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Drought as teacher

By P.S. Vijayshankar & Mihir Shah

What is required now is to take a three-dimensional view of groundwater and see each aquifer as a common property resource.

IT IS finally official — 2002 has been declared an all-India drought year. Large parts of central and western India have actually been suffering droughts for the last 3-4 years. But has there been any real rethinking on our strategies to combat drought?

Our organisation, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, is working on a large number of watershed and drought-proofing projects either directly or through our 50 partner grass-roots organisations. This work covers nearly three lakh acres over 40 districts in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Bihar. Poor Adivasi farmers in these areas have borne the major brunt of some of the worst droughts of the past few years. Speaking to them is one of the best ways of learning about innovative strategies needed to cope with drought.

Watershed projects focus on surface water basins. The aim is to harvest rainwater by reducing the volume and velocity of surface run-off. But watershed projects suffer from a supply side preoccupation and neglect of groundwater, which is today our primary source of drinking water and irrigation. Over-extraction of groundwater and its unsustainable use are the major factors intensifying droughts suffered by the hard rock regions of India. In these regions, comprising nearly 70 per cent of India's landmass, natural rates of groundwater recharge are low. Great care needs to be exercised here to preserve the balance between rates of groundwater extraction and recharge. This balance has been repeatedly violated in recent years.

Our Adivasi farmers, however, show an acute perception of the intricate inter-relationships between surface and groundwater. Groundwater is not used for Kharif irrigation, the crop being protected through farm ponds or nalla bunds made as part of the watershed project. Groundwater is carefully preserved first for drinking water for livestock and humans and then used, if possible, for Rabi irrigation. Tubewells, if any, are set aside only for drinking water.

What is required now is to take a three-dimensional view of groundwater and see each aquifer as a common property resource. Wells and tubewells are to be viewed as the means used by farmers to extract water from this aquifer. This extraction needs to be carefully, collectively regulated. To place this regulation on a solid scientific basis, each aquifer needs to be mapped and its storage (s) and transmission (t) characteristics carefully studied. Such studies are best done with the close involvement of the farmers of the area.

They would help the community decide on the intensity and sequencing of use of water from different wells in the aquifer. To give a rough indication of a possible scenario — wells with both low storage and low transmissivity would be preserved for drinking water. Wells with a low storage of water and high rates of transmission out of it, would be used in the first part of the season as water would not last for long in these wells. Where storage is high but so are the expected losses due to transmission, water would be used in the middle part of the season. The best wells, which have high storage of water and lose it also slowly (low t), would be used only at the fag end of the season.

Of course, for such decisions to be effectively implemented a high order of organisational development is required. Rajendra Singh's Tarun Bharat Sangh has shown the way with its Arvari Sansad, a parliament of co-riparians on the Arvari stream. But this is only a small surface water parliament. What we need is a Water Parliament that embraces both surface and groundwater — the watershed to be considered must also include the groundwater basin. And it has to be defined at a level much larger than the micro-watershed of typical watershed programmes. What is required is a complex organisational structure, with close coordination between local and supra-local level bodies.

In the present era of market fundamentalism, there are those who suggest that the best way to regulate groundwater and prevent its over-extraction is to develop groundwater markets. For them the solution as always lies in "getting prices right". They forget that we are dealing with a common property resource with significant externalities — a classic market failure scenario. They fail to understand that as water becomes scarce, prices will tend to rise, gradually putting it beyond the means of the poorest farmers. And those users, such as large corporates, who can afford to pay and bid the highest, will enjoy a virtual monopoly over water and could indulge in its unbridled exploitation.

The unique aspect of the situation is that the water below my land is not "mine". Groundwater is a non-stationary, "fugitive" resource that merges into water under another's land in a fluid sort of way. By lowering the depth of his tubewell, my neighbour can squeeze all water out of my well. Without proper collective arrangements for groundwater use, there tends to be an infinite regress of competitive extraction, with farmers outbidding each other in depths of drilling. Competitive extraction of groundwater leads to disastrous outcomes, the worst of which are observable in coastal areas of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, for example. Here, saline ingress of seawater poses a virtually irreversible environmental hazard for farmers who have engaged in competitive pumping of groundwater. There is no alternative to a vigilant community, mobilised in favour of women, the poor, Dalits and Adivasis, which understands the characteristics of its groundwater aquifers, if we are to move towards sustainable groundwater use regimes. Of course, these local-level bodies will need legal recognition and administrative backing of the state.

The role of the state is critical in one more area as well. Finally, what governs the volume and depth of groundwater extraction is the cropping pattern. And administered prices play a big role here. The crops suited to the drylands of India have suffered neglect not merely in poor state-sponsored R&D. They have also been discriminated against in the procurement and price-support systems.

Farmers in India have tended to grow water-intensive crops, as these have been the ones favoured by state procurement and pricing policies. Today, the country is burdened with huge stocks of wheat and rice, while per capita availability of pulses has fallen to less than half of what it was at Independence. The annual rate of growth of coarse cereals output declined to an all-time low of 0.12 per cent in the 1990s. Today, rice and wheat constitute almost all of the grain procured in India. And just Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh account for 80 per cent of this. As recommended recently by the Committee on Long-term Grain Policy, minimum support price operations need to be greatly diversified to include regions and to favour crops that have suffered historical neglect. Regions inhabited by and crops grown and eaten by the poorest people in India.

It is in these regions that the state needs to sponsor massive programmes aimed at long-term drought proofing. The "twin-60s" as they are sometimes called — over 60 million tonnes of foodgrain stocks and more than $60 billion in foreign exchange reserves — provide an unprecedented opportunity of safely financing such programmes, without endangering macroeconomic stability. Indeed, in the recessionary conditions of the day, there could be no better way of boosting productivity, incomes and employment, while at the same time guaranteeing food and water security to the most vulnerable sections of the population.

(The writers are both economists who teach at the Baba Amte Centre for People's Empowerment located in an Adivasi village in Madhya Pradesh.)

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