Drishtikon: Assessing the Groundwater Situation in Northern India

The Sangyan
8 min readApr 14, 2022

This article discusses the pressing groundwater crisis in parts of Northern India (Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab) and highlights the relevant reports and schemes regarding the same.

Introduction

World Water Day is celebrated on 22nd March every year. The theme for the year 2022 was “Groundwater: Making the Invisible, Visible”. This theme is very appropriate for India as groundwater resources fulfill the majority of India’s water requirements. Many parts of India are largely dependent on groundwater due to a lack of piped water supply (for domestic and industrial use) and irrigation channels (for agriculture). The annual groundwater extraction in India was about 245 billion cubic metres in 2020. Out of this, about 89% was extracted for irrigation use, and the rest 11% for domestic and industrial use.[1]

In contrast to surface water, groundwater is not visible to the naked eye, ergo making it difficult for the general public to assess the nature and quality of groundwater resources. Not being visible to the eyes, however, doesn’t mean that groundwater resources are in a sound state. The growing number of studies indicate that India’s groundwater resources have been adversely affected by factors like pollution, over-extraction, the concretization of ground, encroachment, etc.

According to NITI Aayog, if water conservation measures are not taken, 21 Indian cities–including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad–might run out of groundwater, and 40% of India’s population might have no access to drinking water in a few years.[2] The rapidly changing climate and rainfall patterns are likely to further exacerbate this situation.

Groundwater Assessment in India

The availability of groundwater in an area depends on rainfall pattern, the capacity of soil to hold groundwater, the permeability of the ground to absorb water, and the connection of aquifers with water bodies through underground channels. Rainfall contributes nearly 64% of the total annual groundwater recharge. The recharge can also happen through other sources such as underground channels connected to rivers, water bodies, and water conservation structures in the vicinity. This recharge cycle can be disturbed by concretization of ground, encroachment around rivers and water bodies, pollution, extraction of groundwater beyond recharge capacity, et al.

The Government of India regularly monitors groundwater levels in India by dividing different areas into assessment units. These assessment units are categorized as — over-exploited, critical, semi-critical, and safe — based on groundwater availability and extraction.[3] The net groundwater extraction is more than 100% of available resources in over-exploited areas; 90–100% in critical areas; 70–90% in semi-critical areas; and less than 70% in safe areas.[4] Based on the category, different policy measures are taken for monitoring, conservation, and judicious use of groundwater.[5]

As per the assessment by Central Ground Water Board (2020), out of a total of 6965 assessment units in India, 1114 units (16%) have been categorized as ‘over-exploited’.[6] In these areas, annual groundwater extraction exceeds the total annual groundwater recharge. It comes to around 20% if we also add ‘critical’ units.

The Alarming Situation in North India

The assessment report of 2017 noted groundwater extraction in Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan at more than 100%, i.e. annual groundwater consumption exceeds the annual extractable groundwater resources.[7] The annual extraction in Haryana was 137% of its annual extractable groundwater resources, 165% in Punjab, 120% in Delhi, and 140% in Rajasthan. The national average was 63%.[8]

Out of the total assessment units in these States, the proportion of ‘over-exploited’ units was: Haryana (61%), Delhi (65%), Punjab (79%), Rajasthan (63%). As per the 2020 assessment, the proportion of these units is Haryana (60.28%), Delhi (50%), Punjab (78%), and Rajasthan (68%).[9]

The report attributed a decrease in the number of ‘over-exploited’ units in Delhi from 65% (in 2017) to 50% (in 2020) to increased vigilance by Government and increased piped water supply which led to reduced dependency on groundwater.[10] However, the situation continues to be alarming for these areas. Despite having adequate replenishable resources, indiscriminate withdrawals of groundwater have resulted in over-exploitation.[11] The extensive use of groundwater for wheat-paddy cultivation in Punjab and Haryana has also played a major role in this.

Response by Government to Address Groundwater Situation

The Government has announced multiple policies to address the alarming groundwater situation in these areas. Atal Bhujal Yojana has been launched by the Union Government to improve groundwater management in seven states of India. It provides financial support to these States to address rapid groundwater depletion and take measures for judicious groundwater management.[12]

Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojna has been initiated to build irrigation infrastructure to reduce demand for groundwater and educate farmers about efficient irrigation techniques to conserve water.[13] Jal Jeevan Mission has been launched to ensure universal access to water tap connection for rural households by 2024. This will help in reducing their dependence on groundwater.[14]

Delhi Government has announced that Delhi’s wastewater treatment capacity will be doubled to ensure treated wastewater is reutilized for construction, horticulture, greenbelt development, et al. Piped water supply will be ensured in all areas. Delhi’s groundwater table will also be recharged to levels that were found 50 years ago.[15] A pilot study was also done in Palla, Delhi to retain Yamuna’s floodwater during the monsoon season on its floodplains to recharge groundwater levels.[16] These are significant announcements considering the acute groundwater shortage in Delhi. The fine print of these policies, however, is still unavailable.

In Haryana, Mera Pani Meri Virasat Yojana[17] incentivizes farmers with ₹7000 per acre to switch from water-intensive paddy cultivation to other crops like Maize, Arhar, Urad, Guar, Cotton, Bajra, Til, et al.[18] Besides, Jal Panchayats are also being organized in rural areas to spread awareness for judicious management of groundwater.[19]

Several studies have pointed out that the free distribution of electricity to farmers also plays a major role in the indiscriminate use of groundwater.[20] It results in the over-extraction of groundwater through motors and bore wells. To address this, Punjab has launched the Pani Bachao Paise Kamao scheme to incentivize farmers to reduce electricity consumption for irrigation (and in turn, water consumption) by paying them at a rate of ₹4 per unit for every unit of electricity saved.[21]

Apart from these, Punjab and Haryana are also focussing on crop diversification to reduce demand for groundwater in the agriculture sector.[22] Although various policies launched by Union and State Governments are steps in the right direction, the lack of comprehensive outcomes makes it difficult to assess their efficacy in addressing the alarming groundwater situation.

Concluding Remark

The regular mapping and assessment of groundwater resources in India is a commendable step. The availability of region-wise data helps to plan and prepare policies according to regional conditions as a one-size-fits-all approach will not be helpful. The reduction in the number of over-exploited units in Delhi due to enhanced vigilance and increased piped water supply is very encouraging and can be replicated in other regions as well. Policies should also target to either manage the demand for freshwater or ensure regular and efficient groundwater recharge. The reuse of treated wastewater for construction, horticulture, et al, will conserve groundwater. Urgent steps at a larger scale are required to address the alarming groundwater situation in Northern parts of India, particularly Haryana and Punjab, which are also major contributors to agricultural output in India.

Water crisis would also result in environmental migration and conflict leaving vulnerable communities like women, children, people with disabilities, et al further exposed to the climate chaos and ergo need immediate attention and action.

References

[1] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2020, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/2021-08-02-GWRA_India_2020.pdf> Accessed on 18th March 2022; Ground Water Year Book India 2019–20, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/Ground-Water/GW%20YEAR%20BOOK%202019-20%20ALL%20INDIA%20FINAL%20752021%20(1).pdf> Accessed on 18th March 2022.

[2] Mahreen Matto, India’s water crisis: The clock is ticking, Down to Earth, June 2019, Available at <https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/water/india-s-water-crisis-the-clock-is-ticking-65217> Accessed on 18th March 2022.

[3] Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s), Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/faq.html> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[4] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2017, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/GW-Assessment/GWRA-2017-National-Compilation.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[5] Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s), Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/faq.html> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[6] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2020, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/2021-08-02-GWRA_India_2020.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[7] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2017, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/GW-Assessment/GWRA-2017-National-Compilation.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[8] Ground Water Year Book India 2019–20, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/Ground-Water/GW%20YEAR%20BOOK%202019-20%20ALL%20INDIA%20FINAL%20752021%20(1).pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[9] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2020, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/2021-08-02-GWRA_India_2020.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[10] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2020, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/2021-08-02-GWRA_India_2020.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[11] National Compilation on Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India, 2020, Central Ground Water Board, Available at <http://cgwb.gov.in/documents/2021-08-02-GWRA_India_2020.pdf> Accessed on 19th March 2022.

[12] Atal Bhujal Yojana, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Available at <http://jalshakti-dowr.gov.in/schemes/atal-bhujal-yojana> Accessed on 23rd March 2022.

[13] About PMKSY, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Available at <https://pmksy.gov.in/AboutPMKSY.aspx> Accessed on 23rd March 2022.

[14] About JJM, Jal Jeevan Mission, Department of Drinking Water & Sanitation, Ministry of Jalshakti, Available at <https://jaljeevanmission.gov.in/about_jjm> Accessed on 24th March 2022.

[15] Yamuna will get back its fish by Dec 2023: Satyendar Jain, The Print, March 2022, Available at <https://theprint.in/india/yamuna-will-get-back-its-fish-by-dec-2023-satyendar-jain/883296/> Accessed on 22nd March 2022.

[16] Yamuna will get back its fish by Dec 2023: Delhi Minister Satyendar Jain, Business Standard, March 2022, Available at <https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/yamuna-will-get-back-its-fish-by-dec-2023-delhi-minister-satyendar-jain-122032200550_1.html> Accessed on 22nd March 2022.

[17] ‘Mera Pani Meri Virasat’ scheme for crop diversification in Haryana, Ministry of Jalshakti, Available at <http://jalshakti-dowr.gov.in/sites/default/files/BP_Govt_MeraPani.pdf> Accessed on 24th March 2022.

[18] Vivek Gupta, Groundwater depletion in Haryana a cause of serious concern, Mongabay India, July 2021, Available at <https://india.mongabay.com/2021/07/groundwater-depletion-in-haryana-a-cause-of-serious-concern/> Accessed on 20th March 2022.

[19] Sukhbir Siwach, Haryana govt aims to reduce speed of groundwater depletion by 50% in four years, The Indian Express, July 2021, Available at <https://indianexpress.com/article/india/haryana-govt-aims-to-reduce-speed-of-groundwater-depletion-by-50-in-four-years-7410037/> Accessed on 20th March 2022.

[20] Elumalai Kannan, Do farmers need free electricity? Implications for groundwater use in South India, Journal of Social and Economic Development (Vol. 15, Issue 2), 2013, Available at <https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA376207402&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=09725792&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=anon%7E323c84a> Accessed on 25th March 2022.

[21] Shubhangi Misra, Low enrolment & farmers ‘unpaid’ in Punjab’s ‘Pani Bachao, Paise Kamao’ scheme, but power saved, The Print, November 2021, Available at <https://theprint.in/india/low-enrolment-farmers-unpaid-in-punjabs-pani-bachao-paise-kamao-scheme-but-power-saved/772448/> Accessed on 21st March 2022.

[22] Shruti Bhogal & Kamal Vatta, Crop diversification to address the water crisis in Punjab, India Water Portal, 2021, Available at <https://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/crop-diversification-address-water-crisis-punjab> Accessed on 25th March 2022.

Authors

  1. Abhishek Kumar, NCPEDP-Javed Abidi Fellow on Disability, The author can be reached at: abhishek.ncpedp@gmail.com
  2. Himanshu, Advocate. The author can be reached at: himanshu.zenithlegal@gmail.com

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The Sangyan

Law. Environment. Disability | Curator ~ Adv. Abhishek Kumar | Working on the 'Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities' | thesangyan.in | 🇮🇳 |