Groundwater · Maharashtra

Groundwater & the tragedy of the commons in Marathwada

Guest Blog by Kalyani Thatte

“Our borewells are drying up fast. We have reached to 400-450 ft deep but it is futile most of the times. There are very few wells that are having water throughout the year. The water levels are dropping every year. Tankers are regular in summers. We are not even able to take a Kharif crop at times as it hardly rains and that too when it is required for the standing crops”, this was the narrative told in the first village named Zinnar in Osmanabad. However as I travelled through different villages in different blocks of the district and later on to the districts of Ahmednagar, Solapur, Nashik, Jalgaon, the narratives remained more or less the same. The only change was the names of the villages.

This year (2019), the rainfall was deficient, the monsoon was erratic. But this narrative has been similar for many years. Especially from last 8-10 years the intensity of such narratives is increasing. These narratives made me realise that what is happening is something that is not in our hands. However it also brought forth the factors which are in our hands and which are thanks to ruthless exploitation, are worsening the situation.

Groundwater is one of those factors. Availability of groundwater is a function of rainfall, topography, altitude, geology, geography of the area, groundwater extraction, soil type, etc. The geology, groundwater flows, availability in general are inelastic. However the issues of access, distribution, abstraction, prioritization, governance are elastic.  And this is where the whole tragedy of commons with respect to groundwater begins.

Groundwater has been called the lifeline of our country; especially the rural parts are more dependent on it. The state of Maharashtra is no exception to it.

Payarwadi, Ahmednagar (Photo Kalyani Thatte)
Barafpada, Thane (Photo Bhushan Neve)

Groundwater from wells, springs is an important source for drinking water purposes in rural parts. Around 80% of the rural water needs are satiated from these resources in Maharashtra. There are tribal hamlets in Thane; Palghar districts where in spite of having big dams in the vicinity which fulfil the (unjustifiable) water requirements of Mumbai & surrounding metro region, the water needs within the villages are satiated through village owned wells.

But when it comes to access, equity mere availability doesn’t help. The same water becomes a weapon then. The situation in villages of Osmanabad brought this in the forefront. During the drought the water supply through tankers had begun for the villages, however the regularity was out of question. The quantity which was rationed was as low as 20 litres per person per day. The water for cattle was included in the same quantity. The scarcity then was met through the water available through few of the wells or borewells in the villages. The water markets are thus rampant. Water was being charged at higher prices. The owners of the wells and borewells were using their discretion in raising the price per vessel.

In few of the villages the government has acquired wells or borewells for drinking water supply. However the government was paying higher price to the owner of the well or borewell so that the water won’t be used for the personal use. The higher price ensured that water will be kept for the community.

The dimensions of social discrimination, gender inequality are also quiet visible. The women in the Paradhi beda, Indapur, Osmanabad told that they pay almost double per vessel as compared to the other Maratha population in the village. These are visible impacts, in addition to invisible impacts. Increasing distress migration is possibly the best example of it.

Other than domestic purposes, groundwater is also majorly used for irrigation. The emergence of wells and borewells helps in providing protective irrigation. Increase in the irrigated area due to groundwater has helped in overcoming the rainfall limitations. In spite of having highest number of dams in the country and the network of canal systems, the rise of irrigation in Maharashtra is attributed to groundwater. Availability of easy extraction technology, access to electricity, finances, encouraging government policies etc have increased the area under irrigation. However as land rights are linked to water rights, this has encouraged privatisation of the resource. Unlike watershed, the understanding around ‘aquifer’ as a unit of groundwater as a resource, its shared nature is also missing. Privatisation and ownership over the resource thus leads to lack of understanding of the resource and its common pool nature.

The dimensions of economic returns and market linkages were equally evident and distorting. The increasing coverage of cash crops is one of the results of it. Farm ponds are full even in the summers in the Ahmednagar and Nashik districts. These farm ponds serve the purpose of sustaining the pomegranate crops in the districts. However in these cases groundwater is directly pumped from wells/ borewells and stored in a farmpond which is generally bigger than the otherwise acceptable size of the farm ponds. The same is the condition in other parts; it’s just that the crops change according to the region. It is sugarcane in Osmanabad, Beed or Banana in Nashik, Jalgaon.

In this struggle for sustaining cash crops, the traditional crops or even the Kharif crops are getting forgotten or neglected. Few of the farmers in Osmanabad we interviewed, said that bad monsoon did not even give them the kharif crop of Jowar. The yield was of such an inferior quality, that it was used as fodder. On the other hand the contract farming for sugarcane at least has some assured returns. Thus protective irrigation was given a way as water was used for taking sugarcane. Also there are dimensions of demand, pricing structures which compel in such choices of farmers.

Nagewadi, Osmanabad (Photo Bhushan Neve)

The shift from traditional crops to cash crops has put a heavy burden on groundwater usage. Though the access to groundwater is supposed to be democratic in nature, there are huge issues of equity determined by the legal, social, economic dimensions. Also it raises the issues around the prioritisation of water use.

The picture in the villages of Osmanabad, Beed was somewhat paradoxical during this drought period. On the one end there were long queues for water, burnt fields but on the other end, the water guzzling crops could also be seen at many places.

Sarole, Osmanabad (Photo Kalyani Thatte)
Sarole, Osmanabad (Photo Bhushan Neve)

However the economics is not always favourable. Increasing number of failed borewells provides one example of this. However the dependency is becoming so inelastic that in spite of failed borewells, the hope for one more borewell never dies. This is a vicious cycle. The grampanchayat Morzar, Nashik has 1000 borewells out of which only 300 are working but rest are defunct. While conversing with one of the farmers in Walvad village in Osmanabad, the farmer sarcastically said that the number of borewells is gone so high in the village that if the earthquake were to occur, everything will be shattered. The land has so many boreholes that it is now a question where to take a next borewell.

According to the 5th minor irrigation census, the state has total 2637994 groundwater structures, making it one of the highest extractor of groundwater in the country. This is state level data. However the same is not available at the village level in the documented form. Registering wells, borewells according to ‘Groundwater (development and management) act 2009’ is the function of state groundwater authority. The work can be best carried out if the villages have their data. However hardly any village has this data owing to which it is always an approximate number that is  given for the number of wells and borewell in the village.

One more trend that is visible is that the increase in number of borewells is more than increase in the number of wells. Comparatively less price, easy availability of boring rigs, faster construction are some of the important reasons for this borewell boom. During the visits in the summers in Osmanabad, a villager from Dhorala said that almost 3-4 borewells are dug everyday in the vicinity. In Morzar village, Nashik there is a case where one house has a well and 4 borewells.

The borewells are not just increasing in numbers but in terms of the depths as well. According to the ‘Groundwater (development and management) act 2009’, it is prohibited to drill beyond 60 meters, that is around 200 feet. However all the villages visited showed the water levels beyond 200 feets. The villages of Osmanabad, Latur show the depth as low as 700-800 feet. The villagers did not know about such restriction. The officials in the irrigation department, agriculture department said that there is no machinery to keep a track in the villages.

Lack of vigilant governance, dissemination of information on the one end and inelastic demand, livelihood stakes on the other end, have increased the exploitation of the resource.

Groundwater competition is further aggravated by the geology. The hard rock geology composed of basalt has water retention capacity just to 1-3%. This naturally puts limitation on the availability of water. Natural limitation on the retention and the recharge automatically leads to extraction from deep aquifers, thus making it more vulnerable.

The lack of availability has also linkages with increasing number of failed borewells on one hand and depleting water levels on another hand. According to ‘Water Scarcity Report 2018’ of GSDA, there are 3342 villages in the state which show the water levels depletion of more than 3 meters and in total 10642 villages showing groundwater level depletion in the range of 1 to 3 meters, making total number of water scarce villages to 13,984.

The recent floods in Maharashtra mostly in Sangali, Satara and Kolhapur are giving a false picture that the rainfall has been enough. One of the farmers in the village from Pathardi, Ahmednagar told in despair that the floods have given the government a new challenge to look at. Our story is recurring and thus has lost its value. The districts of Ahmednagar, Osmanabad, Beed are still facing the deficient rainfall. Tankers are yet not stopped. Only one or two good rains have happened so far. However that is not adequate for the crops. The fodder houses began for the cattle in October 2018 are still operating.

Inelastic dependency, increasing vulnerability in the light of climate change, increasing competition, lack of information, disappearance of traditional knowledge, lack of governance, depleting water levels, etc. define the course of current state of groundwater in Maharashtra. However the common thread that is cutting across is the ‘change in behaviour’ be it at the government level, individual level, community level or towards the ecosystems, traditions etc. The market forces, materialistic aspects have their impacts too. Marathwada which was once known for its traditional water management wisdom is now known for parched lands, long queues and recurring draughts.

Thus the questions are many and answers are few.

However instances witnessed during even in drought showed that the picture is not completely bleak. The villages of Pimpalgaon Wagha, Sonewadi from Ahmednagar did a crop planning knowing that the rainfall has been deficient. The villagers of Hivre Bazar didn’t take the onion crop, inspite of it being an important cash crop so that drinking water will be secured. The farmer from Morzar dug a recharge shaft in his farm.

On a broader level as well the emphasis on the understanding that it is a ‘common pool resource’ is visible at many instances. Groups have been giving a lot of thought to improve technology, scientific understanding, governing systems, administrative structures in and around groundwater.

The groundwater (development and management) rules 2018 is an important step towards addressing different issues together. However we need to work to replace such top down approaches with the bottom up push. It requires working on the interface of science, policy, regulation and community.

Active involvement of all the stakeholders is thus foremost for sustainability and effectiveness.  The blame game has been played quiet a lot and for long. Can we now have more collaboration, communication so that the earlier gaps of governance, knowledge, administration can be bridged? Can our different government departments e.g. agriculture department, irrigation department, department of social forestry etc work in tandem? Can our farmers come together to share their wells or borewells? Can our policies be more pragmatic which will pay due attention to market forces, price mechanisms? Can research be made more human centric rather than driven by mere data and numbers? And to go further, Can these stakeholders work in consensus and understand each other?

Can we also spare a room for traditional systems? The region of Marathwada or Vidarbh is known for its Phad systems or traditional tank systems. Can we make efforts to revive that vital knowledge along with the spread of modern technology?

Can we emphasise on how the stories of Pimpalgaon Wagha, Sonewadi, Hivregaon Bazar be replicated?

This demands bridging up the knowledge gap, building scientific understanding and education in and around the resource system, understanding the market linkages. This can be begun by understanding the motivations, rationalities behind those actions. This demands willingness and openness from all the stakeholders. This further demands respecting the resource for its ecosystem value and not merely for economic gains.

And last but not the least, this demands reviving our relationship with the resource.

 Kalyani Hemant Thatte (kalyani.h.thatte@gmail.com)

(Project co-ordinator & Researcher, Anandwan Groundwater Corpus Alliance, Maharogi Sewa Samiti, Warora, Maharashtra)

Note: The photographs are taken during the field visits.

References:

  • Shankar, P. V., Kulkarni, H., & Krishnan, S. (2011). India’s groundwater challenge and the way forward.Economic and Political Weekly46(2), 37-45.
  • Thomas, R., &Duraisamy, V. (2016). Hydrogeological delineation of groundwater vulnerability to droughts in semi-arid areas of western Ahmednagar district.The Egyptian Journal of Remote Sensing and Space Science.
  • Ostrom, E. (2009). Design principles of robust property-rights institutions: what have we learned? PROPERTY RIGHTS AND LAND POLICIES, K. Gregory Ingram, Yu-Hung Hong, eds., Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

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