ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Half-Solutions to Groundwater Depletion

India draws out an estimated 231 billion cubic metres of water from the ground annually, the largest amount in the world. The recent report Groundwater Management and Ownership prepared by an expert group set up by the Planning Commission takes explicit cognisance of the fact that there are clear indications that the groundwater resource in the country is under severe stress. The rate of extraction far exceeds the rate of replenishment in many blocks, leading to a progressive lowering of the water table. The report notes that in 2004, an alarming 28 per cent of the blocks in the country were in the category of semi-critical, critical or overexploited, compared to only 7 per cent of the blocks in 1995. Considering that groundwater is a critical input for livelihoods, irrigating about 70 per cent of the cropped area and supplying 80 per cent of domestic water, it is clear that the economy is approaching a flashpoint. Moreover, as the Planning Commission document notes, depletion of groundwater is closely associated with worsening water quality, as indicated by the rising levels of fluoride, arsenic and iron. There is no question then that groundwater management is a matter of high priority.

Groundwater is an invisible, non-stationary, “fugitive” resource, which does not respect boundaries set by landholdings. The negative externalities of its use can be overcome only if groundwater is owned and managed as common property. To this end, the report proposes the adoption of a “sustainable yield management goal”, which means that the average withdrawals should not exceed the long-term recharge. And here lies the difficulty.

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