Groundwater: Pressing problems and future prospects

Using a handpump to extract groundwater (Source: Wikipedia)
Using a handpump to extract groundwater (Source: Wikipedia)

Groundwater is the major source of drinking water in both urban and rural India, and an important source of water for agricultural and industrial sectors. India is by far the largest and fastest growing consumer of groundwater in the world and is exploiting the resource beyond sustainable levels. The paper titled ‘Overview of Groundwater in India’, published by PRS Legislative Research, presents an analysis of the groundwater scenario in the country. It maps the indicators regarding availability, policy framework and some key issues with regards to the sector. 

Groundwater status

The discussion paper explains the terms groundwater, water table and groundwater exploitation, and how heavy rains can cause the water table to rise and conversely, continuous extraction of groundwater can cause the level to fall. It describes groundwater overuse as a situation in which, over a period of time, average extraction rate from aquifers is greater than the average recharge rate. Some other interesting data from the paper is noted below:

  • Due to increasing population, the national per capita annual availability of water has reduced by 15% from 2001 to 2011.
  • The number of over exploited districts have increased by 5 times between 1995 and 2011.
  • In Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, groundwater development is more than 100%, which implies that the annual groundwater consumption is more than the annual groundwater recharge.
  • There has been an increase in overall groundwater development from 58% in 2004 to 62% in 2011.
  • 89% of groundwater extracted is used in the irrigation sector, 9% is for domestic use and 2% is for industrial use.
  • 50% of urban water requirements and 85% of rural domestic water requirements are fulfilled by groundwater.
  • India uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States.
  • Nearly 60% of all districts have issues related to availability or quality of groundwater, or both.

The paper further gives details of groundwater extraction and use, and how because of its easy accessibility, groundwater forms the largest share of India’s agriculture and drinking water supply. It further explains how there has been a continuous increase in groundwater utilisation for irrigation, with the number of tubewells increasing exponentially. It clarifies that government incentives and subsidies for electricity supply have aided this, while low power tariffs have led to excessive water usage, leading to a sharp fall in water tables. Contamination of water sources have worsened the situation. 

The exisiting legislative, policy and institutional framework concerning the water sector are detailed in the paper. It points out the National Water Policy, and notes that the lack of clear guidelines and legally enforceable mechanisms make the policy ambiguous and ineffective. The paper further illustrates the four major central institutions that address issues related to groundwater and their responsibilities.

The way forward

    1. Estimation of groundwater resources and recommendations to improve assessment include
      • Strengthening database management 
      • Adopting alternative techniques for recharge assessment 
      • Mapping aquifers effectively 
    2.  Agricultural crop pricing and water intensive crops, and improvement measures are 
      • Dry-season crop planning for specific area depending on local modalities 
      • Adoption of modern precision irrigation technologies 
      • Restrictions to control groundwater abstraction through regulatory measures
    3. Energy subsidies and groundwater extraction needs


    • Ration water use in agriculture 
    • Reward farmers by cash incentives equivalent to unused units of water/power 
    • Encourage farmers to use on-farm water management techniques to enhance production per drop of water
  1. Inadequate regulation of groundwater law: Present power only of identification and notification, not enforcement 
  2. Quality of groundwater and recommendations
    • Govt needs to establish enforceable water quality standards for lakes, rivers and groundwater 
    • Penalties need to be levied for violations 
    • States need to take measures for source control of pollutants 
  3. Local management of groundwater where recommended steps include
      • Determining relationship between surface hydrological units and hydrological units below the ground 
      • Identification of groundwater recharge areas
      • Maintaining groundwater balance at the level of the village or the watershed
      • Creating regulatory options at the community level