Socio-economic implications of depleting groundwater resource in Punjab: A comparative analysis of different irrigation systems - An EPW paper

This article in the Economic and Political Weekly is based on a comparative analysis of different irrigation systems.

It argues that while the consequences of negative groundwater draft have mostly been viewed as an ecological disaster, the externalities of groundwater depletion pose greater concern for socio-economic equity in the access to this resource.

This empirical analysis signifies the concerns for the livelihoods of farmers, when the cost of depletion is disproportionately borne by the resource-poor farmers as they are unable to invest in capital and technology and are hence denied the benefits of groundwater irrigation that is subsidised by free electricity.  

This situation is perpetuated with further scarcity leading to unequal economic returns and, finally, takes the most exploitative form where the “large landlords” also emerge as “water lords” through surplus accumulation, forcing the small and marginal landholders to become landless agricultural labourers. The study brings to light the fact that profitability in agriculture declines with falling water tables and the cost of depletion is disproportionately borne by the resource-poor farmers as they fail to invest capital in changing technology and well deepening.

The study concludes that -

  • In the overall process the resource-poor farmers get excluded from the state-financed free electricity in agriculture. While in mixed irrigation systems, these marginalised farmers can avail of canal irrigation and sustain agriculture, in completely groundwater dependent irrigation systems the farmers are forced to buy water to sustain agriculture or lease out land and sell their land.
  • Thus, with continuous depletion, the skewedness in the distribution of land facilitates a prior appropriation of irrigation water transforming the landlords to powerful “water-lords” in the rural economy.
  • Tube well technology, being capital biased, strengthens the process of social deprivation as increasingly small and marginal farmers in groundwater dependent rural economy sell their land and turn into agriculture labourers, when they lose access to groundwater irrigation. 
  • The policies of the government which affect the groundwater development in agriculture of the state include subsidised input prices, remunerative prices for output (high MSP for rice and wheat), and most importantly, free electricity in agriculture.
  • In the absence of a clear legislative framework, state’s indirect forms of regulation of groundwater have led to miserable consequences for the farmers. Regulations stipulating the minimum space between wells have become an opportunity for graft, and have served to exclude the least well connected and the poorest.
  • The limits on access to formal credit for drilling wells and for applications for new electricity connections have suffered the same fate. 
  • Since more than 60 per cent of irrigated land is under groundwater irrigation, and depletion is an inevitable phenomenon, the challenge is to establish a broad framework which addresses the problem of depletion, while enabling the local institutions to play a positive role within a broader regulatory context to positively affect the livelihood of those which continue to be shaped by dependence on groundwater.
  • Since the right to livelihood is getting increasingly dependent on the right to water, there is a greater need to find legislative solutions to delineate land and groundwater rights. In the coming decades an equitable distribution of water rights will pose as the major challenge for reducing agrarian inequalities, and if available water resources are more equitably distributed, it will have a marked impact on the income distribution.

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