Groundwater management and farmers’ suicides

Poor management of groundwater resources contributes to agrarian distress—but is anyone listening?

Over at Reporting on a Revolution, Suvrat Kher throws more light on an angle that is almost entirely missing from the national discourse on farmers’ suicides.

…if the wells themselves are dry then there is no backup for failed rains. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences report on farmer suicides found that farmers had little or no groundwater available to them during times of rain failure. A combination of complex hydrogeology and poor management of groundwater resources has exerted a powerful influence on the lives and livelihoods of Maharashtra farmers.

(Tushaar) Shah makes the following recommendation for complex hydrogeological terrains:

What hard-rock India needs is a new mindset of managing dug wells as dual-purpose structures, for taking out water when needed and putting water into the aquifers when the surplus is running off. Recharging aquifers needs to get the first charge on monsoon run off. Unfortunately, government planners give it the last priority.

Water available for recharge is estimated after allowing for the requirements of existing and planned surface reservoirs. This is absurd in a country where 70 percent of irrigated areas and 90 percent of drinking water needs are met from groundwater.

Is the government listening? The Prime Minister of India’s special relief package for Maharashtra farmers wants to attack the problem on a broad front which includes tinkering with the economics of cotton farming, encouraging a diverse array of crops and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. But water underlies any successful agricultural strategy. In terms of water it lists irrigation development as the only long term solution to the water problems faced by farmers and doles almost 10 times more money to irrigation development than to watershed development. Irrigation development in the language of the government of India means canal irrigation (read mega infrastructure projects) and not local groundwater irrigation.

This despite the revealing statistic that even though thousands of crores of Rupees have been spent on canals, they irrigate just about 15% of arable areas over the landmass of India and marginal farmers and farmers with small landholding benefit most not from canal networks but through groundwater irrigation. [Reporting on a Revolution/What’s with the Climate]

2 thoughts on “Groundwater management and farmers’ suicides”

  1. When you mention farmer suicides, the first thing that comes to mind is of course Vidarbha. But interestingly, the groundwater recharge argument is hardly valid for the region. According to Sanjay Phansalkar, Tushaar Shah’s colleague, only 13% of Vidarbha’s cropped area is irrigated, and only 40% of the irrigated area is groundwater irrigated (60% is surface irrigated, presumably via canals). In other words, talk of groundwater recharge only concerns about 5% of Vidarbha’s cropped area. Further, Dr Phansalkar also points out that groundwater development in the region is pretty low at 15%.

    Including groundwater management in the national discourse on farmer suicides may be relevant for troubles elsewhere, but certainly only marginally so for Vidarbha.

  2. please donot take it amiss. i would recommend a drastic measure, to improve the ecology in india. hand over the ministry of environment and forests to the Army entirely, with government only giving guidelines on the issues or targets on the issue. i think we may succeed beyond expectations. for some vague reason the defence forces and the environment have been synonymous with each other. may be because of living in such jungles makes them like it. despite best efforts we cry in delhi that the ground water is depleting, but not many ground water recharge systems are seen in delhi. this can be done by a simple legislation wherein all buildings constructed now onwards will have a ground water recharge system constructed alongside. also all government buildings can have this recharge system made very easily. the involvement of the defence forces would provide an avenue to them to connect with the people in a positive way while improving the ecology of the area in an efficient way.

    let’s have some comments on this!

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