SEATTLE — India is currently undergoing its worst water crisis in history, with more than 600 million people facing acute water shortages. One of the largest contributors to the water crisis in India is the undermanagement and over-depletion of India’s groundwater supply; 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are in decline, accounting for 40 percent of India’s total water supply. This rapid decline is due in part to a poorly defined legal framework for groundwater that rests ownership with landowners and leads to unchecked extraction of the groundwater supply.
While agriculture accounts for 80 percent of all water use and groundwater is utilized for 63 percent of all irrigation water, 70 percent of Indian states have achieved scores of less than 50 percent on managing farm water effectively. This is especially critical since 70 percent of India’s population (700 million people) lives in rural areas. At this rapid rate of depletion, by 2030 the country’s water demand is projected to double its available supply. While this bleak trajectory is a major obstacle in India’s development, structural policy changes that have already taken place spell hope for improvement.
The History of Indian Groundwater Regulation
Rules for groundwater allocation were originally established during the 19th century while India was still a British colony. The landmark 1843 English court case Acton v Blundell established that a landowner owns everything under their land and can take and dispose of these underground resources at will. This claimant of ownership pertaining to underground sources of water was further bolstered by the 1859 court case Chasemore v Richards which established that water which percolated to the surface from underground was to be treated as a separate legal entity from other sources of surface water.
The consequences of these regulations began to be seen decades after independence with the introduction of large-scale pumping mechanisms in the 1960s, resulting in a surge of groundwater extraction and plummeting water reserves. In response, the government of India prepared a Model Bill to Regulate and Control the Development and Management of Ground Water for adoption by the states in 1970, which is still enforced today.
While the reform bill ultimately gives jurisdiction over groundwater regulation to each individual state, it has numerous shortcomings that nullify it as an effective regulatory instrument despite being revised as recently as 2005. The issues include failing to tackle existing overuse of groundwater since it had measures which grandfathered in of existing uses, failing to move beyond issues of individual appropriation and inadequately addressing water quality standards. It is a top-down measure that lacks provision for institutional regulation at local levels. The failure of the reform bill to adequately address these main underlying issues was the conclusion reached by the Indian Planning Commission in a 2011 report, in which they found that “model groundwater legislation is simply not adequate to deal with the steadily worsening situation that we face.”
Water Crisis in India a Tragedy of the Commons
This inadequacy of the original English case law and the subsequent 1970 reform bill to account for the long-term consequences that continue to exacerbate the water crisis in India makes this situation a modern tragedy of the commons. Coined in a famous 1968 paper by ecologist and philosopher Garrett Hardin, the tragedy of the commons is an economic problem where, in a shared-resource system, individuals out of self-interest exploit a common resource to the extent that demand overwhelms supply. This creates a situation of scarcity where every individual who consumes an additional unit of that resource directly harms others who can no longer enjoy the benefits.
Fred Pearce, an English author and journalist, poignantly illustrated this issue within the context of the water crisis in India in his visit to Tirupur in 2003, a town in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Pearce spoke with the wife of one the town’s farmers drilling for water on his property to sell, like many other landowning farmers in the region, as opposed to using the water for irrigating his own farm. Pearce asked, “Why not get back to farming before the wells finally run dry? ‘If everybody did that, it would be well and good,’ [the farmer’s wife]agreed. ‘But they don’t. We are all trying to make as much money as we can before the water runs out. If we stopped pumping on just this farm, it wouldn’t affect the outcome’…Nobody can afford to miss out on the boom, because they will all share in the eventual bust.”
Revitalizing India’s Commons Through Localized Participatory Practices
As Pearce’s encounter demonstrates, the social consequences of a legal framework that promotes unchecked individual consumption lead to a community response that is similarly self-interested. However, current efforts to reshape water management policy more collaboratively have started to create improvement. One of the biggest efforts in this shift has been the emergence of localized Water User Associations (WUA). They are groupings of local water users, largely farmers, that pool together financial and operational resources for the maintenance of irrigation systems.
Rajasthan, a northern Indian state bordering Pakistan, has emerged as a leader in this movement towards participatory irrigation, with 75 percent of the irrigation areas in the state utilizing WUAs. The high level of implementation of WUAs is in part because it is a measure of Rajasthan’s Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlambhan Abhiyan (MJSA) project, “which aims to make the remotest of the villages in the state water-sufficient by focusing on reviving water bodies, increasing groundwater levels and providing clean drinking water for all.” As a result of these measures, Rajasthan has restored 81 percent of the irrigation potential of identified water bodies through community involvement and technology use.
This is a formidable example of how reframing policy towards more participatory management is a powerful tool for development. But while this is an impactful start in tackling the water crisis in India, in order to comprehensively approach an issue of this scale an overhaul of the entire regulatory framework is needed that comprehensively expands on these decentralized, collaborative measures.
– Emily Bender