By Charu Bahri
Barely three per cent wells registered a rise in water level exceeding four metres in the year ending January 2016, according to a Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) report. Only 35 per cent of wells showed any rise in water level, which declined in over 64 per cent of wells. Average water levels in January 2016 were lower than the average water level between 2006 and 2015.
Behind the trend of falling water levels is India's 251 cubic kilometer (cu km) annual groundwater extraction rate -- equivalent to 26 times the water stored in the Bhakra Dam -- making the country the world's biggest consumer of groundwater, according to a 2012 Unesco report. With annual extraction rates of 112 cu km, China and the US tie at a distant second.
Over nine-tenths of groundwater is extracted for irrigation, according to the Ground Water Year Book for 2014-15 released by the CGWB, underscoring India's dependence on groundwater for irrigation -- it provides water for 60 per cent of the irrigated area. Over the last four decades -- when India commissioned roughly half of its 50 biggest dams -- around 84 per cent of the total addition to the net irrigated area has come from groundwater.
A well-recharging project implemented by the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF), a Jodhpur-based not-for-profit, enabled farmer Mahaveer Singh of Thumbo ka Golia village to switch from growing only castor oil to chillies, vegetables and, of late, Thai apple ber; his income grew by 40 per cent and could increase by 250 per cent if the berries yield the return Singh expects. "Now my well yields the same water flow even in the summer months," Singh told IndiaSpend over the phone. "Now the water is sweet, earlier it was salty," he added, referring to the improved quality of water.
In contrast, the average farmer in Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana faces the prospect of having no groundwater left for irrigation by 2025.
The problem -- and the advantage -- with groundwater is its decentralised access. A licence is all you need to sink a well on owned land and extract water. Consequently, India has an estimated 30 million groundwater structures.
In Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana, groundwater extraction exceeds the rate at which it is being replenished through rainfall, back flows from irrigation and seepage from canals, other water bodies and conservation structures. A licence does not prevent groundwater exploitation, and instead breeds corruption within the system, said Rajendra Singh, a water conservationist from Alwar, in Rajasthan.
"We cannot police 30 million groundwater structures through a licence-quota-permit raj," said the July 2016 government report, instead suggesting that groundwater be recognised as a "common pool resource", which means that it be considered a community resource and not a resource belonging to the owner of the land. The report also suggested that the government promote "community-driven decentralised water management".
Local stakeholders are best positioned to police the use of water, and they are more likely to do so honestly because their lives depend on its availability.
"Community-driven decentralised water management was the norm in India until about 100 years ago, prior to the development of the modern canal-based flood irrigation system and extraction technology," said Singh, the water conservationist.
Between 700 and 1900 AD, west India saw the creation of 3,000 wells, so complex that they came to be known as underground water buildings, or popularly stepwells. Around Hampi, in Karnataka, in Delhi, and in Haryana also these date back to this period. Without more community-driven initiatives to protect wells, this heritage of India might become "a past glory", said Jos Raphael, Director of Mazhapolima, a well-recharging initiative of the District RainWater Harvesting Mission in Thrissur, Kerala.
Through his non-governmental organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh, Singh, the water conservationist, has actively promoted community-driven decentralised management of natural resources, including wells around the river Arvari in Rajasthan.
"We have created Neer Nari Panchayats to monitor well withdrawals. They don't allow the water table to fall beyond a certain level, so that even the poorest people who rely on shallow wells are not disadvantaged," he explained.
Mazhapolima, a community-driven project to recharge wells in Thrissur, has made life easier for thousands, including the family of Madhavan Ramadas, 42, a banana and coconut farmer. A good 75 per cent of Thrissur's population depends on about 4.5 lakh open wells for their water needs. Up until 2008, summers were a nightmare for the Ramadas family.
"Water shortages were the norm as our well used to run dry by April," Ramadas told IndiaSpend over the phone. "Seventy percent of wells in Thrissur would dry up during summer."
In 2008, Ramadas signed up for Mazhapolima, which involved setting up a system to harvest and channel rainwater to recharge his family's open well. As a result, in 2009, the family had sufficient water to last through April. A year later, the well water lasted until May, and by 2010, summer water shortages were a thing of the past.
Mazhapolima has increased the groundwater potential in a coastal area covering 7.6 sq km by 43.35 million litres, as well as improved the quality of water, he added.
Singh, the farmer in arid Rajasthan, has also benefited from water harvesting and well-recharging. With the aid of non-governmental organisations and funds raised from the community, the JBF constructed a sand dam -- a structure which slows down the flow of water, thus increasing the amount that percolates underground -- on the dry bed of a stormwater drain, flowing 1.5 km away from Singh's fields. The dam increased the water level of 103 wells, within a 4 km radius, according to Kanupriya Harish, executive director of the JBF.
The JBF plans to scale the sand dam water harvesting technology -- an African invention -- to six more districts in Rajasthan, with support from HSBC Bank, Excellent Development, a British not-for-profit, and local communities.
"In Thumbo ka Golia, the community contributed 18 per cent of the Rs 17 lakh project cost," said Harish. "Seeing the success, more communities are asking for help, and (are) ready to pay their share."
(In arrangement with IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest journalism platform. Charu Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan. The views expressed are those of IndiaSpend. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)