Understanding the Triggers of Groundwater Competition in Maharashtra

It is critical to know the local geological formations in order to understand groundwater situation. However, most of the development around groundwater is either intuitive, peer-advised or based on traditional water scoping methods. There is a need for an integrated framework for groundwater management and the mainstream programmes and initiatives focusing on water security need to be redesigned and realigned to resolve this crisis.

India is the largest user of groundwater in the world. Currently, about 85% of rural water supplies are dependent on groundwater and more than 60% of irrigated agriculture is possible due to groundwater in the country (Shankar et al 2011). This dependency has had its consequences. Today about 60% of the districts in the country are reeling from the problems linked to either groundwater availability or groundwater quality (Kulkarni and Shankar 2014). This depleting groundwater availability and deteriorating quality of the resource has been a direct impact of the development of the resource for various anthropogenic uses. The situation is equally reflected when it comes to Maharashtra. Today, groundwater is being used through 24 lakh sources in form of bore-wells, dug-wells and handpumps for various purposes in the state (GSDA 2014).

Groundwater is a common pool resource, meaning that it is subtractable and non-excludable in its nature (Ostrom 1990). One cannot be (practically) restricted from using groundwater and such use is vulnerable to reduction in the total groundwater available for that particular year. Although it is a replenishable resource, on an annual basis, the total amount of groundwater available within an aquifer, watershed or in a village will be finite.

The exponential development of groundwater in the state has led to what is commonly referred to as tragedy of commons (Hardin 2009). This tragedy is being manifested in the form of ever increasing sources of groundwater resulting in intense competition largely going unnoticed due to individualised access around the resource. Based on fieldwork across Maharashtra and existing literature, this article aims to discuss the critical points that fuel such an intense competition in the context of Maharashtra. We feel it is important to discuss and understand these triggers of groundwater competition to evolve and arrive at an integrated framework for addressing issues linked to groundwater availability, equity and access and in turn resolving emerging conflicts, if any.

Lack of Hydrogeological Understanding

Groundwater is an invisible and a fugitive resource. The development of groundwater is largely intuitive and perception driven, aided by various myths that stem out of lack of understanding of the groundwater systems. The behaviour of groundwater in any area is shaped by the local hydrogeological formations, which are defined by the geology of the area. The geologic formations capable of storing and transmitting water are called aquifers (Price 1996). Most of the Maharashtra is underlain by basaltic rock types comprising mainly of compact basalt and vesicular amygdaloidal basalt (Deolankar 1980). Compact basalt rocks have secondary porosity in the form of joints, fractures and faults. Vesicular Amygdaloidal Basalt (VAB) rocks, on the other hand, have primary porosity in the form of pore spaces, which allow storage and movement of groundwater. In most regions of Maharashtra, it is the characteristic nature of these two rocks that form the aquifer systems in a given area.

It is critical to know the local geological formations in order to understand groundwater situation. However, most of the development around groundwater is either intuitive, peer-advised or based on traditional water scoping methods. This was reported during the discussion with farmers in Takarwan and Nithrud village in Beed district wherein they said that they often refer to the panadya or the water diviners as they are called in English. Most of these water diviners give a potential “site” wherein an individual can tap groundwater through a source like dug-well, bore-well or handpump. Such an approach is incomplete as it would not inform the user about the resource base (aquifer in this case) it would be tapping, the annual potential yield of the source and the quality of water one would get. This source-centric tactic fuels development of more and more structures in search of water, consequently increasing investments for the same.

The heterogeneity of aquifer systems also triggers responses to the scarcity of the resource. It is a well-studied fact that Deccan basaltic aquifer systems are heterogeneous in nature (Kulkarni et al 2000). These aquifers are not uniform in their characteristic such that for a single aquifer, there are variations in the transmissivity and storativity properties (Kulkarni and Shankar 2014). This inherent heterogeneity leads to variable well yields in practice, which when coupled with social constructs of land entitlements leads to an inequitable allocation of groundwater within a single aquifer, village or two adjoining villages.

One interesting case that was reported in Takarwan was that of the farmers whose lands are far away from the percolation tank in the village. These farmers have taken small pieces of land enough to construct dug-wells downstream of the percolation tank (recharge structure in the area) such that they can then pipe this water to their farm for irrigation. Such practices deepen existing inequities when it comes to allocation of water. The second case is of Nithrud village, wherein a large number of bore-wells drilled “failed” as they did not yield any substantial water. Heterogeneity of aquifers within a given area leads to such examples, which in turn push efforts for “sourcing” of groundwater.

Privatised Nature of (Re)source

Any person can take up a source of groundwater in the form of dug-well or a bore-well in their land without anyone disputing the same. The development of groundwater is highly individualised and since it is strongly linked to land rights, there is no scope for disputes or contestations arising from the same. Many of the farmers from Takarwan and Nithrud village reported that they have taken up three or in some cases five bore-wells in their farms to fulfil their quest for groundwater.

This quest has often ended up with a burgeoning number of sources in these villages, albeit with little success. These numbers itself limit any possibility to economically or administratively control this behavior. When questioned, many of the farmers reported that they believe that going “deeper” will yield water. The focus on sources rather than the resource system has led to this proliferation.

In a survey of 184 farmers in Nithrud village of Beed district, there were 410 bore-wells drilled by them amounting to a consolidated cost of about Rs 1.25 crore towards the development. Out of these, 81 bore-wells were drilled in 2012–13 coinciding with rainfall deficit in the same year. Groundwater development is also a response to natural calamities and vagaries of rainfall[1], which subsequently fuel competition around the resource.

Public Welfare Schemes: Pushing the Competition

The recent vagaries of rainfall and the resultant water scarcity and drought-like situation in Maharashtra has resulted in a series of supply-side programmes being implemented across the state. Be it the promotion of farm ponds or dug-wells through various government programmes, the approach has largely been supply-side interventions. The assumption behind this seems that increasing the number of sources would help resolve the crisis around water. There is a misplaced judgment when it comes to making such assumptions. One, it is perceived, even today, that it is the question of access, and that many of the users still do not have any access to any water source, be it in the form of dug-well and bore-well. etc. Second, it also justifies the understanding that users are efficient in their use of water resources, and that limited supply in itself, is a problem. These two points fuel the approach of supply-side interventions.

What has been observed is that these interventions have not been consistent with the objectives behind it. Let us take the example of farm pond programme of Maharashtra. First, the scheme is more popularly called as “Maagel tyala Shet taale” (Farm pond for anyone who asks for it). This scheme is promoted throughout the state and does not take into consideration criteria of scarcity like lack of access, poor rainfall, and limited groundwater potential, etc, although one of the major objectives of the scheme is to enhance groundwater recharge (Kale 2017). It is not surprising that water surplus regions of Nashik and Ahmednagar top the charts of applications for farm ponds.

Second example is that of the Jalyukt Shivar (JYS) scheme, the flagship programme of the government elected in 2014. One of the criteria for selection of village under this scheme is that the village should had been tanker-fed in the past few years for drinking water purposes. This criteria stems from the assumption that a village is tanker-fed when it does not have enough stock of local water resources to cater its drinking water demand. Demand for tankers may emerge from the fact that the local groundwater resources are developed and has led to their exploitation over time. Unless there is an understanding behind the reasons why villages are facing water scarcity, it would be incomplete, or rather unjust to barrage supply-side measures in the area. Bombay High Court in February 2017 asked the state government to set up a committee to assess the approach and works undertaken as part of JYS scheme (Chaudhari 2017).

One of the objective of the JYS scheme as per the Government Resolution dated 5 December 2014 was to implement the Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2009. Even if efforts to augment supply through this programme see the light of the day in the target villages, if there is no effective implementation of the act, it would lead to another level of competition around groundwater sources since farmers would go for more wells, bore-wells, improved pump capacities and deepening of existing groundwater sources.

Poor Institutional Framework for Groundwater Governance

The state groundwater authority, that is, Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA) is one of the oldest state agencies on groundwater in the country, situated within the institutional architecture of Water Supply and Sanitation Department. When the agency was formed in 1970, the primary objective was to make assessments of groundwater situation in the state through regular monitoring of a network of 5,000 wells spread across the state. The agency has data sets for these monitoring points for the past 45 years, which they regularly use to bring out the assessment reports on groundwater. The second objective, which is executed till date, is to give appropriate site or location for drinking water well under various government programmes in rural areas like National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) among others for drinking water supply in rural areas.

This has not changed much over the last four decades. Even today, the role of GSDA is limited to these activities; although through the new groundwater legislation enacted in the state and linkages to various World Bank-funded programmes, the scope of objectives for the agency have broadened further.

A larger independent water regulatory authority, Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA), was formed in 2005 under the MWRRA Act. However, most of the authority’s work has focused on water resource projects, largely dams, and allocations, entitlements and pricing for the same. Although, it must be assumed that what is referred to “water resources” in the act also includes the element of groundwater. However, the focus has been very limited in the form of large, medium and small irrigation reservoirs projects in various river basins and the interrelations within them. The later enacted Maharashtra Groundwater (Development and Management) Act, 2009 enables the authority to act as state groundwater regulatory authority.

In a public consultation organised by the authority on 28 January 2016 in Pune to notify 130 villages in Pune district, based on GSDA assessment conducted in 2012, there was hardly any representation from communities or elected representatives of these villages. The villages are not aware that they are part of the over-exploited watershed as designated by GSDA. Such an approach would make it prone to failures, if we aim to implement the act.

Need for an Integrated Framework for Groundwater Management

The crisis of groundwater is crisis of water resources in the state. Groundwater contribution in the form of base flows to river systems is critical and is often given a miss due to lack of information of the resource (Ranade 2005). There is a need for an integrated framework for groundwater management and the mainstream programmes and initiatives focusing on water security need to be redesigned and realigned to resolve this crisis. Some of the key focal areas are:

Granularity of data: Existing data on groundwater is sparse and dispersed. There is a need for data generation at local scales of aquifers, watersheds in order to arrive at groundwater management strategies.

Integrating hydrogeological in water security programmes: Watershed development programmes and water security programmes in general focus on ridge to valley approach with emphasis on various land treatments for soil and water conservation. The often miss to local hydrogeology leads to inefficient results and poor outcomes.

Need for stakeholder participation: According to a report by World Bank (Livingston 2009), the socio-economic characteristics of stakeholders (local users) shape the development and consequent problems around groundwater. Integrating these stakeholders in mainstream planning, development and management of water security programmes is key to check competition at local scales.

Effective implementations of legislation on groundwater: Various states have adopted legislation for groundwater. Engaging with communities, elected representatives and state institutions at various levels will create an enabling environment for legislation.

Larger role for groundwater institutions: Water is a state subject and hence action around water and for that matter groundwater needs to happen at state level. There is a need for complete overhaul in the vision, mission and objectives of groundwater related institutions and organisations to address this challenge. Positing them as part of water supply, sanitation or complementary to surface water institutions will limit their role in the overall groundwater governance in the state.

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