Pushed out by salt
Before the Green Revolution of the early 1970s, the farmers of Junagadh district on the Saurashtra coast set records in agricultural production. They boast of having done as well as their north Indian counterparts in producing oilseeds, groundnuts, sugarcane, bananas and even wheat. But today, many of them -- particularly those living nearest the coast -- are paying an unexpected price for success: overexploitation of groundwater has turned it saline and virtually useless.
Mandabhai Chavda of Shahpur village in Junagadh district is one of those affected. Pointing to his large house, he laments: "This is the result of prosperity from the banana crop on my two-and-a-half ha of land. I also grew groundnuts, wheat and watermelons. But for the past four years, nothing except chikoos grow on my land because my well has turned saline."
But that is not Chavda's only problem. His family and cattle depend on tap water supplied by the state government, the only source of drinking water in a village of 500 houses and 300 wells. When the tap runs dry, Chavda and his fellow villagers have to trudge upto four km to fetch water. Cultivation has been reduced to growing chikoos, which can withstand salinity, or the lowly kharif bajra. Even coconut trees are being affected: Trees closest to the coast have dried up, while the fruit on those further inland is becoming smaller and salty. Says Chavda: "We get only half the normal price because our coconuts are shrivelled."
In perhaps the worst case of saline damage, about 200 ha of plantations were lost in Mandavi taluka of Jamnagar district. As a result, hundreds of "prosperous" farmers in villages such as Shahpur have become wage labourers in nearby Veraval and Junagadh towns, while some have even gone as far as Ahmedabad and Surat. Chavda, who now works as an agricultural labourer in a neighbouring village, has decided to go to a city once the water in the village turns saline -- an outcome he seems certain of. He explains, "When we take out water from the wells, seawater rushes to fill its place and that is why the water will turn saline even in the village I work in at present."
However, some farmers have been luckier or more resourceful. Ranabhai Mensi Nandania of Talodara village, a rich farmer who won prizes for high yields in 1967-68 from his 16 ha, four km from the sea, is still doing well. Nandania says he received the first warning in 1975, when the water in all the wells in neighbouring Sheel village, which is closer to the coast, turned saline. "This happened because the number of energised wells and tubewells in the area had shot up by as much as 10 times. We realised it would only be a matter of time before our wells met the same fate."
By the early 1980s, all the wells in Talodara had turned saline. In 1987, Nandania spent more than Rs 6 lakh and installed a tubewell on land he owned about two km further inland. He also set up a pipe to lead water from the tubewell to his Talodara farm. Today, he is the biggest employer in the village, with about 20 former farmers working for him as labourers.
Talodara does not receive municipal water supply and so its residents are forced to spend hours getting drinking water from elsewhere. Meraman Karsan, a farmer, loads 10 jerrycans cans of 50 litres each on his bullock cart every morning and spends four hours fetching water for his family and cattle from the nearest freshwater well or tap. "By the time I come back," he says, "I am tired, so I hardly work on my field." In any case, there is little work to do, now that agriculture is limited to rainfed crops, chikoos and a fodder called rajko, none of which requires much tending.
The number of people in the Saurashtra region who are unable to make ends meet from their farms is increasing every year. For most of them, land is the only asset they own, but real estate prices throughout the coastal belt have fallen substantially because of the groundwater contamination. Land prices have fallen below Rs 15,000 a bigha from about Rs 40,000 a bigha in 1978-80. (A bigha varies in size from state to state and can be as much as 0.6 acres and as low as 0.3 acres.) Even at these low prices, there are few buyers. Says Rajiv Bhagwat, a hydrogeologist working in the area with the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), "In most cases, no one is willing to buy the land as it is considered a dead loss." Farmers believe that even in areas that now have potable water, the water will turn saline sooner or later. As a result, few want to expand their agricultural operations. As Muhammad Suleiman Ghameria of Hussainabad village in Junagadh district says: "People are trying to reduce their dependence on agriculture. While the rich invest in commercial activities in urban areas, small farmers are sending their family members out for wage labour."
But even a crisis of this magnitude has not prompted farmers to economise on water. If anything, it has only promoted reckless irrigation in areas where groundwater is still usable. The farmers argue they might as well use all the water they can while the going is good because even if some of them restrict use, others will continue to degrade the aquifer. Says one farmer, "I cannot check their use of wells. So I might as well use all the water I can."
Yet farmers are aware of the benefits of restraint. As Motibhai, another farmer in the area, says, "Even now, when the pump is not operated in a well with saline water, a layer of potable water accumulates on top after some time. If all the wells stopped motorised extraction of groundwater, maybe things would improve." He has a point, as saline water is heavier and thus lies below potable water. The pumps stir the well, polluting the freshwater.
Hence, even as more villages in coastal Saurashtra face a drinking-water crisis, crop yields drop, orchards shrink and ever larger number of farmers become wage earners, the cause -- overextraction of groundwater -- continues to grow.
The problems exemplified by Saurashtra, Jodhpur and Bichhri have cast a shadow over the future of groundwater in India and there is little reason to suggest that mechanisms have been evolved to improve the situation.
The official response is best demonstrated by the failure of the CGB to articulate the problem in a convincing manner. Official estimates put usable groundwater resources in India at a comfortable 45.2 million hectare metres (mhm). The CGB has divided the country into 700 zones, of which only about one-third is over-exploited (groundwater extraction exceeds annual recharge.) Depletion has occurred mostly in areas where groundwater is the sole or most viable source of water, says CGB chairperson R K Prasad.
However, this has led to complacency among some policy makers. In the words of a senior CGB official, "For the next five decades or so, there is no cause for worry."
But even those alert enough to see the dark clouds have limited their responses to meaningless measures such as increasing the number of inspectors and withdrawing government loans for wells. None of these measures has curtailed the use of groundwater anywhere. All that has been achieved is to give the rich increasing access to groundwater. While anyone paying a little extra can get an inspector's consent, the moratorium on public finances in over-exploited or dark zones (where annual extraction is more than 65 per cent of annual recharge) has only put small farmers and other poor consumers at a disadvantage. The Mehsana farmers are a case in point. Undeterred by the official measures, the farmers invested as much as Rs 6 lakh to establish a tubewell. Even poor farmers who want to stay in business are forced to either come together to set up a tubewell or sell their land and become wage labourers.
The lack of a systematic approach to regulate groundwater use comes across clearly in the contradictory official policies. For instance, groundwater in most fertile areas around Jodhpur is over-exploited and hence falls in the dark category. The government, on the other hand, despite paying lip service to sustainable agriculture, is also pushing a "special foodgrain production programme" in the area, which seeks to optimise wheat production. The corollary of the government drive, as far as farmers are concerned, is more use of groundwater. Similarly, huge fertiliser subsidies have encouraged fertiliser use and consequently, that of groundwater.
The Gujarat government's decision to base farmers' electricity tariffs on the capacity of their tubewell motors rather than on actual power consumption is another example of contradictory government policies. While the state government has taken measures in recent years to stop funding of tubewells in critically depleted areas, the government changed its electricity tariff policy before the last elections to enable farmers to pay a fixed sum regardless of the power consumed. The consequence is increased extraction of water. Most tubewell owners find it sound economics to sell the water, earnings from which outweigh their electricity costs. The farmers may have benefitted and the government may have gained popularity, but groundwater depletion has accelerated. Political interference has also exacerbated the groundwater situation. While officials refuse to be quoted on this issue, many admit privately that they have faced pressure from political bigwigs to certify dark zones as white (extraction less than 45 per cent of annual recharge) so that farmers could get state subsidies and assistance for installing tubewells.
According to Marcus Moench, a US groundwater expert working in Gujarat, tubewells have come to mean prosperity for farmers, no matter how unsustainable this prosperity might be. With the increase in the number of tubewells, more farmers have joined the rich farmers league, which is the most influential vote-bank in the countryside. No political leader wants to antagonise them.
Jalore in Rajasthan, for instance, continues to receive state assistance for tubewells, though it should fall in the dark category. According to reports, an influential leader from Jalore has made sure of this. But the farmers are also convinced that groundwater is going to run out sooner or later and so are determined to maximise their returns by switching to cash crops while there is still time. According to the ministry of agriculture, there has been a steady decline in the production of coarse grains and foodgrains, as well as a reduction in the cropped area. The gainers have been cash crops, most of which require plentiful water.
It is not that farmers do not want to protect their groundwater. Their apparent callousness is rooted in the belief that someone will otherwise take it away. Another reason appears to be dreams of unlimited surface water sold to them by political leaders and other vested interests. Thus, while the farmers of Jodhpur think the Indira Gandhi canal will come to their rescue, farmers in Saurashtra and Mehsana are convinced that once the Narmada dam is completed, all the lost water will be recovered.
The willingness of farmers to protect the resource is evident from the numerous conflicts over the extraction of groundwater from the countryside to supply cities. Two panchayats near Madras recently refused to allow municipal tankers to take water from their tubewells. When PHED officials went to install tubewells in Ransigaon, the villagers protested strongly and higher authorities had to intervene.
John Ambler, a water resources expert at the Ford Foundation in Delhi says the problem has arisen because of a total lack of priorities for groundwater use. Rajiv Bhagwat of AKRSP agrees and says it is because of the lack of priorities that no discipline can be enforced. He questions the wisdom of allowing high-powered tubewells for agriculture in areas either short of drinking water or facing saline ingress. Bhagwat argues it is possible to reverse salinity but this would require a total halt on the pumping of groundwater in the affected areas for about 30-40 years. The vital question is whether the people will agree to cooperate so that their groundwater resources can be protected.
Bhagwat is confident such cooperation is possible and cites the example of AKRSP's experience in organising farmers to maintain check dams in Junagadh district. The farmers agreed not to lift water directly from the dams so that the accumulated rainwater can recharge the aquifer. "This has succeeded because the farmers themselves look after the dams," says Bhagwat.
On the other hand, a large number of check dams built in the area by government agencies have become ineffective because soon after water accumulates in them, someone starts pumping it and "because it is public property, there is no one to stop this."
This has not discouraged the government from pushing check dams as the solution to groundwater depletion. As CGB chairperson Prasad says, "Right now, our main concern is to make efficient recharge projects." However, the potential of these recharge measures is yet to be established.
"In most critical areas, artificial recharge has acute limitations because it depends on the availability of sufficient rainfall at regular intervals, both in space and time," says Chatterjee. Artificial recharge can succeed only as a localised solution and only when groundwater requirements are moderate. "The amount of external effort required for recharges worries me. Is it possible to replicate them on a macro-level?" asks Tushar Shah, director of the Institute of Rural Management at Anand.
Others, such as M K Patel, joint director of agriculture in Mehsana, are more forthright. "Farming that requires intensive irrigation is not possible with measures like artificial recharge. If the priority is to protect groundwater, then changes in crop patterns will be necessary," he says. Prasad also says "we need to think about crops in relation to the sustainable availability of water."
However, successful experiences on this score are few and even AKRSP activists concede that "until water is available, it is difficult to persuade farmers to restrict its use." As Shah says, the challenge is to develop institutions to manage groundwater instead of leaving it to legislation. But he notes that collective rationality cannot be limited to the farmers alone. Evidence of responsibility must also come from other users such as city-dwellers and industry, "or else why should the farmer protect it?"
Cases like Bichhri and the plight of the model Groundwater Bill circulated 23 years ago, which has not become legislation in even one state (Down To Earth, November 15, 1992), show clearly the futility of official efforts to curb the misuse of groundwater.
On the other hand, examples of farmers' refusal to allow exploitation of groundwater seem to be stronger evidence that once groundwater is seen as a community resource, the community will protect it. So, empowering local communities appears to be the only possible insurance against misuse of the resource. But that would upset the powerful hierarchy of interests led by industry and cities. The question is whether foresight will prevail over such a powerful combination of reckless interests.
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