Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
INDIAN economy though requires that artha be pursued in accordance with dharma. Here dharma should be understood as long term good of the people. Unfortunately our government is focused on short term objectives. The effort is to extract as much benefits from nature as possible in the short run and ignore the long term consequences. One example of this shortsighted policy is that of groundwater. Water table is falling across the country. Rivers are going dry. The Yamuna goes dry few kilometers beyond Hathnikund barrage in Haryana because groundwater extraction is leading to more seepage from the river bed.
Main problem is that price of water is treated as nil. The user only has to pay for the expenses incurred in extracting it from the ground or the river. No charge is to be paid for the water itself. This leads to excess use of water especially by the farmers who consume most of the water available in the country. In the year 2000, 89 per cent of water was being used by farmers, 6 per cent by industries and 5 per cent by domestic users. Any effort to reduce the use of water would therefore have to necessarily focus on reducing water use in agriculture.
Farmers grow water-intensive crops like chillies and grapes because water is cheap. Higher price of water will make cultivation of these crops difficult and encourage farmers to grow other crops that require less water like mustard, groundnuts and bajra. This will strengthen our food security as well. After all, no country starved because fewer grapes were cultivated!
The correct solution is to increase the price of water so industrialists and farmers use less of the same. Some years ago I was running a strawboard factory. The raw material—bagasse and straw—were cooked in digesters filled with water. Then the cooked material was mixed with more water and made into pulp in beaters. Lastly, the pulp was mixed with yet more water and spread over wire netting to make the board. We used fresh water at all the three points. The waste water could be recycled at some cost but that was not done because fresh water was cheap.
One proposed solution is to introduce licensing for digging of new tube wells. This will not solve the problem, though. Competitive deepening of tube wells will continue. Say there are two farmers, Ram and Shyam, who both have tube wells that are 300 feet deep. Now, Ram wants to increase irrigation and deepens his tube well to 400 feet. He draws more groundwater and Shyam’s tube well runs dry. Then Shyam deepens his tube well to 500 feet. Now Ram’s tube well runs dry. Both compete with each other to mutual harm. The total water available remains almost the same. But both spend more money in extracting the same water from greater depths.
The objective of licensing is laudable. We indeed have to put to end the unrestricted extraction of groundwater. However, if the authority to grant licenses is given to the collector it will become yet another route to corruption. The collector himself will rarely have the time to go into the merits of each case. The patwari and kanungo will then start selling the licenses for a premium. They can also start extorting money from hapless farmers by merely threatening to close down their wells.
Such licensing will also not prevent a further fall in the water table because the existing borewells can be deepened. There is no provision of restriction on continued over-extraction by existing borewells. The basic objective of conserving water resources would thus be defeated.
A further problem is that of equity. The borewells that have already been sunk may often belong to the larger landlords. In the past they alone had the money to do so. The poorer people have lately begun to raise their heads. These poorer latecomers will be denied the opportunity to put up new borewells under the licensing arrangement. The richer early birds will continue to merrily extract groundwater while the poor will be deprived of their share in the earth’s resources in the name of scarcity of ground water. Those who created the scarcity by over-exploitation would continue to over-exploit and those who have been deprived of their share in the past will continue to be deprived. The Bill will ensure that the poor will remain poor forever.
My suggestion is that instead of taking the licensing route, let the government fix a maximum depth of a borewell that can be sunk in an area. It should be mandatory for the government to announce this permissible depth for each district, block or cluster as the case may be. All borewells deeper than this permissible depth should be required to fill up their wells to the permissible depth within a specified time. This will stop the extraction of groundwater below the permissible depth. Only so much water that is recharged and retained above that depth will be extracted. The groundwater table will stabilize. The increase in number of borewells will not lead to the depletion of water table because the depth of the new borewells will be same as those already dug previously. Only the water that is freshly recharged within this layer of the earth can be extracted.
Once the government has specified the maximum permissible depth, then everyone is free to sink a new borewell upto that depth. No license be required. The patwari can thereafter not extort money from the farmers. The poor latecomers are also saved. Let us say a rich farmer has been extracting water 16 hours a day upto the depth of 100 metres for the last 50 years. His poor neighbour can now claim his share in that water by digging a well of the same depth in his adjacent field. The wells of both will now do dry after 8 hours. The ground water will get equitably shared automatically.
Farmers can be given incentives to establish water recharging structures. The Tennessee Valley Authority faced a problem of too much silt flowing into the reservoir. The Government made it compulsory for the farmers to make bunds of a particular height along their fields. As a result most silt got trapped in the fields and silt flowing into the reservoir was reduced. We can similarly require all farmers to make bunds along the borders of their fields and ensure that rain water does not flow out. This will lead to more water percolating into the ground and the groundwater table will rise.
We must build in a long term perspective into our policies. The present government is responsible not only to the present voters but also to our future generations. Policies for sustainable use of natural resources should be given highest priority.