India is a diverse country. It harbours different religions, ethnicities and species, and until now more or less our natural resources have supported this diversification. However, now, the burden of the activities of the mankind has exceeded the tolerance power of nature and, therefore, India—which has been blessed with water resources—might soon turn into a water-scarce country. Recently, a number of events have shaken up the high-profile political circles of Delhi. The flood situation in Mumbai, severe water scarcity in Shimla and Bengaluru, and the release of the Composite Water Management Index by the NITI Aayog have all put ‘water’ on the front page of many newspaper and websites.
The index prepared by the NITI Aayog claims that, by 2020, as many as 21 major cities of India will run out of the water and face ‘day zero’—a term that got popular after the major water crisis in Cape Town in South Africa. The NITI Aayog has, generously enough, talked about only 21 major cities, but if we go according to the projections of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), more than 60 tier-1, tier-2 and tier-3 cities are on the verge of water scarcity. The stage of development of groundwater in these cities is near 100%. The ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India’, a report published by the CGWB, defines the stage of development of groundwater as the percentage of utilisation of groundwater with respect to recharge.
The stage of development of groundwater in India, as on March 31, 2013, is 62%. But it varies from region to region. The CGWB has divided the whole country into 6,584 assessment units, and of which 16% comes under the category of ‘overexploited’. This means that in 16% of the total assessment units, the annual groundwater extraction exceeds the net annual groundwater availability, which leads to long-term decline in groundwater tables of the regions. In addition, 4% and 10% units come under the category of critical (stage of development of groundwater more than 90% but less than 100%) and semi-critical (stage of development of groundwater more than 70% but less than 100%), respectively.
The maximum number of overexploited units fall in three regions of the country: the north-western part which includes cities in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh; the western part which includes cities in Rajasthan and Gujarat; and the southern part which includes cities in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Of the 21 major cities that are going to run out of water by 2020, as reported by the NITI Aayog, Hyderabad has the worst condition, where the stage of development of groundwater is more than 400%. Chennai, which has been recording frequent floods during the monsoon season, has a 185% stage of development of groundwater. The capital city of India, Delhi’s stage of groundwater development is 127%, but some regions in Delhi, such as Hauz Khas, Kalkaji and Vasant Vihar, have more than 250% stage of development of groundwater.
Apart from these 21 major cities, many other cities in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are at an alarming stage of development of groundwater. The situation will become worse when the population growth rate of these cities is taken into account. The main reasons behind over-extraction of groundwater in these cities are over-reliance of citizens on groundwater due to lack of storage capacity of water, poorly defined legal framework of groundwater that rests the ownership of groundwater with the landowners, and lower pricing of urban water. The per-capita water storage capacity of India is near 225 cubic metres, which is far below than our neighbour China, which has a storage capacity of 1,111 cubic metres per-capita. Most cities in India have seen unplanned growth, whereas master plans are being superimposed without future resource considerations.
There are no provisions for rainwater harvesting and water conservation structures in these plans, which led to the overemphasis on groundwater in these cities. Moreover, the rights of groundwater extraction with the landowners and lower prices of water have resulted in groundwater mining in Indian cities. In order to redress the current situation, Indian policy-makers have to take some tough decisions. These include proper pricing of water, introducing a central groundwater Bill that gives the ownership of groundwater to a particular government agency, and undertaking construction of water-related infrastructure that can increase the storage capacity in India.
Besides this, there is a need to generate awareness among the common masses about the current condition of water scarcity in the country. The common man holds lot of power and, in many cases, it has been seen that people have taken up the matter in their own hands and changed the overall scenario without any external help from any agency. The Jakhani village of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh can serve as the role model for the people, institutions and policy-makers, where without any help from the state or central government, villagers defeated the drought and became self-sufficient in water. To solve the problem of water scarcity in India, we need an integrated approach that involves the efforts of every stakeholder. We have to overcome the diversification in our own motives and stand up as a united front.
Avinash Mishra & Namrata Singh Panwar
Avinash Mishra is joint advisor and Namrata Singh Panwar is young professional (WR & LR), NITI Aayog. Views are personal