Andhra's groundwater crisis & a trail of suicides
Groundwater has failed Andhra Pradesh’s farmers. Between 1997 and 2006, about 4,500 farmers committed suicide, unable to repay loans they had taken to drill borewells. MOYNA and ASHUTOSH …
A Shekhar, 25, committed suicide a year ago. A resident of Burgupalle village in Andhra Pradesh’s Mahabub - nagar district, he had bought half a hectare (ha) for growing paddy.
He borrowed Rs 1.5 lakh to sink three borewells but did not find groundwater. Shekhar could not repay the debt, so he hung himself in his house. His wife, along with their two and four years old sons, left the village to find work in Hyderabad, said Bal Swami, once Shekhar’s neighbour.
Swami has a debt of Rs 5 lakh. He sunk 15 borewells between March and April this year. The deepest was 106 metres. Over the past six years he has sunk 39 borewells. Two yield water. He uses them to grow paddy on about a hectare to make ends meet. His remaining four ha lie unused.
In Velgonda village, 25 km from Burgupalli, farmer Venkat Reddy, 50, sank seven borewells—the deepest at 122 metres—in one day in April. Two yielded water. Rig owners refused to drill further because the rig was not powerful enough to drill through the rock bed. He is now contemplating a loan from a bank to repay the interest for the Rs 4 lakh he borrowed from lenders in his village. R Krishtaya Naik, sarpanch of Macharam village in the district, had to sell 1.2 ha to repay the debt incurred four years ago after sinking three borewells.
Explaining the desperate attempts of farmers to find water, Swami said if one hits water, one earns. And then the loans can be repaid in two to five crop seasons. Otherwise, it’s a difficult life forcing farmers to take extreme steps such as suicide.
Finding groundwater is a gamble. Between 2009 and 2010 the groundwater department of Andhra Pradesh investigated 15,263 sites and recommended 7,335 sites for borewells.
(Read about the state of groundwater in Andhra Pradesh)
“There is no foolproof way of finding water,” said Sudershan Reddy of Vepur village where 80 borewells were drilled this year; four yield water. Geologists sometimes help farmers find the spot where groundwater would be found. They charge Rs 1,000-5,000. Sometimes people blessed with special powers, or water diviners as they are called, bail out farmers by locating the right spot. They use coconuts, neem twigs to locate groundwater, and usually charge Rs 500 or more
(Read more about local solutions).
“Even with machines and gadgets we are not 100 per cent sure of hitting water. We cannot disregard native knowledge,” said N Eswara Reddy, capacity building expert with the groundwater department. “Use of coconuts for precision could be debated, but not dismissed,” he added.
Dhanalakshmi’s eyes turn moist every time she looks at the portrait of her husband in her house in Ayyavandlapalle village in Pulicherla mandal. Her husband Siddaiah Naidu consumed pesticide in 2004 after the five borewells he sunk on his 1.2 ha failed.
His neighbour, K Muniratnam Naidu, has sunk seven borewells in the past nine years. He is planning one more this year. “I cannot let my land be at the mercy of nature. If it does not rain the groundnut crop will be ruined, and we might starve,” he said.
In the nearby K V Palle mandal, Raja Reddy who owns about five ha, has tried to kill himself thrice. Seven borewells failed Raja; he has a debt of Rs 2 lakh with an interest rate of 3 per cent per month. He returns late to avoid creditors who pester his wife Lakshamma.
Raja’s daughters live with relatives 20 km away because of the everyday embarrassment with creditors. “He asks me to leave the village with him because he cannot stand the humiliation of turning a pauper. But where do we go and what do we do?” his wife asked.
Raja drilled his last borewell to 198 metres. He wanted the water for his tomato crop, which fetches good returns. Fellow villager A Venkataramana Reddy said there were a few small tanks in the village for irrigation, which remain dry in summer.
“We need water and cannot grow anything without borewells, so we keep trying despite failures,” he said. Venkataramana, who grows groundnut, has two failed borewells, a debt of Rs 1 lakh with an interest of 3 per cent per month.
Drilling to new depths
Chittoor is prone to drought, which makes it worse. As per official records about 56 per cent of the total irrigated area in the district is watered through borewells. Therefore, drilling to new depths is not unusual. The average depth of groundwater in the western mandals of the district is about 152 metres, said Vijay Shekhar of the nonprofit, Foundation for Ecological Security. T Basavaiah, deputy tehsildar of K V Palle mandal, though, claimed groundwater in the mandal is at 106 metres. A farmer claimed it is deeper.
“We drilled to 170 metres on the advice of a geologist. We did not find water. The geologist asked us to drill to 213 metres, but the rig was not powerful enough. We gave up,” said Muniratnam Naidu of Ayyavandlapalle.
The density and depth of borewells are a result of the shift to commercial crops, lack of alternative irrigation sources and deficit rainfall, said B Venkat Reddy of the non-profit, Sahajeevan. “Chittoor has seen a shift to tomato farming. It requires intensive irrigation between February and July, the driest period,” he said. “Tomatoes fetch good money, with farmers receiving as much as Rs 35 per kg at times.”
While the dry regions of the state take the lead in the number of borewells, coastal areas are not far behind in groundwater exploitation.
Donkina Jaleswar Rao, former sarpanch of Butchayyapeta village, borrowed Rs 60,000 from a moneylender two years ago for digging a borewell in his 0.6 ha. Despite drilling to 100 metres, he could not find water. He has a debt of Rs 1.4 lakh and has no clue how he will clear it. The rig owner charged him Rs 80 per foot (0.3 metres) of drilling; the pipe, called casing, came for Rs 250 per 0.3 metres. He gave up after 100 metres as he had spent all his money. “Now I have to depend on the rains for paddy and sugarcane,” he said.
D Bheema Shankar Rao, deputy director of groundwater department, denied pressure on groundwater in the district. Groundwater in the 42 basins of the district was within the safe limit, and while the average groundwater level in the district during May was 8.2 metres, it was 5.57 metres in November, which was normal, he said.
With Visakhapatnam emerging as an industrial hub, organizations like Fishermen’s Youth Welfare Association led by T Sankar have launched a campaign against groundwater mining by industries. Last year, Sankar wrote to the chairman of the state Coastal Zone Management Authority and the member secretary of the state pollution control board alleging that Hetro Drugs, a pharma company, was drawing water at Rajayyapeta village turning the water in surrounding areas saline. He is awaiting reply.
There is an undercurrent in Tagarapuwalsa town, 25 km from Visakhapatnam, against Divi’s Laboratory. The pharma unit has set up a pump house with four borewells on the banks of the Gosthani, which serves the drinking water and irrigation needs of over a million people. Rao, though, said the unit had not polluted the river.
The Water, Land and Trees Act (WALTA) was enacted in 2002. Meant to regulate groundwater use, the Act requires farmers to register their borewells with the mandal revenue office after getting clearance from the district groundwater office. Farmers like Muniratnam Naidu in Chittoor district laugh at the idea of taking permission. “All one needs to do is hire a rig, pay money to a geologist and drill a borewell,” he said.
T Basavaiah, deputy tehsildar of Chittoor district’s K V Palle mandal, admitted to widespread violation of WALTA in the district. “We have seized three borewells this year for which permission was not sought,” he said. But the Act has helped monitor and record the extent of groundwater use and generated awareness among farmers, said A K Jain, special secretary to the state’s irrigation and command area development department.
Farmers consider groundwater their right. “The authorities have not provided us with alternative sources of irrigation. How can they stop us from finding something that is ours?” asked K Basappa, resident of Ramanapalli village in Mahabubnagar’s Hanwada mandal. Basappa drilled three borewells between 2009 and 2010 and did not apply for permission. No one questioned him either, he added. Hanwada mandal’s revenue officer, Anjana Devi, maintained no one could drill borewells without their knowledge.
Basappa said at least 300 borewells are functional in his village; there is no count of failed borewells. But the data with the mandal office shows one farmer sought permission to drill a borewell and only one drilled borewell without permission, which the district officials stopped well in time.
Officials get to know of borewells only if there are complaints, which are rare, said Basappa. Often if one farmer strikes water, his neighbour attempts to drill a borewell close to that spot. If there is disagreement between two farmers, cases go to the mandal revenue officer. After investigation, either one or both the borewells are sealed.
Mandal revenue officers claim they submit monthly reports to the groundwater department on the number of borewells. The revenue inspector and the village revenue officer are mandated under the law to visit each borewell site for verification. Farmers say officials hardly ever conduct field surveys.
Then there are bribes
Bal Swami of Burugupalle village in Mahabubnagar district said he tried to get permission for two borewells six years ago. He was denied permission but decided to get them drilled.
“We are required to go through different departments and that makes it tough. Bribes for permission can be expensive,” he said. In some cases farmers bribe mandal officials for power connections instead of taking permission, said B Peddiraji, tehsildar of Butchayyapeta in Visakhapatnam district. He admitted to WALTA violations. He said he received 100 applications for drilling borewells in Butchayyapeta mandal this year but the actual number of borewells drilled would surely be double. “They are doing it illegally all the time,” he said.
|“To get permission for a borewell we are required to go through different departments. Bribes for permissions are expensive”
—BAL SWAMI, Burugupalle village
The quantum of groundwater Andhra Pradesh received earlier from 100,000 borewells is now obtained by drilling 260,000 borewells, said A K Jain, special secretary to the state’s irrigation and command area development department.
B Peddiraji, tehsildar of Butchayyapeta in Visakhapatnam district, added there is tremendous pressure on groundwater, with the level down to 91 metres in most villages. For instance, he cited, “Butchayyapeta mandal depends heavily on borewells as assured irrigation facilities are available only in three of its 32 panchayats.”
The April 2010 groundwater level report also said groundwater levels in the state is falling fast. Compared to last year there was a fall of 23.15 metres in Dhone mandal of Kurnool district. More than 80 villages across the state have seen a fall of more than four metres between 2009 and 2010, the report said.
|“The quantum of water that was received by drilling 100,000 borewells is now obtained by drilling 260,000 borewells”
— A K JAIN, Special Secretary, Irrigation and Command Area Development
The million-odd users of groundwater in Andhra Pradesh need a new form of regulation, everybody agrees. The system based on permits—under WALTA—only adds to the transaction cost of farmers. The fact is there is a desperation to dig and then dig deeper.
There is no estimation how much the farmers—private entrepreneurs—of the state have invested into building the irrigation system. This investment is critical for farmers, but they must also ensure its sustainability. The state is beginning to look for new answers to the groundwater challenge: how can it involve the farmers—the individual decision makers—in taking better and informed decisions about this collective wealth, which is not easily seen or estimated?
In 1996, work began through the Dutch government-funded Andhra Pradesh wells project, which focused on funding farmers to drill borewells. The project linked the wells to building tanks in the village, promoting recharge. In 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)-funded Andhra Pradesh Farmer-Managed Groundwater System was launched. It looked at training farmers on understanding groundwater regimes and exploring how this learning could influence communities to change their use of groundwater by switching crops. In 2008, a World Bank-funded project started in collaboration with the groundwater department, with a tank component called AP Community Based Tank Management programme and a small component on groundwater called Participatory Groundwater Management.
T N Reddy of MANAGE, a non-profit in Hyderabad involved with the FAOfunded project, said it is important to get farmers to take note of the common water system. According to him, the FAO project was also aimed at explaining to farmers the seasonal changes and distribution of groundwater so that they estimate and use it accordingly. “But the project was limited in its spread and did not have the desired impact,” he said. His evaluation is that in the 600-odd villages covered under the project, roughly half the farmers changed their cropping patterns to less water-consuming crops. “There is a long way to go before we can improve groundwater levels across the state,” said Reddy. Groundwater irrigation is linked to what farmers can earn from crops. “You cannot expect farmers to shift crops or reduce their water consumption without providing alternatives or giving them market support,” said Palla Narendra of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Hyderabad.
In addition, the state is making investments under the Centre’s employment programme, NREGS. Between 2009 and 2010 the government undertook 850,000 works, of which 75 per cent were categorised under water conservation. These works included desilting of tanks, soil moisture conservation and construction of water harvesting structures. This investment should have improved groundwater regimes. But there is little evidence of that.
The problem is the lack of data. No government department takes charge of looking at the impact of the public works on the water system. C Suvarna, special commissioner in the state rural development department, explained, “Groundwater is a difficult issue. The state government has projects going on all over the state. But groundwater levels are falling. The departments involved with regulation, management or policymaking seem to be working piecemeal.”
The ongoing World Bank-funded project of the irrigation department requires the community to identify borewells that fall within the command area of the village’s biggest tank and record the groundwater level over a period of time. Under this project, spread mostly in dry and droughtaffected areas of the state, some 315 tanks were selected in 13 of the total 23 districts. These tanks fall under the 161 over exploited and critical groundwater basins in the state. Till July 2010, farmers in 20 per cent of the villages were discussing crop water budgeting after monitoring their groundwater for two years. “The actual change in cropping patterns has not yet been seen. But with debate, farmers’ awareness increases. This is the first step to the big change,” said Eswara Reddy, capacity building expert with the project.
The idea is catching on in Yavapur village in Medak district, some 100 km from the state capital. Here the project started in 2008 and villagers now record water levels every 15 days in the four borewells in the command area of the village tank. The department has provided people with equipment, including a groundwater gauge. The deal is they will measure and record data in registers kept at the panchayat office.
In this water-starved region, villagers grew paddy and sugarcane during monsoon, and maize in winter. Farmers explained things were changing fast and that water table was falling. Borewells were drying up or giving less water each season. The Peddachevru tank, the village pride, with a catchment of 68 ha and irrigating 87 ha had gone dry this year—the first time in their recorded memory. The groundwater level in the village was already between 76 and 91 metres.
Under the project, the village has mapped its water systems: the village with 409 households has some 600 functional bores. In addition, it has three big water tanks and many small tanks, which are used for irrigation and recharge of groundwater.
P Laxma Reddy, president of the village water association, believes people will shift to crops that require less water. “Since we started recording groundwater we know how much water we are consuming. We can now calculate how much water and power we need to grow a particular crop,” he said. According to him, if paddy requires 50 litres of water, sugarcane needs 30 litres and maize 15 litres. Now based on this rough estimation, budgeting has to be done.
But as yet, people in the village seem unconvinced. The groundwater monitoring is showing an overall decline— some 0.5 metres over the last season—in the four monitored wells. People say this is because of poor rainfall last year. As yet, the declining water levels have not deterred them from digging for more liquid gold—in just last year, Yavapur has dug another 50 borewells, of which they struck gold in 10.