Groundwater Exploitation in the Northwest Plains

By: Staff Reporter
In the last few decades, there has been a tremendous over exploitation of India’s groundwater resources, particularly in the Punjab-Haryana region, due to cheap and easy groundwater pumping and drilling technologies accompanied by decision distorting energy subsidies.
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Groundwater subsumes 97 per cent of the world’s readily accessible freshwater and also caters to the rural, urban, industrial and irrigation water supply needs of about 2 billion people around the world, as pointed out by a 2011 World Bank report on ‘Indian Groundwater Governance’. With the gradual depletion of surface water resources by unprecedented population growth, the pressure on groundwater is gradually growing.

However, no checks are put in place and no charges levied on groundwater usage. The ‘Indian Easement Act of 1882’ attempts to define the ownership of groundwater and according to Section 7(g) of the Act, every landowner has the right to ‘collect and dispose’ of all water under his land, and all water on its surface that does not pass in a defined channel. This clearly means that the owner of the land holds the right to use the water beneath. But, unlike land, water does not conform to any boundaries. It flows through gradients and in effect when over extracted from one location, can affect adjoining areas, rendering them dry.

This is of particular concern in densely populated India, where groundwater extraction is at an all time high. In fact, a 2010 World Bank report, ‘Deep wells and prudence: Towards pragmatic action for addressing groundwater over exploitation in India’, claims that India is the largest groundwater user in the world, using an estimated 230 cubic km of groundwater per year—over a quarter of the global total, with more than 60 per cent of irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of its drinking water supplies dependent on groundwater. At this rate of extraction, it warns us, 60 per cent of India’s aquifers will end up critical in the next 20 years.

There are other reasons for alarm. As per a 2010 collaborative study by researchers Yoshihida Wada and Rens van Beek of the Utrecht University and International Groundwater Resources Assessment Centre,“ large-scale abstraction of groundwater for irrigation of crops leads to a sea level rise of 0.8 mm per year, which is about one-fourth of the current sea level rise of 3.3 mm per year.” This can have major repercussions all over the world.

In the last few decades, there has been a tremendous over exploitation of India’s groundwater resources, particularly in the Punjab-Haryana region in India’s northwest, as also the Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) due to cheap and easy groundwater pumping and drilling technologies accompanied by decision distorting
energy subsidies .

In July, 2015, the Supreme Court of India, issued notices to the Central government and Delhi state government over the petition seeking metering and pricing of groundwater in the country to ensure that it is not wasted. Earlier this year, alarmed over the depleting water table in Delhi-NCR, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), in April, 2015, had ordered the Central Ground Water Authority (CGWA) to ensure that no illegal extraction of groundwater takes place in Gurgaon. A 2014 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report states that 15.6 per cent of Delhi’s urban households and 29.7 per cent of its rural ones don’t get sufficient drinking water throughout the year. The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) found that between November 2013 and November 2014, about 53 per cent of all wells in the city showed a drop in the water level. Of these, the drop was up to 2 m in 40 per cent of wells and more in the rest.

For India, the entire northwest plain is nationally significant for being the granary of one of the biggest agricultural based economies of the world. Evidently, the aquifers of the region have been subjected to extensive pressure for sustaining agricultural productivity, industry and livelihoods of millions due to diminishing rainfall over several years.

Urbanisation and industrialisation has also put tremendous pressure on groundwater reserves in the region. Contamination of surface water bodies has especially been a major threat to populations in the northwest region. The situation has progressively worsened with increase in population as well as the rate of withdrawal of groundwater, pushing down the water table.

 Groundwater Extraction in North-western India

The north-western region of India falls within the arid and semi-arid climatic zones, characterised by low to medium rainfall leading to low natural recharge rates. The Green Revolution in India in the ‘80s saw water intensive commercial crop models replacing traditional rain-fed varieties. Price support policies, fertiliser subsidies and high (initial) yields had more and more farmers inclined towards these crops which resulted in a sudden outpour of the aquifers.

The aquifers of India’s northern region are typically deep alluvial systems characterised by higher water production as compared to the shallow hard rock formations of the central and southern parts of India. The elevated parts of the region are exceptional freshwater sources as they are dotted with major aquifers that boast of substantial storage and very high yield.

Yet, with lack of sustained recharge, the water tables in this region are progressively declining. According to the 2010 World Bank report (ibid.), the rate of depletion of aquifers in the northwest region ranges between 0.7-1.2 m per year (which is approximately equivalent to a net 100-200 mm per year of excessive extraction). As Rita Pandey pointed out in her paper, ‘Groundwater irrigation in Punjab,’ published by National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, annual groundwater extraction in Punjab is 31.16 billion cubic m as opposed to 21.44 billion cubic m availability. Very high levels of groundwater are being extracted in Amritsar, Fategarh Sahib, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Mansa, Ludhiana, Moga, Nawanshahr, Patiala and Sangrur Districts, to the extent that out of 137 blocks in the state, only 25 are safe; 103 are overexploited, 5 critical and 4 semi-critical. The primary drivers for groundwater extraction, Pandey feels, is the presence of deep alluvial aquifers in central Punjab, and the lack of adequate surface water as compared to ample groundwater. In the lower plains of the southern Punjab, notwithstanding a vast network of rivers and canals, other factors come into play. Groundwater has advantages where farmers can control the timing and amount of water, and unlike canal irrigation it is not dependent on seasonal flows. Supportive policies that provided flat rate/ subsidised/ free electricity for irrigation well pumping; subsidies on well construction and equipment; cheap diesel; support in terms of assured prices and procurement for some crops with very high consumptive use of water, such as paddy, wheat and sugarcane facilitated groundwater extraction, as she points out.

What is alarming is that the decline has accelerated over time. According to the Ministry of Water Resources’ latest minor irrigation census (2006-2007), the three main states in the northwest plains—Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana house a total of 316323, 49503 and 47239 deep tube wells respectively. On an average, there are 28 tube wells per sq km of net sown area in Punjab alone. Punjab is a predominantly agricultural state with 85 per cent of its area under cultivation with an average cropping intensity of 188 per cent.

With increasing instances of low flow from pumps, where recharge does not measure up to the present rate of extraction, electrical costs of pumping has escalated. The fact that farmers have largely been shielded by the government’s subsidised electricity tariffs has only compounded the problems of a lowered water table. As the water level dips, more expensive technologies such as submersible pumps need to be deployed for extraction.

Indiscriminate groundwater extraction also leads to problems such as the south-western parts of Punjab that suffers from waterlogging and salinity due to the rise in the water table following excessive groundwater extraction. Waterlogging causes depletion of oxygen levels and accumulation of carbon dioxide around roots, lowering crop yields. It also causes chemical degradation due to accumulation of salts at the soil surface leading to an ecological imbalance.

As per the norms prescribed by the 1991 working group of the Ministry of Water Resources on ‘Water logging, soil salinity and alkalinity’, an area is said to be waterlogged if the water table lies within 2 m of land surface. Today, large parts of south-western Punjab suffer from waterlogging and depleted soils, where nothing has been grown for over a decade, as per the findings of a 2013 Planning Commission report of the high level expert group on water logging in Punjab.

 Inadequacies of public policy

Experts feel that the depleting groundwater level in the north-western region can solely be attributed to the incompetency of public water suppliers to cater to rising water demands. Moreover, groundwater usage in India suffers from fragmentation of responsibility at both the central and state levels. On paper, the central government is in charge of developing policy guidelines and enforcing protection whereas the respective state governments exert jurisdiction over all groundwater reserves. In actuality, groundwater usage in India is largely a private activity that remains unregulated.

Although a multitude of steps are being adopted in wake of the growing crisis, we singularly lack regulatory norms. Even as groundwater resources continue to be depleted, degraded, and divided among more and more users every day, the government needs to overcome its myopia and actualise ‘effective management plans’ to stem the impending disaster, if the normal course of wet monsoons enjoyed over the last century be interrupted by consecutive years of drought. Where the Delhi-NCR region is concerned, uncontrolled urbanisation, and withdrawal of groundwater by realtors involved in frenetic construction activities all around the Gurgaon-Haryana belt has severely brought down the water tables.

Groundwater pricing-pros and cons

Although many suggest the pricing of groundwater, this is not an easy task to accomplish. Groundwater pricing involves the complication of putting a price on a ‘common resource’. The National Water Policy 2002 recommends (in the context of financial and physical sustainability) that “there is a need to ensure that the water charges for various uses should be fixed in such a way that they cover at least the operation and maintenance charges of providing the service initially and a part of the capital costs subsequently.”

This recommendation can become a basis for fixing the prices. The most plausible way of pricing groundwater is through regulation. This can keep over exploitation at bay. The draft 2011 Model Bill for the conservation, protection and regulation of groundwater provides for the establishment of a groundwater authority under the direct control of the government. The authority is given the right to notify areas where it is deemed necessary to regulate the use of groundwater. The final decision is taken by the respective state government. As per this draft Bill, the government can:

  • Regulate and control iniquitous groundwater use and distribution, based on priority of allocation to ensure in particular that the drinking water/domestic needs of every person and irrigation needs of small and landless farmers can be met;
  • Ensure safe and secure drinking/domestic water for all people, particularly in groundwater dependent regions;
  • Regulate the over extraction of groundwater in order to ensure the sustainability of groundwater resources, equity of their use and distribution, and to ensure fulfilment of ecosystem needs;
  • Promote and protect community based, participatory groundwater management mechanisms adapted to specific locations in keeping with the resource, socio-economic set up;
  • Prevent and mitigate contamination of groundwater resources;
  • Promote and protect good conservation, augmentation (recharge) and management practices; and,
  • Protect areas of land that are crucial for the sustainable management of groundwater resources and ensure that high groundwater consuming industries are not located in areas unable to support them.

Adaptive strategies

Prior to the Green Revolution, in the early ‘70s, the amount of land under paddy was less than 5 per cent. This increased to 35 per cent in recent times, resulting in an increased demand for water, as Satvir Kaur and Kamal Vatta, have pointed out in their 2015 article, “Groundwater depletion in Central Punjab: pattern, access and adaptations”, in Current Science. In fact out of 20 million tubewells in the country, almost 1.3 million are in Punjab. Faced with water shortages farmers have today switched from centrifugal to submersible pumps. This explains the lowering of the water table in 110 districts of the State.

In certain instances, the farmers of the Punjab-Haryana doab are pulling down acreage of crops like rice and sugarcane, planting millets and wheat instead. Also, farmers are practicing direct seeding of rice, so as to reduce water consumption; opting for basmati variety of rice, since it is transplanted late and needs less water; and, laser levelling. Of late, tensiometer technology, wherein the moisture content of the soil is assessed prior to irrigating the soil, has caught on. Several rich farmers are using such and more water saving techniques, besides falling back on traditional land race varieties and organic farming to stem the depletion of groundwater.


A combination of several factors—monoculture of high yielding varieties, fertiliser subsidies and an efficient procurement system saw farmers in India’s north-western regions give in to water guzzling crops. As a result, natural aquifers are being drained to the last drop. India urgently needs to embark on a well etched water management policy along with the dissemination of water saving cultivation techniques to stakeholders if it has to save the aquifers in India’s food bowl.

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