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Development Challenges for Participatory Public Delivery of Underground Water in Rural India

Abhilaksh Likhi's picture

India’s rapidly industrializing economy and urbanizing society pose a daunting challenge towards augmenting the limited supply of water resources.  No wonder that conflicts over competing uses and users of water, especially in rural areas, are growing by the day. Agriculture, that uses eighty percent of the water resources with low efficiency, is a case in point. Falling water table due to deep drilling and groundwater contamination through discharge of untreated effluents is a serious problem. Therefore, in context of the climate change effects that continue to upset weather patterns, efficient underground water management is extremely critical for 200 million hectares of rainfed areas. This, infact, constitutes 62% of the geographical area of the country with the largest concentration of rural poverty spanning several agro ecological regions.

Since groundwater, as a common pool resource, also accounts for nearly two- thirds of India’s irrigation water needs, there is a dire need for a participatory approach to make its sustainable management more effective. It is interesting to highlight that while groundwater resources are perceived as a part of specific geographic and administrative formations- watersheds, landscapes, river basins, villages, blocks, districts and states, they are seldom placed in the context of aquifers- rock formations that are capable of storing and transmitting the same.

An aquifer mapping approach actually can lead to a more realistic assessment of groundwater storage and transmission characteristics to build ‘bottom up’ capacities of local planners. With regulatory participation at the level of rural communities, through local bodies i.e. Panchayati Raj Institutions(PRIs), in conjunction with  grassroots civil society organizations, various factors such as drilling depth, distance between wells and the need  for change in cropping patterns can determine the need for three key interventions- power/electricity rationing,  allowance for degree of area wise exploitation and creation of  durable water harvesting structures through flagship programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

A successful example of the above strategy is the initiative taken by the Government of Gujarat. The latter has invested US$ 250 million in separation of power supply for tubewells used for agriculture from other rural nonfarm connections (supply to school, hospitals etc) and imposed an eight hour a day power ration which is of high quality. This has been converged through PRIs with an intensive block wise aquifer mapping exercise and a massive water harvesting structure renovation campaign under MGNREGA. Such convergence has led to outcomes like halving of a power subsidy, stabilization of groundwater resources and improved power supply in the rural economy. Similarly, The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has supported  the Government of Andhra Pradesh through a PRI- driven rural development program that involves farmers in hydrological data generation and decision making regarding  crop water budgeting.

In fact, another critical challenge is to integrate information on the area wise rate of extraction of groundwater within the total ecological and livelihood security of the rural space. Government initiatives towards aquifer mapping in this regard have been complemented, through public private partnerships, by civil society organization innovations. The Barefoot College, Tilonia (Rajasthan) runs the program ‘Jal Chitra’ (Water Map) that aims at estimating the cost of developing water sources through rain water harvesting structures or recharging of wells by community assessment of the gap between the reliable availability and requirement of water. In a dozen villages of Rajasthan, Barefoot College backed information technology software supports database of optimal irrigation water required, depending upon crops planted and amount of rainfall received. More importantly, motivated local facilitators from the Barefoot College also continually involve the rural community in sharing as to how much of its annual water need is being met from underground water and the approximate amount of groundwater recharging that is taking place. 

A third challenge is the activation of Water Users Associations (WUA) at the Gram Panchayat level in the villages that would participate in the MGNREGA renovation plan of water harvesting structures, pisiculture, tree planting and command area development works. This should also include maintenance and management, including tail end water distribution across uses and users, through the revenues earned by charging for its services and building a corpus over time for irrigation purposes. In this context, The Dhan Foundation, Tamil Naidu has done exemplary grassroots work in identifying the need for desilting of water tanks and removal of encroachments at the inlet, which over the years reduced the storage capacity of these tanks and led to their abandonment. The Foundation’s efforts have led to outcomes such as reduction in excess pumping that had lowered the water table year after year because of reduced recharging, inturn, of the aquifer.

A related missing link in management of medium and large irrigation projects is the gap between the potential created and potential utilized that suffers often from faulty project designs, poor lining of canals and shoddy maintenance of distribution channels, essentially due to lack of participatory management. Despite the above being addressed through centrally sponsored programs such as the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP), what is required is intensive capacity building of farming communities in demand side articulation rather than singular focus on the supply side mechanisms of O&M (operation and management) by the line departments. The impact assessment study of ten irrigation projects in different states conducted by Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow confirms the missing link in grassroots management both of catchment and command areas of the irrigation projects.

In the ultimate analysis it has to be a paradigm shift away from a narrow engineering construction approach to a demand driven participatory approach towards under groundwater management. This, in fact, attains more criticality in context of the anticipated migration of population from rural to urban areas with the numbers in urban areas rising to 600 million by 2030, leading to tremendous pressure on water supply for drinking and other purposes. In fact, along the rural- urban continuum, medium sized and small towns (called Census Towns) will face a greater squeeze on availability of water resources requiring more focus on regulation of use for industrial and construction purposes.

Needless to state that since groundwater development is demand driven, it can be geared up through efficiently targeted agricultural, credit, subsidy and energy support policies along with creation of suitable markets, first and foremost, for small and marginal farming communities in rural areas.

It is high time that regulatory national organizations in India such as the Central Ground Water Board ensure more decentralized and iterative mechanisms to coordinate among relevant government ministries like drinking water, rural local self governance, rural development, agriculture, environment and forests. At the same time, the program implementation for participatory aquifer mapping at the grassroots has to be incentivized through PRIs especially at the Gram Panchayat level. It is at this last mile and cutting edge point that dovetailing of programs like MGNREGA and the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) with civil society collaboration will make participatory underground water management truly sustainable.

Photography by Curt Carnemark via World Bank Photo Collection, available here.
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