater availability and access, farmers' irrigation demand, and opportunity cost of subsidized electricity. The ramifications on food prices and national food security cannot be ignored in these decisions. Simultaneously, long-term judicious groundwater use is also contingent on a broader overhaul of agricultural policy focusing at incentives for efficient irrigation techniques and price support mechanisms for less thirsty crops.

Solar-powered groundwater pumps have received considerable stimulus from central and state governments in India recently. While this technology has obvious merits in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production, its deployment in groundwater scarce regions like Punjab needs to be complemented by strong measures to improve irrigation efficiency and closely monitor aquifer levels with the option of strictly enforced water-draft limits where required.

Groundwater depletion being witnessed today across Punjab is not the primary problem; it is but the outcome of a bigger and deeper issue of decades-old short-sighted agricultural policies that promote groundwater over-exploitation to produce cheap food today at the expense of water availability tomorrow. Farmers should be involved in the decision-making process so that the new policies adopted are actually successful in achieving their goals with minimum impact on farmers' financial wellbeing.

The problem of groundwater depletion is here for everyone to see. Drastic steps are needed immediately to counter it, but those solutions need to be viable and practical, lest they too gather dust on a shelf, and Punjab runs out of this precious resource only to be left high and dry.


Originally published by CGIAR-WLE/Thrive

Balsher Singh Sidhu is a Ph.D. candidate in the Resources, Environment, and Sustainability program at University of British Columbia, Vancouver. His research focuses on the relationship between climate variability and agriculture. Specifically, he is studying irrigation strategies that can improve India's crop yields with the dual objectives of adapting to climate change and minimizing adverse environmental impacts of the food system.