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India's Master Plan for Groundwater Recharge: An Assessment and Some Suggestions for Revision

India's Master Plan for Groundwater Recharge: An Assessment and Some Suggestions for Revision

The government's Groundwater Recharge Master Plan reflects belated recognition of the growing criticality of groundwater for the Indian economy. The plan aims to raise post-monsoon groundwater levels to three metres below ground level through annual "managed artificial recharge" of 36.4 km3 by constructing some four million spreading-type recharge structures at a cost of Rs 25,000 crore. While this is a step in the right direction, the revised master plan under preparation needs to incorporate socio-economic, institutional and administrative parameters that underpin the implementation of any major change intervention. This paper provides an assessment of the existing plan and offers suggestions for revision.


India’s Master Plan for Groundwater Recharge: An Assessment and Some Suggestions for Revision

Tushaar Shah

The government’s Groundwater Recharge Master Plan reflects belated recognition of the growing criticality of groundwater for the Indian economy. The plan aims to raise post-monsoon groundwater levels to three metres below ground level through annual “managed artificial recharge” of 36.4 km3 by constructing some four million spreading-type recharge structures at a cost of Rs 25,000 crore. While this is a step in the right direction, the revised master plan under preparation needs to incorporate socio-economic, institutional and administrative parameters that underpin the implementation of any major change intervention. This paper provides an assessment of the existing plan and offers suggestions for revision.

The work for this paper was supported by: (a) IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program, and (b) research project on “Strategic Analyses of India’s Mega Project on River Linking” under Challenge Program on Water and Food. The author gratefully acknowledges this support.

Tushaar Shah ( is with the International Water Management Institute, Vallabh Vidyanagar.

ven as Indian agriculture has come to depend overwhelmingly upon groundwater irrigation with small wells and pumps, the country’s water policy is weighed down by the baggage of colonial hydraulic tradition of canal irrigation. In the face of declining surface irrigation, governments keep investing billions in new canal projects, to the near-total neglect of groundwater aquifers and their recharge.

1 Background

The groundwater revolution all over India that began during mid-1970s needs a systematic response from public agencies. But this is a wholly new phenomenon that the water establishment has never dealt with before. North-western India had a tradition of well irrigation even during colonial times and earlier; however, large-scale irrigation of field crops with groundwater was unheard of in humid eastern India and hard rock peninsular India until 40 years ago (Shah 2008a, forthcoming). Yet all of India experienced runaway increase in the numbers of irrigation wells equipped with diesel or electric pumps from around 1,50,000 in 1960 to nearly 20 million by 2000; and annual groundwater withdrawal for agriculture increased from less than 20 billion cubic metres to around 230 billion cubic metres during this period. There is no sign of decline in either, signifying that this silent but profound transformation of Indian irrigation is still under way and is here to stay.

One consequence of the groundwater boom is decline in the use of surface storages and canals in relative and absolute terms. Since 1990, India has been investing more and more on canal projects to get less and less canal irrigation (Shah et al 2009). For example, the state of Andhra Pradesh, where groundwater irrigated area has soared from 17% to 43% during 1970-2000, and area irrigated by canal systems as well as tanks have shrunk massively (Amarasinghe et al 2007), spends paltry sums on groundwater recharge schemes but has launched Jalayagnam, a grand $25 billion scheme to take canal irrigation to each and every farmer of the state.

People on their part, however, have begun putting their energies and resources in enhancing the productivity of their wells through groundwater recharge, where their priorities lie. In some parts of India, especially in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat and Alwar district of Rajasthan, popular movements for rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge offered significant, even if partial, response to intensive groundwater use (Shah 2000; Shah and Desai 2002). In many southern districts, farmers are converting their centuries-old irrigation tanks into percolation tanks so

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that they support groundwater irrigation from wells (see, e g, Rao 2003). These examples generated a debate within the civil society about the criticality of groundwater recharge in the Indian context. However, government planning failed to accord much priority to large-scale groundwater recharge. It is in this backdrop that India’s Groundwater Recharge Master Plan (GRMP) reviewed in this paper acquires significance as a first critical step in the right direction.

2 Groundwater Recharge Master Plan

The “Master Plan for Artificial Recharge of Groundwater in India”, referred to in this paper as GRMP is the handiwork of India’s Central Groundwater Board (CGWB), the top level body entrusted with exploration, study and monitoring of ground water in India (GoI 2005: v). The plan argues that artificial recharge on the scale suggested can help:

– Enhance the sustainable yield in areas where over-development has depleted the aquifers;

km2 territory, as appropriate for recharge works. It estimated a potential to recharge 36.4 km3 of water in a year in a normal monsoon year by constructing 2,25,000 mostly non-privately owned spreading-type recharge structures in the countryside and 3.7 million mostly private roof-water harvesting structures in urban areas. The total cost of implementing this grandiose plan was placed at Rs 24,500 crore ($6 billion at January 2008 exchange rate).

The master plan recommends a variety of recharge structures but makes particular mention of nine: (a) percolation tanks;

  • (b) check dams, cement plugs and nala bunds; (c) Gabian structures akin to check dams; (d) village tanks modified to serve as recharge tanks by desilting and fitting them with cut-off trench and a waste-weir; (e) recharge shaft, that is a trench backfilled with boulder and gravel; (f) sub-surface dykes or groundwater dams;
  • (g) dried up or disused dug wells; (h) injection wells in alluvial
  • aquifers overexploited by tube well pumpage; and (i) roofwater harvesting structures especially for

    Figure 1: GRMP’s Planning Protocol

    – Support conservation and storage of excess

    Estimation of available storage space based on thickness of available storage space below 3 m bgl Estimate of source water requirement at 75% recharge efficiency of structures Estimation of source water availability as run-off less existing storage less planned storages Number and type of recharge structures=source water available/capacity of water spreading recharge structure
    urban settlements.

    Feasible recharge areas based on long-term

    surface water for future requirements which

    post-monsoon water level data

    3 Assessment of the Master Plan

    often change within a season or a period;

    – Improve the quality of existing ground-

    The singular achievement of the GRMP is water through dilution (ibid: 10).

    that, for the first time, an agency of the The plan also argues that “harnessing of ex

    government of India has made a case for cess monsoon run-off – which takes a heavy

    investing in groundwater recharge on a toll of life, agriculture and property” – would

    scale commensurate with need. Its objec“not only increase the availability of water to

    tive of raising groundwater levels to three meet the growing demand but also help in

    metres (or eight metres as the CGWB has controlling damages from floods” (ibid: 11).

    suggested later) has, as argued later, great The conceptual foundation of the master

    significance as a possible goal for the naplan, set out as a flow chart in Figure 1,

    tional water policy. GRMP is an ambitious

    2,25,000 large structures, 3.7 m small

    rests on three pillars: (a) estimation of nonplan; it is also a pan-Indian plan, empha

    structures, 36 km3 of annual recharge, committed surplus monsoon run-off available total outlay of Rs 25,000 crore sising the national scale of India’s ground

    in space and time in 20 major river basins of the country; (b) assessing the surplus space available under diffe rent hydro-geological situations; and (c) identifying sites for a mix of recharge structures, appropriate to different hydrogeological and topographical conditions, to saturate the vadose zone up to three metres below the ground level (bgl).

    The CGWB deployed its considerable scientific expertise and manpower to assess these three dimensions at the level of river basins and sub-basins in each state and union territory. At each sub-basin, the preparation of the recharge plan entailed a step-wise process outlined in Figure 1. Estimates at sub-basin levels were then aggregated to prepare the national master plan but with a chapter for each state and union territory that can “serve as a planning and implementation document” at local levels. At the aggregate level, these exercises showed that: (a) surplus run-off available in the 20 basins was of the order of over 87 km3 in a normal monsoon year; (b) saturating vadose zone up to 3 m bgl would create sub-surface storage potential of around 59 km3, of which retrievable storage would be nearly 44 km3; and (c) due to regional variations, however, feasible groundwater storage potential was estimated at 21.4 km3 of which 16 km3 would be the utilisable potential.

    As a sum total of these disaggregated exercises, the master plan identified 4,49,000 km2, about 20% of India’s 2.38 million

    water challenge. This is significant considering the fact that what groundwater recharge efforts one finds in India are in the nature of small-scale local experiments mostly undertaken by non-governmental agencies and local farming communities. For this reason alone, one needs to commend the CGWB and the GRMP for drawing attention to the limitation of surface storages and the criticality of groundwater recharge in India’s hydro-geological and climatic context, as the following quote affirms:

    In arid areas of the country rainfall varies between 150 and 600 mm/ year with less than 10 rainy days. Most of the rain occurs in three to five major storms lasting only for a few hours. The rates of potential evapo-transpiration (PET) in these areas are exceptionally high, ranging from 300 to 1,300 mm. The average annual PET times...10 times the rainfall… [These] climatic features are not favourable for creating surface storage. Artificial recharge techniques have to be adopted which help in diverting most of the surface storage to groundwater storage within shortest possible time (Government of India 2005: 14).

    A serious scrutiny of the document, however, suggests that the GRMP is just a first step towards developing a comprehensive, well-rounded plan for meaningful action. The most significant offering of the GRMP is the easily verifiable objective of raising the groundwater level throughout the country to 3 m (or 8 m) bgl. However, the strategy it recommends for achieving the o bjective

    december 20, 2008

    Figure 2: Demand and Supply Sides of Run-off Allocation for Groundwater Recharge

    however, groundwater demand Availability of Uncommitted Surplus Water and Large Groundwater Storagein the form of energy savings.

    deserves deeper scrutiny. If a plan is about galvanising action for achieving results, it needs to go considerably beyond identifying a technical possibility and its potential. In order to be meaningful, such a plan needs to do justice to at least seven questions, which the existing version falls short of doing. However, the revised GRMP under preparation needs to incorporate these dimensions.

    3.1 Convincing Logic?

    The answer to this question is “no”. After making a strong pitch for recharge, the planning protocol devised by GRMP is strange. It follows the supply-side principle: “recharge where water is most available and where aquifers are most roomy”. But the demandside principle we should follow is, “recharge as much as feasible where aquifers are most depleted, and groundwater most intensively used by, if needed, reallocating water from existing uses that are less productive at the basin level than groundwater use”. In total contrast to the demand-side logic, the GRMP stipulates that recharge investments in a basin/region should be determined solely by two variables: volume of “uncommitted surplus water” available; and storage space offered by the aquifers (quadrants 2 and 4 in Figure 2). “Uncommitted surplus water” available is computed after allowing from the total available run-off the requirements of large and small surface storage structures existing, under-construction and planned in future. In most parts of India today,

    booms and aquifers come under Low

    stress mostly where neither “uncommitted surplus water” nor roomy aquifers are available (quadrant 3). The GRMP planning procedure would thus result in excluding or giving low priority to areas most in need of recharge initiatives.

    GRMP is based on two implicit premises: (1) because we have already invested in building surface storages, they must get the first charge on run-off, no matter how conditions have changed; (2) surface storages are inherently better than groundwater storage. Both these premises need to be questioned. The first falls into the “sunk cost” fallacy which is precisely that we feel compelled to get our “money’s worth”, even if doing so makes us suffer. But since the money invested in dams and canals is gone, no matter what we do, the only real question we should be asking is how to augment our groundwater resources if that is where our water comes from.1 The second premise is outright wrong. Except for the fact that infiltration to groundwater is slow, on all other counts, groundwater storage is superior to surface storages (Keller et al 2000). Groundwater storage loses far less to evaporation compared to surface storage; it promises better filtering and water quality; it offers groundwater on-demand; groundwater needs less transport to the point of use.

    What goes against groundwater storage is the energy required to use it. However, the issue relevant today is not how much

    e nergy we can save by substituting surface water for groundwater because there is no way anybody can guarantee that expansion in surface irrigation infrastructure will reduce groundwater irrigation. All evidence in India suggests that even in canal and tank commands, irrigation by wells is expanding while that from gravity flow is declining (Shah 2008a, forthcoming). The relevant issue today is how much energy we can save by minimising the pumping head from which we lift groundwater. In this context, the GRMP objective of raising groundwater level to 3 m bgl is of great appeal. Indeed, reducing pumping head through aggressive recharge programme can generate economic (and environmental) benefits through energy savings of the order that surface irrigation investments have never achieved. Especially in quadrants 3 and 4 in Figure 2, therefore, it makes perfect sense to give groundwater recharge projects first charge on run-off and reinvent surface storages as intermediate storages. Indeed, if surface storages can be used to provide for groundwater recharge over a longer period, so much the better. Equally, groundwater recharge should get higher priority than canal irrigation in allocating reservoir water after hydropower generation in quadrants 3 and 4 areas. India must not overlook the fact that every one metre rise in the depth from which farmers pump groundwater saves the country 131 crore units (kWh) of electricity at generating stations.2 The GRMP’s objective of raising the depth of groundwater to 3 m bgl, if achieved, can confer stupendous economic (and environmental) gains to the country

    Groundwater demand for various uses including irrigation Low Neither scope nor need groundwater recharge e g, Jharkhand 1 2 Huge scope for groundwater recharge but little need ,e g, north Bihar, north Bengal coastal Orissa
    High Limited scope for 3recharge but maximum need for it to sustain groundwater economy, e g, Saurashtra, Krishna Sabarmati, Godavari, Pennar basins 4 Scope as well as need for intensive groundwater recharge, e g, Indus basin (Punjab, Haryana, western Rajasthan)

    High Researchers have estimated

    that energy use/ha of groundwater irrigated area in India is around 3,400 kWh on average but can go up to over 7,700 kWh/ha in states with depleted aquifers (India Waterportal). Since most energy used in pumping groundwater is thermal, energy savings can be both a major economic benefit as well as a contributor

    to climate-change mitigation through reduced green-house gas emission.

    3.2 Does GRMP Allocate Resources Optimally?

    A good plan would allocate financial and other resources according to the seriousness of a problem to be resolved or the size of an opportunity to be exploited. In the context of India’s groundwater economy, a logical criterion to direct resources would be the degree of groundwater over-exploitation. The CGWB, the author of the GRMP, categorises blocks and districts in to white (safe for development), gray (semi-critical), dark (critical) and over-exploited (withdrawals exceeding long-term recharge) according to the development of known groundwater potential. Dark and over-exploited blocks reflect a crisis situation, needing immediate ameliorating measures. Logically, more resources – financial as well as water – should be allocated to groundwater recharge in these blocks. However, the procedure the GRMP adopts militates

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    against such a need-based resource allocation. GRMP’s recharge the issue of future maintenance of recharge structures; however, it
    interventions are designed around the availability of “uncom is totally silent on the matter.
    mitted surplus water”; more resources are directed to areas
    which have more uncommitted surplus water and vice versa. 3.5 Does GRMP Respect the Subsidiarity Principle?
    This is evident in Table 1. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Ra- A related issue is regarding the role of the farmer in the whole
    jasthan, states with over half of India’s groundwater-threat programme. Much recent research and experience in develop
    blocks get only 21% of GRMP funds; in c ontrast, states – such as ment management and public administration highlights the fact
    those in water-abundant Ganga- Brahmaputra-Meghana basin – that public interventions work better when responsibility for
    which have no groundwater overdraft problems walk away with decision-making and implementation rests at the most imme
    43% of GRMP recharge funds simply because they have over half diate local level. In the context of our discussion, this would
    of “uncommitted surplus water” available for recharge. mean that impacts are likely to be better if central agencies
    such as the central and state level groundwater organisations
    3.3 Does GRMP Outline the Pathway to Implementation? focused on facilitation, capacity-building, and provision of
    The key characteristic of any good plan is that it outlines the road technical support, while recharge works are implemented by
    map for its implementation. This involves answering questions groundwater users or their communities. The GRMP is silent on
    like: who will do what? What will be the roles of different its implementation, but indirectly implies that most responsibility
    agencies? Which agency will have oversight responsibilities? Will would rest with the CGWB or their state-level counterparts. The
    the plan need creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for imple problem is twofold: first, it seems difficult to imagine how these
    mentation? How will resources be channelised? Who will be can effectively construct, leave alone maintain, the large number
    responsible for monitoring the progress and what will be the of dispersed structures proposed; second, the GRMP provides no
    performance indicators to be monitored? This list is just a small clue on precisely what will be the role of groundwater users, and
    sample of a long array of issues that a plan must touch upon. how will these be involved in performing that role.
    The GRMP steers clear of these issues. In this sense, it is not a
    plan at all; it is merely an enumeration of groundwater recharge 3.6 Does GRMP Respond to Contextual Specificities?
    potential in different states and back-of-the-envelope calcula- Underlying a good plan lies a theory of why it will work subject to
    tions of the costs of recharge structures needed to develop this the validity of a set of assumptions. Indeed, an action plan is only as
    potential. In this sense, GRMP presents a unidimensional narra good as its underlying theory which elucidates the contextual spe
    tive focusing only on hydro-geological potential assessment. cificities to which the plan must respond. In the case of India’s
    groundwater economy, the underlying theory must explain the
    3.4 Sustainability of Recharge Structures? drivers of current trends, what is the best method of influencing
    According to the costing done by the GRMP, it would take Rs 800 them and why. The GRMP begins by emphasising correctly the
    crore to create a cubic km of recharge capacity. This is an expen explosive growth in groundwater use in India but has nothing
    sive proposition – and the GRMP makes no mention of the private to say about its underlying dynamic and driving forces; as a
    and social benefits that such large investment would generate;
    but even this high cost can be defended provided the GRMP outlines a road map to ensure the future sustainability of structures. Table 1: Groundwater Over-exploited States and GRMP Fund Allocation for Groundwater Recharge State Available Proposed % of State’s Threatened
    It is one thing to construct recharge structures; it is quite another Water Outlay Blocks under Blocks as % of India’s (Million m3) (Rs Million) Threat of Threatened
    to repair and maintain these over time, bring them into readiness Over-exploitationa Blocks
    for recharge before monsoon. In the Indian context, recharge 1 Andhra Pradesh 1,095 16,970 38 29.2
    structures are typically in use for three-five monsoon months; 2 Tamil Nadu 3,040 23,858 61 14.4
    and their deterioration tends to be rapid when in disuse. Future 3 Rajasthan 861 11,400 86 12.6
    sustainability becomes especially important because most struc 4 Punjab 1,200 5,280 82 6.9
    tures recommended by the GRMP are not privately owned. The 5 Gujarat 1,408 11,547 50 6.9
    GRMP envisages “37,000 percolation tanks, 1,10,000 check dams/ nala bunds/cement plugs/weirs/anicuts, etc, 48,000 recharge shafts/dug well recharge [structures], around one thousand r evival of ponds” (Government of India 2005: vi). Apart from 6 Karnataka 2,157 12,330 47 5.1 7 Haryana 684.5 1,593 63 4.4 8 Kerala 1,078 12,780 33 3.1 9 Madhya Pradesh 2,320 19,085 16 3.0 10 Maharashtra 3,171 25,620 9 1.9
    dug wells, all other structures proposed will be government and Key problem states 17,014.5 1,40,463 87.5
    common property structures. Decades of experience of water Non-problem statesb 19,528 1,04,537 12.5
    shed management programmes in India are ample proof that India 36,543 2,45,000 29 100
    common property structures rapidly decline and fall into disuse because of the absence of community involvement in their main a Of the total of 5,723 blocks under groundwater assessment in India by the Central Groundwater Board (Planning Commission 2007:59), 4,078 were found “safe”; in 550 blocks, groundwater resources were found under “semi-critical state” in the sense that 70% or more of the known
    tenance and repair. Rehabilitated tanks soon require another resource was already developed; 226 more blocks were “critical” where 70-100% of the resource is already developed. 839 blocks were declared over-exploited because their annual
    rehabilitation programme; even modernised canal irrigation groundwater draft exceeded long-term rate of annual recharge. Threatened blocks include “semi-critical”, “critical” and “over-exploited”.
    systems decline in a few years for the lack of maintenance. In the light of this experience, the GRMP ought to have addressed b Include Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Orissa, Sikkim, Delhi, Chandigarh, Pondicherry, and seven north-eastern states.
    44 december 20, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

    result, it attacks the symptoms rather than the real problem. Thus it has nothing to say about how to manage groundwater demand; and without a demand management strategy, the GRMP would be of little avail. Likewise, despite recognising explicitly that surface storage is neither favoured by India’s climate nor does it respond to the socio-ecology of India’s groundwater boom, GRMP still accords first charge on run-off to surface storages. Why should groundwater recharge be the last charge on run-off?

    The master plan implicitly assumes that the way India has planned water infrastructure since the 1830s continues to remain the appropriate path; it glosses over the profound change in India’s water economy which signifies progressive decline in the significance of surface water storage and increase, instead of the reliance on groundwater storage. Managing the groundwater reservoir ought to be the key aim of India’s water policy; and if the master plan’s objective of raising water levels to 3 m bgl throughout India is to be achieved, groundwater recharge has to be given the first charge over run-off. This failure to factor in India’s context specificities is also evident in the GRMP’s preference for water spreading technologies for recharge that requires large swathes of unpeopled land. Indian hydro-geological thinking is shaped overwhelmingly by the science and experience of groundwater recharge in the western US and Australia. However, India’s groundwater context is wholly different in its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Our groundwater strategy needs to reflect these unique conditions.

    3.7 GRMP Priorities and Stakeholder Objectives?

    In many ways, the most serious limitation of the GRMP is its failure to incorporate the perceptions and priorities of millions of groundwater users in the agricultural and other sectors. A plan that responds to stakeholder objectives has greater chance of success because it can harness the energies and resources of millions of people whose livelihoods are linked with groundwater. On the other hand, a plan that overlooks what people want may run the risk of poor people’s participation. At the worst, people may put their energies on frustrating a plan they do not find beneficial. The clearest indication of the disconnect between GRMP and stakeholder objectives is in its regional allocation of funds: it is highly unlikely that farmers in Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, eastern Uttar Pradesh will have any interest in parti cipating in a groundwater recharge programme simply because they have no need for it. In contrast, regions where groundwater depletion is a life-and-death issue receive no special attention from the GRMP. GRMP also fails to recognise that farmers in alluvial aquifer areas

    Table 2: Actors and Roles in a Groundwater Recharge Strategy

    throughout are lukewarm towards recharge projects because they do not directly benefit from recharge mounds that rapidly dissipate. In contrast, farmers in many hard rock areas of India have taken to recharge programmes with great enthusiasm. GRMP emphasises siting of recharge structures to maximise recharge no matter where; but farmers take interest in recharge structures that demonstrably benefit their wells. This is why villagers site check dams near farming areas; this is also why new wells get dug in the neighbourhood of a recharge structure of a rehabilitated tank. Like the idea of “effective rainfall”,3 one might think of “effective recharge” which is the fraction of total recharge that users can retrieve on-demand for just-in-time irrigation of their wilting crops. Maximising “effective recharge” is the objective of farmers; maximising total recharge in a basin as a proportion of its “uncommitted surplus water available” is the objective of the GRMP.

    4 Suggestions for an Alternative Strategy

    By far the most striking limitation of the GRMP is that it overlooks the vast potential opportunity for enhancing groundwater recharge that lies hidden within India’s groundwater economy itself. Evolving a groundwater strategy appropriate to India needs to begin with an appreciation of the variety of actors that can contribute through different kinds of recharge structures as suggested in Table 2. Public agencies with strong science and engineering capabilities need to play a major role in constructing and managing large recharge structures. However, in India, an intelligent strategy can also involve millions of farmers and householders – and thousands of their communities – each of whom can contribute small volumes to recharge dynamic groundwater. Table 2 explores who can play what role to which purpose and in which conditions. When we approach the problem this way new strategic avenues present themselves.

    In the alternative scheme outlined in this section, we argue that transforming millions of farmer-owned dug wells for groundwater recharge: (a) may achieve much the same impact as the GRMP at a fraction of the cost; (b) harness the energies of millions of I ndia’s farmers as partners in groundwater recharge and m anagement; and in general; and (c) perform better against the seven criteria we used to assess the GRMP in the previous section. Planning for groundwater recharge in India needs to make a distinction between alluvial aquifer areas of the Indo-Gangetic plains4 and hard rock aquifer areas of inland peninsular India.5 In the water abundant Ganga basin, with high water tables and perennial post-monsoon flooding, large-scale recharge projects are neither needed nor demanded by people. In arid

    a lluvial areas of the Indus

    Small structures for recharging wells, farm ponds and roof-water Aquifers Affected Dynamic groundwater Key Players Numbers of Actors Who Can Contribute Individual farmers Millions and urban citizens Recharge Volumes/ Location of Structure Structures 100-5,000 m3 Private farm lands and homes b asin in north-western India, limited rainfall offers little scope for rainwater harvesting for nat
    harvesting structures in hard rock areas ural recharge; but improved con-
    Check dams, percolation tanks, sub-surface dykes, etc Dynamic groundwater in hard rock areas Communities using a common aquifer system Tens of thousands 100,0005,000,000 m3 Common-property or government land junctive management of surface water (canals) and ground-
    Large structures on government Confined aquifers; Public agencies with Few 0.1 to 1 km3 Government waste water is the ultimate answer to
    land for recharge to confined aquifers; improved conjunctive management of surface large alluvial aquifers hydro-geology especially in arid and expertise; canal semi-arid areas system managers or more lands or forest lands; command areas of canal irrigation groundwater depletion. However, in hard rock aquifer areas,
    and groundwater systems. there is need and scope for a
    Economic & Political Weekly december 20, 2008 45

    Figure 3: Hundred Most Groundwater-Stressed Districts of India

    Jammu and Kashmir
    Himachal Pradesh Punjab Chandigarh Uttaranchal Haryana Delhi Uttar Pradesh Rajasthan Bihar Sikkim
    Gujarat Madhya Pradesh Maharashtra Chhattisgarph Jharkhand Orissa West Bengal
    Goa Karnataka Andhra Pradesh
    N Tamil Nadu Kerala

    special programme of groundwater recharge on a mass scale as outlined below.

    India is unique in that it has vast areas under groundwater irrigation in hard rock aquifer areas. To be precise, 65% of the Indian land-mass is underlain by hard rock geology. Of this, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and western Orissa have experienced little groundwater development; as yet, these do not face groundwater depletion on a serious scale. Neither are these regions in great need of groundwater recharge initiatives, nor are their farmers likely to keenly participate in them. However, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu represent major groundwater problem areas of India. Here, a booming agrarian economy has come to depend heavily upon groundwater irrigation; groundwater d epletion is seriously affecting this economy; as a result, there is need for large-scale recharge programmes as well as scope to catalyse farmer participation in it.

    India’s CGWB has identified 1,065 blocks throughout the country as “dark”6 and “over-exploited”;7 over 80% of these are in these seven states. Table 3 summarises some relevant information for these seven states. Together, these account for some 100 billion m3 of groundwater withdrawal per year, mostly for irrigation of some 15 million hectares. These seven states also have 8.2 million dug wells, many going out of use during drought years due to groundwater depletion. With falling water levels, diesel pumps, which were once the mainstay of groundwater irrigation here, are no longer able to pump water from great depths. As a result, today over 80% of dug wells here are fitted with electric pumps. Indeed, 62% of India’s electrified wells are concentrated in these seven states; they also account for the bulk of the estimated $5.75 billion annual power subsidy to agriculture which is directly linked to groundwater depletion. These seven states therefore have

    Arunachal Pradesh

    to be the central focus of the country’s groundwater recharge strategy to be-


    Nagaland gin with.

    Meghalaya Mizoram

    Even within these seven states, Tripura there are 100 districts (Figure 3)


    which account for over 60% of India’s “critical” and “over-exploited” blocks. These also happen to have the highest concentration of dug wells in the country; here is where falling water tables have the most disastrous impact on drying up wells and forcing farmers to revert to rainfed farming. Here is also where farmers are likely to be most keen on participating in a groundwater recharge programme that promises to revitalise their groundwater-fed agriculture. The desperation of farmers here is evident in that most recent farmer suicides outside Punjab are reported from these districts; and groundwater stress is an important source of agrarian distress in these regions. By their very nature, hard rock areas have a profusion of dug wells and tanks while sandy-alluvial aquifer areas are dominated by tube wells and have few tanks for irrigation. Dug wells in

    Table 3: Groundwater-Stressed Hard Rock States of India

    Annual Total Number Number of Area % of Wells and Potential Groundwater of Irrigation Critical and Irrigated by Tube Wells Increased Draft Dug Wells Over-exploited Groundwater with Electric Recharge

    (Billion m3)a in Use and Blocksc (m ha)d Pumpse Through Well Disuse(‘000)b Modification (b m3)f

    Andhra Pradesh 14.90 1,185 296 1.68 93.5 5.9
    Gujarat 11.50 936 43 2.39 54.5 4.7
    Karnataka 10.71 328 68 0.86 96.1 1.64
    Madhya Pradesh 17.12 1,277 30 3.50 85.5 6.4
    Maharashtra 15.09 1,659 8 1.57 96.1 8.3
    Rajasthan 12.99 1,172 190 3.66 47.4 5.86
    Tamil Nadu 17.65 1,656 175 1.41 82.5 8.28
    Total for
    seven states 99.96 8,213 810 15.07 82.6 41.1
    Seven states as %
    of India total 43.3 85.4 70.9 48.9 65.2
    India 231 9,617 1,142 30.8 61.0

    Sources: a Central Groundwater Board (2005), Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India (New Delhi: Ministry of Water Resources), Government of India. b Government of India (2005),Minor Irrigation Census-2000-01 (New Delhi: Government of India). c Central Groundwater Board (2005), Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India (New Delhi: Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India). d Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India. e Government of India (2005),Minor Irrigation Census-2000-01 (New Delhi: Government of India). f Estimated assuming that modifying an average dug-well for recharge enables it to put 5,000 m3 of monsoon floodwaters into the aquifer over and above the natural recharge and recharge from other sources.

    december 20, 2008

    hard rock India are built like collector wells with a large storage. Their size, depth and design vary across the country. In Kolar district of Karnataka, for instance, they are 8-10 metres in diameter and up to 60 metres in depth. In much of Saurashtra region in Gujarat too, dug wells are large and deep. Outside the monsoon season, an average dug well can be pumped only for a few hours after which it is left alone over night to collect water from surrounding water-bearing fissures and fractures. To increase the yield of their wells, their owners make several – some times dozens of horizontal and vertical bores to reach out to w ater-bearing formations (Krishnan 2008). In many parts of hard rock India, it is common to find gangs of “barefoot” specialists expert at making bores inside wells to enhance their connectivity with water-bearing fractures. Having invested so heavily in dug wells for irrigation, it is not surprising that their owners have big stakes in sustaining their productivity, especially during dry periods.

    Using Dug Wells for Groundwater Recharge

    Much of the groundwater stress in India’s hard rock areas can be alleviated – and at a relatively low cost to the society – by mounting a well-designed programme of groundwater recharge using the vast number of farmer-owned dug wells. The main challenge in doing this is in enabling farming communities to cross an “unlearning barrier” (Cohen and Levinthal 1990; Rogers 1983). For millennia, Indian farmers have been taught to divert muddy flood

    Table 4: Outline of an Alternative Recharge Strategy for India

    waters of the rain away from their fields – and wells – as quickly as possible, lest their wells should get silted up. This was understandable when wells were few and far between, and perennial. However, with explosive increase in the density of wells in hard rock areas, dug wells need to be transformed into dual-purpose structures – to withdraw water when needed and to recharge surrounding aquifers during the monsoon. No systematic data is available on the size of wells in different parts of hard rock India; however, field observations suggest that an average dug well is built for a storage volume to the brim ranging from 400 to 700 m3. In a good monsoon with around eight rainfall events, an average dug well can recharge 3,200-5,600 m3 of water; and if all 11 million dug wells in hard rock India are modified for recharge, 35-61 km3 of water can be recharged into hard rock aquifers, more than e nvisaged by the GRMP through recharge structures all over I ndia. A good deal of this will discharge as surface water downstream, increasing off-season flows in streams and rivers. It is not possible that all dug well owners will participate; but even if a sizeable proportion do, its snowballing effects can be stupendous, as is evident from the experience of Saurashtra (Shah 2000; Shah and Desai 2002; Patel 2007).

    Dug wells are attractive as recharge structures for many reasons including their private ownership and their presence in large numbers. They also happen to be concentrated in areas where demand pressure on groundwater is high; and therefore, using them for recharge to dynamic groundwater will produce massive

    and multiple benefits. However, other

    structures too are needed; and a national Aquifer Areas Areas Recharge SPV, Other Public Agencies recharge strategy also has a substantial role

    Key Actors Arid Alluvial Hard Rock Aquifer Roles That Need to be Played by CGWB,

    Farmers Dug wells, farm ponds, roof-water harvesting; other private recharge structures

    Vigorous IECa campaign to promote

    for government bodies, non-governmental

    recharge to dynamic waters through

    organisations (NGOs) and local community

    dug wells and farm ponds Technical support in constructing organisations as outlined in Table 4. An recharge pits, silt-load reduction,

    alternative to the GRMP can then be a

    periodic desiltation of wells

    three-phase programme in which: (a) the

    Financial incentives and support to recharging farmers first phase focuses energy and resources

    NGOs, local communities Percolation ponds, check dams, sub-surface Technical and financial support to local

    on implementing a groundwater recharge

    dykes; stop dams and delayed-action dams communities, NGOs for construction

    programme – based primarily on dug wells

    on streams and maintenance Supportive policy environment and owned by private farmers but also large incentive structures

    community and government managed

    Support for building local institutions

    structures – in 100 most groundwater

    for groundwater recharge

    Canal system managers Conjunctive management of surface and groundwater

    Groundwater Recharge canals to capture flood
    recharge SPV flows for recharge (e g, Ghed
    canal in Saurashtra) or transport surplus
    flood waters for recharge in groundwater
    stressed areas (e g, Sujalam Sufalam in
    north Gujarat)
    Large recharge structures in recharge zones
    of confined aquifers

    Operate surface systems for extensive recharge Where appropriate, retrofit irrigation systems for piped conveyance and pressurised irrigation Where appropriate, retrofit irrigation systems for use of surplus floodwaters to maximise recharge Where appropriate link canals through buried pipelines to dug wells/recharge tube wells for year-round recharge

    Create a special purpose vehicle to execute, operate and maintain large-scale recharge structures Build and operate large-scale recharge structures in upstream areas of confined aquifers, e g, at the base of Aravalli in North Gujarat Build and operate large earthen recharge canals along the coasts

    stressed districts of hard rock India (see Figure 3); (b) the second phase expands the recharge programme to all seven groundwater-stressed hard rock states; and

    (c) the third phase extends the programme to the entire country. A SPV needs to be created for overseeing private and NGO-implemented groundwater recharge programmes as well as for executing, operating and maintaining large-scale ground water recharge programme. It can be visualised as a subsidiary of the CGWB; but besides the scientific talent of the CGWB, such a SPV needs to build engineering and management capacity

    a Information, Education, Communication campaign. needed for the purposes on hand.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    Table 5: Comparison of Dug Wells with Spreading-type Recharge Structures

    Dug Wells Spreading-type Recharge Structures (Check Dams, Percolation Ponds)

    1 Numbers available to modify or 11 million Approximately 500,000 improve upon in groundwater threat areas

    2 Ownership and management Private farmers Common property, responsibilities panchayats or government

    3 Capital cost/m3 of gross recharge Rs 1-2 Rs 8-10

    4 Land needed/billion m3 None 80-100,000 ha of of recharge water spread area

    5 Proximity to point of use Always close Generally far away

    6 Users’ stake in the maintenance High Low of the structure

    7 Evaporation as % of input water 3-7% 50-90% depending on the water-spread area, depth, temperature, wind-speed

    8 Filtering mechanism for pollution Filter pit; but Filtration through load in input water none for soluble soil-infiltration material

    9 Nature of recharge mounds created Partially private Common property

    beneath the recharge mound
    dug well generally away from
    points of use

    Critics of using dug wells for recharge – and of groundwater recharge itself – express a variety of caveats and apprehensions. A common argument is that farmers will worry about their wells getting silted up. Compared to the spreading method which allows pollutants to get leached out during the infiltration process, dug well-recharge adds water-soluble pollutants directly to aquifer without passing it through the soil filter. These are valid and important concerns; but the answer is to develop and provide low-cost technologies for reducing silt and pollution load of input water, and for desilting wells periodically. Others are concerned that dug well recharge may be costly because wells are normally located at the highest point of a farmer’s field; and transporting the rainwater falling on the field to the well would

    Indeed, successful implementation of Phase I of the plan suggested here would resolve a large part of India’s groundwater crisis. The 100 most groundwater-stressed districts to be covered in it have over seven million open dug wells, out of the country’s total of 11.2 million (not counting domestic water wells within villages). The dug wells here are also among the country’s largest in terms of storage. In a normal monsoon, an average dug well with a storage of 600 m3, after modification, can put in 3,0005,000 m3 of gross groundwater recharge into the aquifer; and if all the seven million wells are fitted with recharge shafts, they can augment groundwater resource by 21-35 km3, largely eliminating the groundwater stress in these critical districts.

    If Saurashtra’s experience is any guide, even if a small proportion of well owners in a locality participate in dug well recharge, and if they are helped to do so in an effective manner by such a programme, it will very likely kick-start a popular recharge movement, which will not only mobilise and harness the energy of millions of farmers but encourage them to create a regime of distributed groundwater governance of the kind the government agencies cannot forge. The ultimate objective of the recharge plan proposed here should then be to trigger a transition from the current resource management vacuum we find in ground water economies around India to a regime of intensive decentralised groundwater management regime around supply and demand side instruments. It is not the argument here that spreading structures should not be used; but it is a pity not to modify in the first place the millions of private dug wells we already have for increasing natural recharge. Indian thinking about groundwater recharge emphasises water-spreading on recharge basins because it is dominated by the experience of western US and Australia (Shah 2008b). But Indian planners must not overlook the fact that those countries have vast unpeopled tracts which we do

    involve pumping or digging of deep

    Table 6: Comparison of GRMP and Dug Well Recharge Programme on Seven Criteria

    channels. The answer is that each farmer Criterion GRMP Alternate Strategy Recommended

    should use rainwater upstream of his field to recharge his well. Some argue there is just not enough precipitation nor roomy aquifers in areas most in need of recharge (Kumar et al 2008). But even the most arid areas – such as Kutch – experience five to six huge rainfall events every three years, each time causing devastating floods. Each of these offers an opportunity to refurbish the parched aquifers only if the state and society are geared to do this.

    1 Does it prioritise the need for groundwater recharge?

    2 Does it outline the pathway to implementation?

    3 Does it allocate resources optimally?

    No, in estimating water It gives first priority to groundwater availability, it gives last recharge on the rainfall itself; under priority to groundwater recharge this scheme, dug wells would be in the use of flood waters in areas recharged at the beginning of the most in need of recharge. process of run-off generation.

    No; it is silent on who will do what 11 million dug well owners are key actors and implementers; the rest of the structure is needed for farmer education, financial and technical support.

    It allocates resources according to It needs much smaller funding availability of water and regardless resources; it allocates resources of the need for recharge according to need; first phase to

    focus on 100 most groundwater- stressed districts of hard rock India

    On the limited storativity of hard rock 4 Does it provide for sustainability No; it does not address who will Yes, convinced that recharge-enabled
    aquifers, we must remember that without any management, India’s hard rock of recharge structures? 5 Does it respect the subsidiarity maintain recharge structures and why No; it is silent on who will do what dug wells are more productive, their owners will ensure sustainability. Yes, it argues that primary
    aquifers have produced irrigation of some 15 m ha, besides meeting other water needs principle? responsibility for construction and maintenance should rest with dug well owners.
    of the bulk of peninsular India. True, these 6 Does it respond to No; it largely ignores spatial Yes, it does by emphasising hard rock
    cannot be as prolific as the Indo-Gangetic aquifer systems; but with more intensive contextual specificities? variations in groundwater demand patterns aquifers as focus areas, dug wells as recharge structures, and identifying 100 most groundwater-stressed
    management and effective recharge, districts for phase 1.
    these aquifers can be stretched to support a more vibrant water economy in a 7 Does it harmonise its priorities with stakeholder objectives? No; it does not address issues of incentives and motivation Yes, the theory underlying dug well recharge project focuses primarily on harmonising priorities of the
    s ustainable manner. project and the stakeholder groups.

    december 20, 2008

    not have. In contrast, India has millions of large dug wells – b asin – which have no groundwater overdraft problems – walk readymade recharge structures – that they do not have. India away with 43% of GRMP recharge funds simply because they have must evolve her strategies around these because such a strategy over half of “uncommitted” surplus water available for recharge. would have decisive advantages over the alternative as explored GRMP also falls short of being an action plan. It is completely siin Table 5 (p 48). lent on who will do what; what will be the role of government

    agencies, people, NGOs and civil society institutions; who will 5 Conclusions construct the recharge structures and how will they be main-The GRMP developed by government of India’s CGWB is a major tained. Most importantly, GRMP more-or-less completely ignores step forward in the official thinking about where India’s water pri-the vast recharge potential offered by hard rock India’s 11 million orities lie. Even as the country has come to rely on groundwater dug wells which are farmer owned and farmer managed. for most of its irrigated area and over 90% of drinking water For the revision of the GRMP, this paper offered an alternative needs, India’s investment priorities continue to favour large sur-groundwater recharge strategy for India that better responds to all face water structures and ignore the urgent need for groundwater the seven questions against which we assessed the GRMP (see recharge on a massive scale. By emphasising this critical need, the Table 6, p 48). It has argued that: (a) groundwater recharge ought GRMP has made a significant contribution. The most important to be the top priority of water sector investment planning in Incontribution of the GRMP is its verifiable objective of raising post-dia; (b) investments for groundwater recharge in a basin should monsoon groundwater levels throughout the country to 3 m bgl be maximum in basins with most intensive groundwater use and (now revised to 8 m bgl). Arguably, this needs to be the key objec-high-level of resource depletion; (c) on that count, over-exploited tive that India’s water policy should aim it. and “dark” blocks should get the first priority in groundwater re-

    However, as an action plan, the GRMP is of doubtful value. It charge; (d) instead of blindly following international practices/ deals in great detail with hydro-geological specifics, which is cer-technologies for groundwater recharge using spreading technotainly critical; but it has little or nothing to say about the imple-logies, India’s strategy should be based on imaginative use for mentation of the plan. Moreover, it is dominated by supply-side groundwater recharge of 11 million private dug wells our farmers thinking and overlooks the demand-side of the groundwater socio-have already dug; (e) for this purpose, groundwater recharge ecology. In allocating available run-off in a basin, it curiously gives should be accorded top priority even before reservoir storage; only groundwater recharge the last priority especially in basins under that portion of run-off that can not be used for recharge should utmost groundwater-stress since these are most likely to have the be used for surface reservoirs; equally, first charge on reservoir least “uncommitted surplus water”. This is untenable in India water, after power generation should also be given to groundwater which has come to depend overwhelmingly on ground water stor-recharge; and (f) once farmers are convinced about its benefits age for all her needs. Because of this fundamental flaw, the GRMP and provided cost-effective technologies for reducing turbidity in ends up with perverse allocation of resources. Andhra Pradesh, Tamil input water and periodic-desilting of dug wells, such a farmer-led Nadu and Rajasthan, states with over half of India’s ground water-programme has a high chance of becoming a self-managing prothreat blocks get only 21% of GRMP funds; in contrast, states – gramme, with the government agencies and NGOs taking up the such as those in water-abundant Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana role of providing technical backstopping and resource support.

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    ment”, (International Water Management Insti

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    4 Most of the Indo-Gangetic basin; western Rajas-

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    Saurashtra” in proceedings of the 7th Annual 5 Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, western Meet of IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program Vol 1 that How Gujarat Is Adapting to Groundwater Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, AP and Tamil Nadu. (391-411) (Hyderabad: International Water Depletion? A Synthesis of ITP Studies”, Pre- publi6 Where over 90% of long-term annual recharge is Management Institute).

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    Kumar, M Dinesh, Ankit Patel, R Ravindranath and 7 Where extractions exceed long-term annual O P Singh (2008): “Chasing a Mirage: Water Shah, T, M Ul Hassan, M Z Khattak and P S Banerjee recharge leading to sustained lowering of water Harvesting and Artificial Recharge in Naturally (2009): “Is Irrigation Water Free? A Reality Check levels. Water Scarce Regions”, Economic & Political in the Indo-Gangetic Basin”, World Development, Weekly, 30 August, pp 61-71. 37.2 (in press). Patel, M S (2007): “Impact of Checkdams on Ground-India Waterportal. Power Consumption for Groundwater


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