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Groundwater Management and Ownership: Rejoinder

Although a lot more needs to be done to evolve a better strategy for managing the groundwater economy, a copybook transposition of the Californian and Spanish formula as argued in these columns 'Groundwater Management and Ownership' (February 16) seems naïve, even disingenuous. A groundwater governance regime for a country like India cannot be dealt with only from the earth science perspective but involves a broader grasp of the organisation of the groundwater economy and its underlying socio-economic dynamics.

Tushaar Shah ( ) is with the Sri Lanka based International Water Management Institute.

DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008117seeks to reshape the “environment of con-duct” without having to touch individual conduct at all; ittriestomanageground-water demand by influencing the broader incentive structure and other exogenous determinants such as electricity supply and pricing regime. 3 Core of the ArgumentPoint (iii) however is at the heart of Narasimhan’s critique. What has irked Narasimhan most is the EG’s apparent underestimation and dismissal of the lessons arising out of the western experience – especially of California and Spain. He is aghast that the EG found Oman more relevant to India than Califor-nia. Narasimhan suggests that Oman – with just 10 per cent of India’s area and a tiny population of all of 2.4 million – has no comparison with India. In contrast, California offers ideal learning laboratory for India because: “In physical, geological and climatic diversity, the western US and India have many similarities”.Narasimhan warns that “India has much to lose by failing to devote serious attention to water experiences of Califor-nia and other western states”. One could not agree more. Groundwater is such a life-and-death issue for India that, leave alone the US west, we have much to lose by ig-noring any country which has experimented with groundwater governance. I for one have followed for several years and with great interest the ongoing experi-mentation in groundwater governance in the US west, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, China, Iran, Morocco, Tunisia and others. However, in my view, devoting “serious attention” should not mean uncritical acceptance. Instead, it should mean asking why, despite having elaborate arrange-ments for active groundwater manage-ment, only 19 of California’s 430 aquifers are under active management? Why has Texas not replicated California’s or the Kansas model, and instead chosen to “let the locals figure it out for themselves”? And for having done that, is Texas any worse? Why is the high plains aquifer being continuously depleted by Nebraska, Texas as well as Kansas? Should we want in India a groundwater governance regime that entails $ 2 billion worth of lawsuits every year? Above all else is the institutional management of groundwater in Kansas, California and elsewhere in the US west really worth the resources it guzzles up in terms of people and funds; can the same results be achieved more efficiently? Devoting “serious at-tention” should also mean asking: Is In-dia’s groundwater problem the same as California’s? Can the California strategy work in India? In general, what lessons from California’s experience are “rele-vant” to India? As Marcus TulliusCicero once said ideas are judged only by results. Narasimhan does not seem to agree. He admits that “institutional and regulatory action in America may not have solved the problem to the desired extent”. Henry Vaux, a well known economist at the University of California, Berkeley, where Narasimhan is based, says that groundwater is pretty much unmanaged in California; yet Narasimhan would like India to emulate California. He also admits that after a quar-ter century of groundwater user organi-sations in Spain, only two-three out ofsev-eral hundreds participate in groundwater management of any sort. Leading Span-ish groundwater experts like Ramon Lla-mas have run out of patience with the Spanish strategy; but not Narasimhan. If such “islands of excellence” are what he would like India’s groundwater strategy to be guided by, why ignore such islands in our own backyard? After all, India herself has bigger and better exam-ples of participatory groundwater man-agement in Hivre Bazaar and Ralegaon Siddi. Tarun Bharat Sangh’s programme of revitalising “johads” has put Alwar’s de-crepit groundwater economy back on rail. And Saurashtra’s highly charged mass-based recharge movement encompasses an area larger than Switzerland and has 100 times more farmers than California; it has arguably done more to turn around Gujarat’s agriculture than the much-hyped Sardar Sarovar Project on Narmada. If groundwater demand management is the issue, the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Man-aged Groundwater Systems Project has involved farmers in over 700 villages in sustainable management of groundwater through scientific approaches. I find it extra-ordinary that while acclaimingimaginary successes in Spain, Narasimhan thinks India can learn nothing from successes in our own backyard. His reference list includes no studies on India; neither does his text make any mention of groundwater management experiments back home.4 Why the California Model Is Not Suited to IndiaFrom the viewpoint of crafting water governance institutions, however, I would like to argue that the dissimilarities between California and India are more overwhelming and germane than simila-rities. These dissimilarities are at the heart of the difference between Narasimhan’s earth science perspective and the govern-ance-institutional perspective that in-formed theEG’s proceedings. With a sleight of hand, Narasimhan proffers, as an obiter dictum, “For groundwater management to succeed, laws and policies have to be set in place to enable disciplined participation of all segments of the society in implementing optimal utilisa-tion strategies” (p 23). The EG’s mandate was precisely to translate this bland state-ment into an implementable strategy. But it found that, in the Indian context, this is easier said than done. This is because India’s groundwater problem is “funda-mentally” different from, and far more complex than California’s in the following critical respects.The first has to do with history. In the US west, groundwater use in agriculture has a history of 150 years, a period long enough for its formidable corpus of institutions to emerge and take root. In India, except in the north-west, the history of intensive groundwater use in agriculture goes back to all of 35 years. Much of the eastern and peninsular India had hardly any ground-water irrigation before 1970.The second has to do with the drivers of agricultural groundwater use. InCalifornia, groundwater irrigation is a response to water scarcity; not so in India, where it is a response to land-scarcity. Bar water, Cali-fornia has everything needed to support vibrant, wealth-creating agriculture; and groundwater provided this missing input and helped create a $ 90 billion agri- business economy. In India, in contrast,the groundwater boom is the result of progre-ssive ghettoisation of agriculture; it is symp-tomatic of the desperate struggle of her
DISCUSSIONapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly118smallholders to survive on shrinking landholdings. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation reports of dif-ferentyears, in 1960-61, the average size of an operational holding in India was 2.61 ha; in 2002-03, this was down to 1.06 ha. A borehole and a pump are the smallholder’s principal allies in this struggle, helping him to make his post-age-stamp sized farm to work double-time to feed his family. That India’s groundwater boom is a desperate response to inexorable popula-tion pressure on farmland is evident in the fact that (a) marginal and small farmers account for the largest proportionate in-crease in groundwater irrigated area since 1970; (b) density of wells (i e, wells/1,000ha of net sown area) increases across districts as population pressure on farmland in-creases; (c) groundwater irrigation has spread in humid areas as much as in arid areas, in canal commands as much as outside them, a pattern we find nowhere else in the world. India’s groundwater crisis is then a part and parcel of her deepening agrarian crisis; there is little chance that the first can be resolved until the second is. Only a conjoint solution will ultimately work. 5 Transaction CostsThird, unlike California’s, India’s has emerged to be an atomistic irrigation economy, with 20 million small well-owners, scattered over a vast countryside, who probably supply groundwater irrigation service to another 30-40 million marginal farmers. The volume of groundwater In-dia diverts every year is only a little over twice what the US does; but the number of independent users involved are over a 1,000 times the number in the US west. And this fundamentally alters the dimensions of the game of groundwater governance.Institutional management of ground-water (or any resource) – through “public trust”, a system of rights, administrative regulation, laws, prices – entails transac-tions costs of enforcement which vary not with the volume of water diverted but with the number of economic agents involved in diversion. Governments can overlook the role of transaction costs of enforcement only at their peril as India has discoveredafter 35 years of legislative zeal. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India declared the Central Groundwater Board as India’s Authority that will take the custody of her groundwater resource and bring over-exploitationofthe resource to an early halt. A decade is gone. What happened? The Authority’s writ barely runs in the union territory of Delhi; even in Delhi city, it has not been able to even register, leave alone regulate, the over 3,50,000 domestic wells that de-plete the city’s aquifers to supply a part of its water needs. Andhra Pradesh made Water, Land and Trees Act (WALTA) with similar intent; Maharashtra made a law with more limited aim of protecting drinking water wells from over-pumped irrigation wells. The impact of these legislative efforts – rather, its absence – is sobering. And the problem is not with the intent of the law or of those who made it but with the high transaction costs of enforcing these. Noth-ing can be easier to do than what Narasimhan suggests: enshrine the doc-trine of public trust with regard to groundwater in the Constitution. Will that make any material difference? I for one think it will be pulling wool over
DISCUSSIONEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008119one’sfacetothink that doing that will change anything. Learning from the experience of Oman, Jordan, Iran, China is critical for India be-cause all these countries are struggling to cope with high transaction costs of impos-ing order in their water economies. In Cali-fornia, it is possible to reason and negotiate with all permit holders in a groundwater district by gathering the lot inside a school classroom. Bringing together all ground-water abstractors in an Indian district would require an assembly hall the size of a town. Other Asian countries face similar situation; and therefore, many have tried using force to impose order to save trans-action costs of achieving voluntary compli-ance. Jordan has constituted a water police; Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan sent the army to install meters on tubewells of unwilling farmers; China has used its powerful village party leaders to enforce groundwater per-mits. My studies suggest thatdespite such exercise of despotic authority, these coun-tries have largely failed in their aims. Being a liberal parliamentary democracy and a “soft state”, India will hardly ever go to thelength these have gone to regulate the conduct of her millions of groundwater irrigators. While Indian law makers have been cavalier about transaction costs of enforcing laws, those in the US west and Australia are certainly not. In most states of Australia, all “de minimis”users who irrigate 2 ha or less are exempt from all regulations and licensing. In Kansas, the limit is 15 acrefeet of groundwater use per year. In Nebraska, only wells that pump over 50 gallons/minute need permits. The purpose of these exemptions is to drastically reduce trans-action costs of institutional management of groundwater demand by limiting the task of enforcement to a few thousand concession holders. However, if any of these limits were applied to India, over 95 per cent of irrigators and 90 per cent ofgroundwa-ter withdrawals would be excluded. In 2005, I visited the Kansas state groundwater department which has some 30,000 groundwater permit holders who pay an annual fee of $ 250/permit. My escort, a professor from Kansas Law School, asked the officer in charge how he would like issuing 20 million permits; the officer’s face first lit up with a broad grin as he struggled counting $ 250 times 20 million; but then his jaw fell open: “Jeez, issuing 20 million permits would be madness”.6 Practical Political EconomyFourth, and relatedly, are the compulsions of a democratic government which wants sustainable groundwater regime but is obliged to pursue policies that militate against it. Most of India’s groundwater anomalies can be resolved in quick time simply by abolishing electricity subsidies and metering irrigation wells. It is a travesty that electricity is free or subsidised in those parts of India where groundwater is deplet-ing precisely because water tables have fall-en beyond the depth where centrifugal die-sel pumps will not work. It isthusnotincor-rect to assert that all groundwater deple-tion in India is not only state-sanctioned but also state-subsidised. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of India’s Planning Commission, has aggressively ad-vocated levying a cess on groundwater withdrawal. Collecting such a cess from 20 million farmers would be quite an opera-tion; a lot easier option would be to meter all electrified tubewells and charge farmers for power based on consumption. This would have the same effect as a “groundwater cess”. Several chief ministers in western and south-ern states have over the past decade tried to put meters on tubewells; several who did not stop in the tracks were almost unseated in the next assembly elections. The political econ-omy of groundwater governance cannot be ignored even in the US west; but ignoring it in India is doing political hara-kiri.So we have a state whose one arm is try-ing to curtail groundwater overdraft and the other is subsidising it. This otherwise laughable circumstance has arisen because over the past three decades, the farmer-based groundwater revolution has provided some relief – if not a lasting solution to millions of India’s agrarian poor. Had this not been the case, the demand for irrigation wells among smallholders would not have been so insatiable. Until population pressure on agriculture eases, groundwater governance in India will continue to involve tightrope walking to balance two conflicting objec-tives – of providing succor to agrarian poor and sustaining the aquifers. Governments will simultaneously persist with the power subsidies responsible for groundwater deple-tion and, at the same time, also implement watershed development intended to re-charge aquifers. This apparent incoherence is symptomatic of the dilemma of groundwa-ter governance in India as opposed to Cali-fornia. Efforts to cope with or alleviate de-pletion through supply-side strategies will tend to be preferred over aggressive demand-side strategies that threaten livelihoods.7 ConclusionsThe Australian Groundwater School at Adelaide is apt in its credo which says “Groundwater will be the enduring gauge of this generation’s intelligence in water and land management”. With 5.5 per cent area under groundwater irrigation and a few thousand farmers drawing 5 km3 of groundwater annually, groundwater govern-ance in Australia (or California) must be child’s play in comparison to India – with 70 per cent of irrigated area served by 230 km3 of groundwater withdrawn every year by 20 odd million abstractors. And I would be the first to admit that, far from being the last word, the EG’s report is only the first tentative step in generating a wider debate on this complex issue. For that rea-son, I empathise with Narasimhan’s lament that theEG’s conclusions are “simplistic”. And we certainly need to do a great deal more to evolve better strategy formanaging our booming groundwatereconomy. The fact remains that copybook transposition of Californian and Spanish formula, as Nar-asimhan suggest, will take India nowhere.We should no doubt learn from the experiences of pioneers like the US west, Australia, and others but we should do so intelligently. For reasons I have discussed earlier, Narasimhan’s uncritical advocacy of the Californian model of groundwater gover-nance to India seems naïve, even disingenu-ous, to me. The difference is of perspectives: with his earth science perspective, Nara-simhan was equipped to comment ably on “physical, geological and climatic” processes. But crafting a groundwater governance re-gime for a country like ours involves broader grasp of the organisation of the groundwater economy and its underlying socio-economic dynamics. Regrettably, Narasimhan’scri-tique betrays no such grasp. ReferenceShah, Tushaar (2008): Taming the Anarchy: Ground-water Governance in South Asia, Resources for the Future Press, Washington. (forthcoming).

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