For India to tackle its groundwater problem effectively, it must first fix its agricultural policy
A 2009 McKinsey report had warned that water supply in India will lag demand by 50% by 2030—given how the country is the largest user of groundwater in the world, conservation efforts are, therefore, welcome. However, policy has to be careful to ensure that the burden of conservation is fairly distributed and doesn’t fall on one group of users alone. The new guidelines on groundwater usage by industries, however, do exactly that.They call for existing and proposed plants of industries such as beverages, tanneries, paper-pulp, etc, to obtain no-objection certificates before they can use groundwater. The norms effectively mean plants in areas where groundwater is severely depleted could even face closure—nearly 20-25 units of major beverage companies, as per a report in Business Standard, are in “over-exploited” areas.
However, it is agriculture that is the biggest guzzler—nearly 90% of the groundwater India used in 2010 was for agriculture, while industrial usage accounted for just 2%. Studies show that the country’s groundwater-irrigated area—as per the World Bank, nearly 60% of its irrigated agriculture is groundwater-dependent—has increased by 500% since 1960. Much of this is due to the huge subsidies on electricity for farm use and fertilisers—cheap power, with no cap on water extraction, has ensured almost unchecked pumping out by farmers while cheap fertiliser has led to over-use, necessitating increased use of water. Given the procurement policy of the government prods farmers in states like Punjab, where the water-table is falling fast, to grow water-intensive crops like rice, instead of, say, in West Bengal, where irrigation needs are lesser, it is easy to see why India, as NASA mapping shows, has contributed the most to depletion of global reserves. For groundwater to recover, India must fix its agriculture policy first.