Depleting groundwater costs farmers heavily

The groundwater level in India has declined by 61 per cent between 2007 and 2017, according to Fifth Minor Irrigation Census

By Rashmi Verma
Published: Tuesday 09 July 2019
Photo: Getty Images

After the Green Revolution in the 1960s got us dependent on groundwater instead of surface water, more than 1,000 blocks have become water stressed, identified the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) in the the Fifth Minor Irrigation Census.

The groundwater level in India has declined by 61 per cent between 2007 and 2017 and of the extracted water 89 per cent is used for irrigation, according to the census.

As the groundwater level reduces, farmers are left with two options – either to deepen their existing wells by buying powerful pumps or reducing the acreage they are irrigating, wrote Susan Stratton Sayre in her 2018 article published in Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

Sayne explained how deepening of wells meant more investment, high maintenance costs and increase of flat electricity tariff.  Northwestern India has, perhaps, seen the most groundwater depletion in the world. The issue of groundwater resource sustainability is compounded by a growing fiscal problem.

Water scarcity decreases farmer profit, concluded a study titled ‘The Efficiency of Rationing: Agricultural Power Subsidies, Power Supply and Groundwater Depletion in Rajasthan’ published in 2018. This study found that farmers facing greater water scarcity sink deeper wells and are more likely to grow water-hardy crops and make investments in water-conserving irrigation technologies. Despite these investments, water scarcity still decreases profits and lands them in debt, according to the study.

There are strong links between cash cropping, the failure of borewells, overwhelming debts and farmer suicides in the semi-arid regions of northern and western Andhra Pradesh and other parts of the Deccan plateau, read a study published in Third World Quarterly in 2013.

The quest to recover the huge investments being made for drilling the well is likely to lead the farmers to risky crops such as chilly and cotton. This can put farmers in a debt trap and sometimes result into suicides. The availability of cheap electricity reportedly compounded the problem of excessive groundwater extraction, especially in overexploited areas.

Electricity subsidies are widely perceived to impact the economic condition of farmers and despite subsidies, they are unable to bear the full costs of pumping due to declining groundwater levels and falls for this unsustainable burden.

However, according to another study titled Understanding the Electricity, Water & Agriculture Linkages, not only is the subsidy given to agriculture in India overestimated, but also the relation between subsidy and declining groundwater.

Low-prices or free electricity offers an incentive to unchecked lifting of groundwater but there are several other factors which influence farmers’ behaviour towards extraction of groundwater, concluded the study. They include quality of power and hours of supply, duration for which cheap or free power is available, region's hydrogeology, groundwater conservation efforts, farmers’ awareness, irrigation intensity and cropping patterns.

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