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Water scarcity and people's alternatives

Drought and water scarcity are usually problems for which gigantic water projects are offered as a solution. Thus, the recurrent drought in Rayalseema is cited as the mam reason for the construetion of the Telugu Ganga Canal. As an expert committee of Andhra Pradesh states, 'For irrigation use, water is a priceless -treasure, since without water there can be no irrigation and without irrigation successful crop production is not possible in the arid and semi-arid regions of Rayalseema'.

Rayalseema. like other arid regions of India, has been supported by a large network of tanks. The construction of tanks for irrigation is an ancient practice, going hack to over 1,()()0 years. The tanks constructed before the Vijayanagar period, are shallow with long hunds. During the Vijayanagar period, an attempt was made to select gorges and construct high embankments to form larger reservoirs. Examples of such tanks are Cumbam tank, Bukkapatnam tank, and Porumilla tank. Even today. tank irrigation in Rayalseema covers 6.2()1 lakh acres, compared to 4.272 lakh acres under major irrigation. The fact that Rayalseema is a drought prone area is partly a result of the breakdown of the tank maintenance systems and partly due to the over-exploitation of the limited water resources of the region.

An example of how the breakdown of the ancient tank system was facilitated is the cessation of maintenance of percolation tanks during the colonial period. Percolation tanks are tanks that recharge the groundwater level for wells and downstream tanks. Since they contribute to nature's economy and the survival economy, and not directly to the commercial economy, they were not sources of revenue for the British. During the British rule when the maintenance grant was linked with the area irrigated, ponds and percolation tanks ceased to receive any maintenance grant unlike other minor irrigation tanks as there was no direct ayacut (command area). This marked the beginning of the end of this system. In more recent times, uncontrolled exploitation of scarce groundwater with energized has led to the drying up of wells and tanks, thus creating a permanent water scarcity. Financial support given to energised pumps has contributed immensely to the rapid utilisation of groundwater. According to Dakshinamurti et al.,

It is seen that from 1950 to 1960 the development of groundwater was about 2.5 p. c. on linear basis, based on the area irrigated from groundwater resources during the year 1950-51. The growth rates from 1960 61 to 1964 65 was 3.7 p. c. It suddenly rose up to 19 p. c. from 1964-65 to 1968 69. This sudden and high increase in growth rate has been due to the advent of high yielding crop varieties, mobilization of institutional resources for financing the programmes and stepping up of rural electrification.

Most groundwater utilisation in India is from the shallow aquifer zone with a depth of less than 400 500 feet. While pumps have been distributed liberally to encourage irrigation in arid and semiarid areas, the close hydrological link between the local surface water sources, dug wells and shallow aquifer borewells have not been given due importance. As a result, while drought is mitigated for farmers growing cash crops, energised pumpsets are creating drought for marginal and poor peasants by lowering the water table to a level that is below their reach. This phenomenon has become so pervasive in the hard rock areas of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, etc. that large areas have been blacklisted to stop groundwater over-exploitation. However, in the absence of a proper legislative instrument, groundwater drought is being increasingly created.

In arid regions, where rainfall is low, there is even less percolation into the ground and the recharge of groundwater correspondingly lower. Local rainfall, in the final analysis, is the only source of groundwater recharge, particularly in the non-alluvial regions. Raghava Rao et al." have given the percentage of rainfall available for recharge in different regions (Table 9.1).

Table 9.1 Percentage Rainfall Infiltration to Groundwater Body in Different Rock Types and Formations

ock Type/Formation Percentage Rainfall Infiltrating to
Groundwater Body
1. Hard rock formations and Deccan traps 10
2. Consolidated rocks (Sandstone) 5-10
3. River alluvia 15-21
4. Indo Gangetic alluvium 20
5. Coast alluvia 10-15
6. Western Rajasthan dune sand 2
7. Intermontane valleys 15-20

Sustainable limits for groundwater exploitation are therefore very low. When the rate of withdrawal of groundwater exceeds the rate of recharge through percolation, groundwater starts getting depleted. Continuous over-exploitation of groundwater then drains the surface water resources in the tanks or dug-wells, making them dry for longer periods in the year. In this process the weaker and poorer households are adversely affected because the rich can tap water at deeper levels.

Groundwater depletion has created permanent drought conditions in most parts of peninsular India. With shallow aquifers totally exhausted, dug-wells and tanks will not store water for very long. This further encourages groundwater based irrigation, sometimes with the declared objective of drought relief. The case of Rayalseema in Andhra Pradesh and other areas in Maharashtra, which include some of India's most drought prone areas, are proof of this. A study by Olsen on Rayalseema concluded that:

Irrigation has left us with the popular perception that this drought is more severe and more permanent than any past drought. Climate change is a myth brought on by the novelty of exponential growth in water usage... the falling water-table is evidence of overuse of water, not of climatic change."

Olsen shows that in fact there is hardly any meteorological change in terms total annual rainfall in Rayalseema over the forty year period from 1946 to 1985 (Table 9.2).

The rise in the number of electric pumpsets in the same region during 1968 84 is shown in Table 9.3.

Table 9.2 Avenge Annual Rainfall in Rayalseema 1946-85

Year Rainfall Year Rainfall
1946 1048 1966 977
1947 476 1967 nd
1948 631 1968 601
1949 nd 1969 768
1950 603 1970 649
1951 482 1971 nd
1952 641 1972 946
1953 915 1973 680
1954 774 1974 734
1955 766 1975 nd
1956 774 1976 698
1957 304 1977 885
1958 763 1978 954
1959 557 1979 882
1960 608 1980 402
1961 587 1981 762
1962 806 1982 548
1963 nd 1983 765
1964 737 1984 728
1965 405 1985 678

Table 9.3 Number of Electric Pumpsets

Year Chittoor
Rayalseerna Andhra Pradesh
1968 22553 10491 41769 122321
1974 41273 20614 81992 261968
1979 48676 76425 98402 345396
1984 68585 39433 144639 582197
Increase of 1984 over 1968 (per cent) 207 276 246 376

Source: AP State Electricity Board figures.

In Maharashtra, depletion of groundwater can be directly linked to the increase in energised pumpsets, particularly to irrigate sugarcane. While sugarcane is cultivated on only 2 to 3 per cent of the land, it consumes several times more water than other irrigated crops. This has necessitated intensive use of groundwater leading to the drying up of wells, both shallow and deep. The sugar factories have been actively supporting their shareholders in deepening their borewells. As a result, public wells and shallow wells belonging to small farmers have become dry. During the Sixth Plan, 15,302 out of 17,112 villages with water problems were provided with water, and the remaining 1,810 villages still faced problems. The rapid depletion of groundwater resources has, however, increased the number of problem villages, with no source of drinking water, to a staggering 23,000. This tremendous scarcity is clearly linked with the over-exploitation of groundwater for sugarcane and the repeated failure of food crops. The government, refusing to recognise the role of sugarcane, cites drinking water scarcity as the reason for increased grants for water development and the failure of food crops as the reason for drought relief. In spite of this, sugarcane cultivation and production is rapidly increasing. In the area around one sugar factory alone, sugarcane cultivation with groundwater irrigation has increased dramatically over two decades, as can be seen from Table 9.4.

Table 9.4 Growth of Irrigated Sugarcane in a Region of Maharashira

Period Area under Sugarcane
(Well Irrigated)
  (in hectares)
1961-62 3248
1971-72 6990
1981-82 17612

The shift from rainfed coarse grain crops to irrigated cash crops, in this case sugarcane, has meant higher incomes. But the costs have been heavy. Manerajree village of Tasgaon taluk is among those that have benefited financially but have lost materially because of sugarcane production and the related increase in groundwater exploitation. A new water scheme with a potential supply of 50,000 litres was commissioned in November 1981 at the cost of Rs.6.93 lakhs. The source well yield lasted only a year, it was dry by November 1982. For increasing yields, three bores each 60 metros deep were made near the well. Together they yielded (with power pumps) 50,000 litres a day in 1982, however all the wells had gone dry by November 1983. In 1984 one borewell of 60 metres depth was dug in the village but this too was found to be dry. Another bore of 200 metres depth provided water for a short time before running dry. More than 2,000 privately owned wells in this sugarcane region have also dried up. At present, water is being brought by tankers from a distance of 15 km.

The expansion of intensive irrigation for increasing sugarcane cultivation was a planned development activity. In 1972, the World Bank gave a credit of US $30 million to finance farmers' investments to expand the irrigation potential. During the three year period of the Maharashtra Agricultural Credit project, it was planned that 300 new tube-wells would be dug at the cost of US $2.5 million to irrigate 6,000 hectares, 11,000 new dug-wells would be energised costing US $27.5 million to irrigate 60,000 hectares, and 175 lift irrigation schemes would be installed costing US $11.5 million to irrigate 40,000 hectares. It was the policy of the World Bank project to finance the expansion of sugarcane. Estimations of changes in the cropped area due to the Agricultural Credit project of the World Bank indicated that the project would lead to a decline in staple foodgrain production, and an expansion of commercial crops like sugarcane. The area under jowar was expected to decrease from 101,450 hectares to 98,900 hectares, i.e., a decrease of 2,55() hectares. Pulses cultivation was expected to come down from 31,55() to 22,2()() hectares. a decline of 9,35() hectares. On the other hand, the area under sugarcane was expected to more than double, from 3,600 hectares to 8,2()0 hectares. Given that a hectare of sugarcane uses 300 hectare cm of water, while a hectare of jowar uses 21, and a hectare of pulses uses only 15 in terms of water use, the planned increase in sugarcane cultivation in a drought prone area was a prescription for desertification. Ironically, the World Bank project to expand intensive irrigation was launched in one of the worst drought years in Maharashtra. Its guiding principle was that there was adequate water for irrigation.

While experience in many districts indicates the relation between over-exploitation of groundwater and a serious decline in the water table, the current thinking in international agencies and government seems to be based on an intentionally created picture of groundwaterabundance in all parts of the country. In fact according to a recent document of the Water Resources Ministry, even the districts marked as negative balance districts in the 1982 report of the Central Groundwater Board have been shown as positive balance districts (Table 9.5).

Table 9.5 Dangerous Inconsistency in Groundwater Availability between 1982 Data of CGWB and 1987 Data of a Recent Document of the Ministry of Water Resources (all units in million cubic metres)

District Utilisable Resources Net Draft
Ground Balance
1982 1987 1982 1987 1982 1987
Ahmednagar 583 1610 1326 754 - 743 +856
Jalgaon 623 1090 676 504 -053 +586
Nasik 916 1500 1051 540 - 135 +960
Sangli 490 760 549 364 -059 + 396
Sholapur 785 1330 797 495 - 012 +835
Chinoor 825 1909 828 746 - 003 + 1163
Cuddapah 425 1273 433 316 -008 +957
Kolar 346 499 548 301 -202 + 198

The document (Annexure with the draft water policy) gives the figure of 41.9 million hectare metres as the utilisable groundwater resources and shows a net positive balance groundwater potential of 31.4 million hectare metres after deducting 10.5 million hectare metres as net draft. This would have been a very comfortable situation if these figures did not totally contradict scientific evaluations of the groundwater situation. Dakshinamurti e' al. points out in clear terms that the working group of the Planning Commission on the Task Force on Ground Water Resources estimated that the total usable ground water potential would be only 75 to 80 per cent of the net ground water recharge available and recommended a figure of 20.36 million hectare metres per year as the long term potential for ground water development in India.... The total utilization of ground water, inclusive of irrigation, industry. domestic, and livestock has been estimated at 11.61 million hectare metres in 1988 89 as against 20.36 million hectare metres of the estimated total usable ground water available in the country. It is thus visualised that the entire potential is likely to be tapped even before the end of the Seventh Five-Year Plan (19~89) unless the recharge rate is increased by suitable ground water recharging techniques.

Other man-made factors have also contributed to groundwater drought. In the Kolar district of Karnataka, earlier well known for water conservation through a large number of tanks, field studies by the authors have established that the uncontrolled expansion of Eucalyptus plantations and the unscientific use of groundwater for irrigating cash crops like grapes, vegetables and flowers, have resulted in groundwater drought leading in turn to the rapid drying up of surface water sources. The traditional tank system was a mechanism for increasing the recharge of groundwater by increasing percolation from surface storage of rain water. The signs of erosion of these indigenous percolation tanks were observed during the colonial period, and since then' their decay has continued. The British had linked maintenance grants of waterworks with revenue, and since percolation tanks had no irrigation command, they ceased to get these grants. The destruction of village panchayats, and the establishment of zamindars and imamdars also led to the decay of these tanks. The current groundwater drought has created a readiness among villagers to re-establish collective control of water use and carry out restoration of traditional tanks and ponds. However, the present official policy seems to be oriented more towards privitisation of groundwater and its uncontrolled exploitation. It rewards those individuals and groups who have acted irresponsibly in matters concerning water. As access to water narrows down to those who can afford to regularly deepen their energised wells for irrigation of cash crops, the disparity between the rich and the poor farmers is getting more pronounced. Water 'development' as conventionally conceived, has a severe polarising effect in rural society.

Ecologically destructive development programmes have transformed temporary meteorological drought into a long-term ecological process of desertification arising from groundwater and surface water drought. This has serious political and economic ramifications? since the costs are borne by the poor and marginal groups, while short-term benefits accrue to the rich sections rural communities. As Gupta has pointed out, 'planners must recognize that drought and its debilitating effects are triggered off by the same set of macro-economic policies which generate surplus.

Operationalising changes in policy and management of land and water will remain a difficult task, since the macro to micro shift has important cognitive, organizational, political and financial implications. Also, it is difficult to impress upon politicians that they should agree to a programme where they will not have opportunity to enjoy political gains by 'bringing' water to a region by 'sanctioning' a canal; it is equally difficult to impress upon the extremely powerful construction industry that collecting water in large dams may not be in the best economic interests of the country. This is apparent from the manner in which the large dam lobby has been able to obtain clearance for the Rs. 25,000 crores, twenty-five year Narmada project in the face of opposition by environmentalists throughout the country! It is equally difficult to make the technocrats accept a system where their grip on the distribution of irrigated water to water starved farms will be less critical. It is no less difficult to convince the grapeiproducing farmers that wine is not as essential as water, in order to stop overuse of groundwater. And finally, it is difficult to make any government agree to a programme that reduces the importance of 'relief' by controlling floods and drought ecologically. Over the years, 'relief' has ensured the survival of individual politicians more effectively than the survival of the suffering population. Ecological water resource use will face the real challenge in the political arena. As the water crisis intensifies, control over water will become an issue of major political conflict. Large-scale collection and distribution of water, while it may not have the sanction of science, will have the support of vested groups and the new caste system that has evolved around the new temple of India-large dams. The challenge would entail the capturing of the proverbial water god (Indradev) in millions of smaller reservoirs and tanks through a people's programme. When water resources are considered from the ecological perspective, when the entire river basin from the catchment to the delta areas is viewed as a whole, when the water budget is planned on the basis of overall development of the people, many of the acute inter-state conflicts will subside. For example, the confrontation and confusion over the Telugu Ganga project will subside once the basic assumption, that dry areas are incapable of improving without irrigation water brought Mom long distances, is questioned.

Experiments like the Pani Panchayat movement and the Mukti Sangarsh movement are showing the direction for the ecological and equitable use of water. Ecological principles ensure equity, since limiting water use to protective irrigation makes it possible to distribute water equally to all families.

The Pani Panchayat movement launched by the Gram Gourav Pratisthan (GOP) in Pune district in Maharashtra is an example of a people centred effort to create an ecological and equitable system of water use in a drought prone area.- It was launched in 1972 when Maharashtra was facing a severe drought. The government focused on relief schemes and rapid exploitation of water resources. Salunke, who established the GGP, realised that the focus had to be soil and water conservation as well as strict water control.

The experience with government initiated irrigation schemes has demonstrated the conflict between the survival needs of the community and the drive for profits of those individuals who can monopolise irrigation water for cash crop cultivation. Sugarcane has become the most important cash crop in the drought affected regions of Maharashtra. Since sugarcane requires a large amount of water, it diverts water both from the survival economy as well as nature's economy. The water demands for different crops are shown in Table 9.6.

The employment generated through equivalent water use for different crops is shown in Table 9.7.

Thus while from the point of view of the farmer with access to inputs for sugarcane, this crop is the most profitable, from the point of view of public interest it is extremely wasteful and resource destructive.

To prevent the waste of scarce water resources through unjust and ecologically destructive cropping patterns, the Pani Panchayats were formed. The central idea underlying the formation of the Pani Panchayats is that in a drought prone area, no individual should be deprived of a rightful share of the limited water resources on which life and livelihood depend. To ensure equity, the Pani Panchayats treat water as a community resource, not as private property. Further, water rights are based on the number of family members, not on the size of landholdings. While members of the panchayat were free to decide how to use their water allocation, sugarcane cultivation was completely banned as being inconsistent with the principles of responsible resource use. A suitable 'Patkari', or water distributor, is appointed by the Pani Panchayat to assure fair day-to-day allocations of water to all its beneficiaries. The experiments of the Pani Panchayat have demonstrated that it is possible to treat water as a common resource, not as private property, and that the community management of a scarce common resource is necessary to ensure justice and sustainability.


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