Promoting Farm Ponds
Although the article “Problematic Uses and Practices of Farm Ponds in Maharashtra” (EPW, 21 January 2017) by Eshwer Kale rightfully highlights pertinent issues regarding the policy of promoting farm ponds and the manner in which farmers are using these structures; the solutions espoused by the author and the Maharashtra government are devoid of expertise regarding technicalities related to terrain, geography and water-pumping technologies.
The author thanks Uma Aslekar, Rakesh Gupta and Rucha Deshmukh for their valuable comments and suggestions.
This article is in response to Eshwer Kale’s “Problematic Uses and Practices of Farm Ponds in Maharashtra” (EPW, 21 January 2017). It aims to extend the line of explanation behind the practice of pumping groundwater into these farm ponds and at the same point identifies challenges in the measures suggested by the author.
The recurring drought and water scarcity problems emerging in Maharashtra have led to a series of supply-side interventions, being promoted by the state government. Farm ponds are promoted as a solution to water-stressed arid and semi-arid regions of the state. At present, the government promotes these structures. It calls for the creation of these structures across the state, through the programme “Maagel tyala shet tale” (literally, “farm ponds for all who ask for them”). This has largely been derived from the assumption that most of the (rainwater) run-off can be tapped into by these structures during the monsoon season and consequently, the stored water can be used by farm pond owners for the various purposes they find suitable—primarily to irrigate their farmlands.
First, the author correctly highlights the existing practice of extracting groundwater through bore-wells and dug-wells and storing the same in these farm ponds. This, as the author has rightly pointed out, leads to a lot of problems, especially to that of evaporation losses. Second, as the author states that these structures are meant for groundwater recharge through percolation, however, this is not evident since the government is pushing for the promotion of high-micron plastic paper—through a separate subsidy which is also being availed by the farmers. The high-micron plasticpaper being impermeable prevents the percolation of water into the ground thus, arresting potential infiltration.Infiltration is the precursor for aquifer recharge. Therefore, the point that these structures are meant for percolation and groundwater recharge is rendered null. Although, the author points to the practice of extracting groundwater, there is not much reasoning in the article as to why farmers resort to such a practice. This article attempts to highlight the causes shaping such behaviour, based on discussions held with farmers in various villages in Ahmednagar, Beed and Pune districts.
Groundwater and Pump-technology
FWhile discussing the practice of pumping groundwater into these surface structures, many of the farmers reported that the pressure in high-yielding bore-wells decreases over the year. This leads to problems with irrigating their farms—especially for horticulturists and large farm holders—therefore the farm ponds come to the rescue. Bore-wells are groundwater sources which tapconfined aquifer systems. These sources unlike dug-wells work on the principle of pressure. The water stored in confined aquifer systems is subject to pressuredynamics, whichaffect the yield of these sources.
The pressure with which bore-wells yield water may reduce over the year/s, owing to the continued extraction ofwater from the confined aquifer system. This leads to diminishing returns from the bore-well over the year/s. Thus, a bore-well irrigating an acre of land in eight hours, say in October may not be able to do so as the year progresses.
If the confined aquifer is fully saturated (as is the case, after its natural recharge cycle) then the pressure in the aquifer is high, as a result of which pumping discharges are high. As the saturation decreases after consistent discharge of water (through pumping over time), the pressure in the aquifer reduces which results in the reduction in pumping discharges. Therefore, farmers resort to pumping bore-wells and storing the water in the farm ponds, which works at a better pressure level and helps the farmer irrigate the same area of land over the entire year. This is critical especially for horticulture crops which require water at regular intervals all throughout the year, as compared to seasonal crops.
Given that the understanding of ground-water resources is largely intuitive and perception-driven, farmersoften believe that it is better to rely on farm ponds, where the water is “visible,” and not on bore-wells where the water is not visible. The uncertainty over whether a bore-well will yield enough water is also a cause behind the practice of pumping and storing groundwater in farm ponds. The lack of understanding of local hydrogeological formations,aquifers and consequently the groundwater potential of a particular aquifer leads to such decision-making (Vijay Shankar et al 2011). This line of logic is equally true in cases where farmers pump bore-well water intodug-wells.
Terrain and Non-scientific Policy
In many areas, dug-wells were the primary source of irrigation and drinking water until the advent of bore-wells. The performance of a dug-well is shaped by the local water table of the unconfined aquifer system, while the performance of bore-wells is shaped by the potentiometric levels caused by the pressure of the confined aquifer system (Figure 1). With depleting unconfined aquifers, more and more farmers have started to rely on bore-wells as a source for groundwater. Usually the pump capacity of a bore-well is less than that of dug-wells, leading to the inability of a bore-well to pump out enough water for irrigation, within a stipulated time. This is why farmers practise pumping water out of a bore-well and into a dug-well, which has a higher pump capacity.
However, this leads to a transfer of water from the confined aquifer system to the unconfined aquifer system. This may be a problem or may lead to one, in the future, especially in areas with poorer confined aquifer water quality. These practices have proliferated partly due to the irrigation electricity schedule inrural areas: local irrigation electricity schedules are often limited to eight hours a day in most areas. The capacity to store and transmit groundwater is a function of the local aquifer system and not that of rainfall, topography and otherfactors. Thus, the promotion of farm ponds in arid and semi-arid areas becomes much more questionable, since it does not take into consideration the local aquifer characteristics. Much of Maharashtra is underlain by basaltic rock, which consists of hard rocks like compact basalt and vesicular amygdaloidal basalt (VAB) (Deolankar 1980). VAB has a primary porosity in the form of pore spaces, while the compact basalt has a secondary porosity in the form of fractures, faults and joints. Hence, it becomes crucial to understand the local hydrogeology which shapes groundwater behaviour.
Solutions to the Groundwater Crisis
In the series of measures suggested by Kale, one is to ban the pumping of groundwater into farm ponds. However, it is really difficult, rather impossible, to centrally control and command the development and use of groundwater owing to its largely privatised nature of dependency. Groundwater is a common pool resource which is non-excludable making it vulnerable to the “tragedy of commons” (Ostrom 2010; Hardin 2009). Groundwater resides in aquifers which form the resource base. The same aquifer is tapped for drinking water as well as for meeting irrigation demands thus, leading to inherent conflict situation over a limited resource. This tragedy is already being manifested in the form of lakhs of structures being built across the state and country, and the resultant exploitation is leading to the depletion in the levels and quality of groundwater. It is economically and administratively unviable to try and control the pattern of use, as well as the behaviour of users. Legislatively, efforts to regulate groundwater have been limited, as in the case of the Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 1993 (Phansalkar and Kher 2006).
The 1993 act focuses on watershedareas or areas declared as overexploited or water-scarce by the state technical agency; the Groundwater Directorate of Surveys and Development Agency. The 1993 act states that there should not be any new private well in the radius of 500 m from any public drinking water source. However there is no basis for deciding such a distance-based regulation except on the basis of some broad thumb rule related to the porosity of the soil, rainfall, but not aquifer characteristics. Since there is no understanding of aquifer systems in the state, it is difficult, ratherimpossible, to contest the resource on the basis of rights, allocations and entitlements. As Phansalkar and Kher (2006) state in their paper, much of the violations of the act are rooted in a strong power dynamics, political hegemony at the village/local level, thus preventing any legal action.
Promoting surface supply structures like farm ponds through publicly-funded schemes, in a society which has an ever increasing dependency on groundwater, is an exercise of deceiving one’s self of the realities that exist. There needs to be a focus on understanding the user’s perceptions around such schemes and addressing the core issues that exist at the proliferation of such practices.
Deolankar, S (1980): “The Deccan Basalts of Maharashtra, India—Their Potential as Aquifers,” Ground Water, Vol 18, No 5, pp 434–37.
Hardin, Garett (2009): “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, Vol 1, No 3, pp 243–53.
Ostrom, E (2010): Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press.
Price, M (2013): Introducing Groundwater, Routledge.
Phansalkar, S and V Kher (2006): “A Decade of Maharashtra Groundwater Legislation: Analysis of the Implementation Process,” Law, Environment and Development Journal, Vol 2, No 1, pp 69–83.
Vijay Shankar P S, H Kulkarni and S Krishnan (2011): “India’s Groundwater Challenge and the Way Forward,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 46, No 2, pp 37–45.
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