The rapid rise in tubewell-irrigation and the acreage under water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and paddy—and this is, in no small measure, because of flawed policies like MSP-led public procurement and government fixing cane prices—has left India under acute groundwater distress.
Water management, conservation and access to clean water have been high on the Centre’s agenda. Indeed, PM Narendra Modi spoke of the need to focus on long-term water security at the recent launch of the Jal Jeevan Mission app. A key focus of water security in India has to be rational groundwater use, replenishment and conservation—as per the Groundwater Resource Estimation Committee’s report (from 2015), 1,071 out of 6,607 blocks in the country are over-exploited; this is likely to have worsened over the years.
India’s groundwater usage exceeds that of China and the US combined—more than a third of the country’s population lives in water-stressed areas, and this number is expected to shoot up. Per capita water availability in the country had fallen to just under a third of 1950 levels by 2011, both because of rising population and increasing unsustainable use, and it is projected to fall to a fourth that in the next 20 years.
A large part of this problem can be attributed to agriculture. The rapid rise in tubewell-irrigation and the acreage under water-guzzling crops like sugarcane and paddy—and this is, in no small measure, because of flawed policies like MSP-led public procurement and government fixing cane prices—has left India under acute groundwater distress.
Indeed, agriculture, as this newspaper has repeatedly highlighted, accounts for 78% of all freshwater used annually in the country, with 64% of this chunk being from groundwater. To that end, the government—both the Centre and the states—must act rapidly on groundwater conservation if Jal Se Jeevan and other flagship water-access programmes are to be a success.
The Atal Bahujal Yojana (ABY), by the launched Jal Shakti Ministry in 2019, is the flagship conservation programme, but some experts believe the model proposed could take decades to get implemented across the country—and it is amply clear from water-availability projections that India doesn’t have that kind of time. The ABY dashboard shows that the expenditure against the targets set under various heads, as also the release of funds, has been alarmingly low for the past as well as the present year.
While the Centre must step up, the states also need to get their act together if groundwater conservation is to meet meaningful goals. Many talk of mandating withdrawal limits, and to that end, the National Water Policy 2020—which has specific strategies and deadlines unlike previous iterations—gives the “highest priority to [groundwater] governance and management” through a “Participatory Groundwater Management (PGWM)” approach, writes Mihir Shah, the chairman of the committee that submitted the NWP 2020 report, in Business Standard.
Also, the government needs to stop encouraging (via MSP-led procurement, SAP/FRPs) cultivation of water-intensive crops; crop diversification is a crucial step towards this, and that the 2018 PM-AASHA (Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan) proposes up to 40% procurement of crops that are not as water-intensive (millets, nutricereals) if these are successfully integrated into the PDS.
A few more aspects need addressing. Pricing of water, timely data on usage/availability/depletion, etc, also need policy attention if conservation efforts are to fruitfully lead to increased access and water security.