Groundwater overexploitation is straining sustainability of agriculture in Punjab. A robust policy is the need of the hour, says Dr Ranjit Singh Ghuman
The status of groundwater availability and draft across various usages is extremely worrying as the latter is much higher than the recharge. The gross groundwater draft was 34,81,343 hams (hectare metres) in 2013, while the net availability was 23,39,172 hams. The situation is alarming and needs to be handled as an emergency. The policy response so far, however, has been very weak. Punjab is yet to have an agriculture policy in place. The Water Regulation and Development Authority, approved by the Cabinet, is yet to be constituted.
Punjab is drafting 149 per cent of the net groundwater availability. The draft for irrigation is 146 per cent of the net availability. Sangrur district’s draft is the highest (211 per cent of the availability), followed by Jalandhar (209 per cent). There are five districts whose draft varies from 160 per cent (Faridkot) to 194 per cent (Barnala). In seven other districts, the draft ranges between 107 per cent (SAS Nagar) and 144 per cent (Ferozepur). These districts are in the central plain zone, where paddy is the main crop during the kharif season.
Many districts, mainly in central Punjab (paddy zone), have suffered a serious depletion in the water table. During 1996-2016, Patiala registered a 22-metre decline. followed by Fatehgarh Sahib (18.6 metres), Jalandhar (17.6), Sangrur (17.3), Kapurthala (15.70), Mansa (14.55), Moga (14), Ludhiana (6.72) and Faridkot (6.65 metres). The annual average decline varies between 21 cm (Amritsar) and 70 cm (Patiala).
According to the Water Resource Estimation Committee, when the annual average decline in the water table is more than 10-20 cm per year for a period of 10 years or more, it is regarded as a “significant decline”. Going by this criterion, 11 districts of Punjab have experienced a significant decline in the water table during 1996-2016. The drop involves a substantial social cost and reduces productivity.
The number of overexploited blocks increased from 53 (44.92 per cent) in 1984 to 105 (76.09 per cent) in 2013. The ever-declining number of safe (white) blocks is another issue of serious concern. The number of such blocks was 36 (30.51 per cent) in 1984; it decreased to 26 (18.84 per cent) in 2013. Such a scenario must worry the government, policy-makers and farmers as the very sustainability of agriculture and Punjab’s water balance are under great stress.
The situation arose out of the country’s requirement for much-needed food security, which led to the predominance of the wheat-paddy cropping system in Punjab. Hence, there was no major breakthrough in the research and development of alternative crops. The effective provision of the minimum support price (MSP) for wheat and paddy and the absence of such a provision for alternative crops and free electricity also went in favour of the wheat-paddy crop rotation.
The area under paddy increased from 6.04 per cent of the net sown area (NSA) in 1960-61 to 71.79 per cent in 2015-16. In terms of acreage, the area under paddy rose from 2,27,000 hectares in 1960-61 to 2,970,000 hectares in 2015-16, an increase by 13.08 times. Paddy needs 22 irrigations (as recommended by Punjab Agricultural University). No other crop (except sugarcane, which is a whole-year crop) consumes such a large volume of water. In practice, more than recommended doses of irrigation are applied to paddy.
The success story of the Green Revolution and the consequent cropping pattern led to an excessive dependence on groundwater. Tubewells emerged as the main instrument of irrigation in Punjab. Industries in the state also mainly use underground water through their own tubewells. Overall, only 35 per cent of the industries in India use groundwater through tubewells.
In 1960-61, of the total irrigated area of 2,020,000 hectares, 58.07 per cent was under canal water and over 41 per cent under tubewells and wells. The area under canal irrigation reached a plateau (1,660,000 hectares) in 1990-91 and thereafter it started declining. Presently, about 73 percent of the area is under tubewell irrigation.
The depletion of water table also led to frequent deepening of tubewells and a rapid increase in the number of submersible electric motors, resulting in much greater pressure on electricity and higher cost of water extraction.
The consumption of water to produce 1 kg of rice is the highest (5,337 litres) in Punjab. During the triennium ending (TE) 1980-81, rice production in Punjab consumed 16,643 billion litres, of which the contribution to the Central pool accounted for 13,449 billion litres (81 per cent). During TE 2013-14, the water consumption in rice production was 59,047 billion litres, of which 43,262 billion litres (73.3 per cent) was for the Central pool. This is a classic case of Punjab’s virtual water export in the form of rice.
Legislation runs into Political roadblock
The Congress government in Punjab has been flagging the urgent need for water conservation and management, especially overexploitation of groundwater. However, vote-bank politics has held up a proposed legislation in this regard.
Taking the populist route, the state government has neither recovered water bills running into crores of rupees nor adopted strict measures to discourage misuse of this natural resource.
Based on data compiled between 2006 and 2015, followed by 2016-17 findings, the Central Ground Water Board has found that 82 per cent of Punjab’s areas have seen a substantial fall in the water table.
The Punjab Water Resources (Management and Regulation) Bill, 2018, seems to have been grounded even before takeoff, at least for now. In the wake of stiff opposition from some ministers representing urban areas, the proposed Bill was withdrawn recently at the last moment during the winter session of the Vidhan Sabha.
The government proposes to set up the Punjab Water Regulation and Development Authority. The ministers apprehend that the proposed authority, on the lines of the Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission, would get powers to impose and hike the tariff for domestic, commercial and industrial use — hitting hard their vote bank in local bodies.
Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh
has directed the Department of Water Resources to take up the issue again at a Cabinet meeting after consulting the ministers concerned. The latter argue that the government, in another populist move, has kept the farming community out of the ambit of the proposed regulatory body despite the agricultural sector accounting for 90 per cent of the water consumption.
— Rajmeet Singh
The writer is Professor of Economics at CRRID, Chandigarh