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Ground Water Crisis in India

2023 JUN 13

Mains   > Geography   >   Resource geography   >   water management


  • Groundwater exploitation is silently sinking the ground beneath India’s feet. Subduction in parts of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi is as high as 7-12 cm a year. 


  • Groundwater is water that exists underground in saturated zones beneath the land surface.
  • It fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel, and other rock. This layer where water is held in appreciable amount is called an aquifer.
  • The upper surface of the saturated zone is called the water table.
  • Groundwater is recharged from the surface and may discharge to the surface naturally at springs and seeps.
  • Groundwater moves slowly, typically at rates of 7-60 cm per day in an aquifer. As a result, water could remain in an aquifer for hundreds or thousands of years


  • The hydro-geological setting of ground water in India can be divided into two:
    • Hard-rock aquifers of peninsular India:
      • These aquifers represent around 65% of India’s overall aquifer surface area.
      • Most of them are found in central peninsular India, where land is typically underlain by hard-rock formations.
      • These rocks give rise to an extensive low-storage aquifer system.
      • Initially the water level drops gradually. But once the water table falls by 2-6 meters, the level tends to drop very rapidly.
      • These aquifers have poor permeability which limits their recharge through rainfall. This implies that water in these aquifers is non- replenishable and will eventually dry out due to continuous usage.
    • Alluvial aquifers of the Indo-Gangetic plains:
      • These aquifers, found in the Gangetic and Indus plains in Northern India have significant storage spaces.
      • They are a valuable source of fresh water supply.
      • However, due to excessive ground water extraction and low recharge rates, these aquifers are at the risk of irreversible overexploitation.


  • As of April 2015, the usable water resources of the country have been estimated as 1,123 Billion Cubic Meter (BCM) per year
  • Out of this, the share of surface water and ground water is 433 BCM per year.
  • Setting aside 35 BCM for natural discharge, the net annual ground water availability for the entire country is 398 BCM.
  • The overall contribution of rainfall to the country’s annual ground water resource is 68% and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32%.


  • India is a groundwater economy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ‘World Water Development Report’ states that India is the largest extractor of groundwater in the world.
  • India uses 25% of all groundwater extracted globally.
  • Groundwater is one of the most important water sources in India:
    • Overall, some 60% of the irrigated land in India is supported primarily by groundwater supplies and approximately 90 million rural households are directly dependent on groundwater irrigation.
    • Over 80% of the rural and urban domestic water supplies are met through groundwater.
    • About 90% of the groundwater extracted is used by irrigation.


  • Experts believe that India is fast moving towards a crisis of ground water overuse and contamination.
  • According to new findings of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), nearly one-sixth of India’s 6,965 groundwater assessment units (block/tehsil/taluka) are ‘over-exploited’ and this along with two other categories of concern - ‘critical’ and ‘semi-critical’ - account for 35% of total assessed units.
  • Ground water overuse or overexploitation is defined as a situation in which, over a period of time, average extraction rate from aquifers is greater than the average recharge rate.
  • In India, the availability of surface water is greater than ground water.
  • However, owing to the decentralised availability of groundwater, it is easily accessible and forms the largest share of India’s agriculture and drinking water supply.
  • Northern and eastern India has emerged as major hotspots of groundwater depletion.
  • Compared to the decadal average for 2009-18, there has been a decline in the groundwater level in 61% of wells monitored by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).


  • Groundwater energy nexus:
    • Subsidies on electricity are thought to play a central role in the Indian groundwater crisis.
    • Electricity for agriculture is either free or heavily subsidized in most of the Indian states.
    • Hence, majority of groundwater pumps are unmetered, and if charged, are billed at a flat, non-volumetric, and highly subsidized tariff.
    • This flat rate is responsible for the inefficient usage and excessive withdrawal of groundwater.
  • Green revolution and inapt cropping patterns:
    • As per World Bank, more than 80% of the addition to net irrigated area in India since the Green Revolution has been supported by groundwater use.
    • The government encourages farmers to produce water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane through increased minimum support prices. This has encouraged farmers to cultivate them in water stressed areas such as the semi-arid Punjab plains.
    • For irrigation in these areas, farmers rely heavily on groundwater resulting in severe depletion of the water table.
  • Inadequate regulations:
    • Currently, the Easement Act, 1882 provides every landowner with the right to collect and dispose, within his own limits, all water under the land and on the surface.
    • This makes it difficult to regulate extraction of ground water as it is owned by the person to whom the land belongs.
  • Lack of uniformity in regulation
    • Water falls under the State List of the Constitution.
    • This implies that state legislative assemblies can make laws on the subject.
    • Hence there is no uniformity in the laws across the country.
    • Also, the central government can only make recommendations to the states in matters related to groundwater.
  • Fragmented institutional arrangement:
    • Within the central government, the Ministry of Jal Shakti is responsible for the conservation and management of water in the country.
    • The Ministry of Rural Development also implements certain programmes related to ground water management.
    • In addition, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is partially responsible for the prevention and control of pollution, including water pollution, and ground water contamination.
    • In addition, there are four major central institutions that address issues related to ground water: Central Water Commission, Central Ground Water Board, Central Ground Water Authority and Central Pollution Control Board.
    • They work independently, despite having intrinsic connection in their area of work.
  • Pollution:
    • Pollution of groundwater can occur when the levels of contaminants like arsenic, nitrate, fluoride, salinity, etc., increases.
    • This can arise due to both natural and anthropogenic reasons.
    • In certain areas, the rocks contain mineral compounds of these contaminants.
    • Occasionally, they naturally leach into the groundwater, thereby polluting it. Natural arsenic pollution is a significant cause of groundwater contamination in India.
    • Anthropogenic causes include discharge of untreated effluents into the ground, landfills, seepage of chemical laden agricultural water, over extraction etc.
  • Climate change:
    • The change in frequency, intensity and patterns in rainfall, as well as change in temperature has implication for replenishment of groundwater storage.
    • Here, Climate change will act as a force multiplier.
    • Changes in levels of precipitation or evapotranspiration rates resulting from rising temperatures can reduce infiltration rates from natural precipitation and thus reduce recharge.
  • Inaccurate estimation:
    • The current assessment methodology uses 15,640 observation wells. However, it is difficult to properly estimate the quantity or quality of groundwater in the country through this method.
    • Also, it does not fully take into account the increased reliance on groundwater for urban and rural domestic use or the impact climate change on India’s groundwater resources.
  • Ever increasing demand due to population rise:
    • Increased demand for water for domestic, industrial and agricultural needs and limited surface water resources lead to the over-exploitation of groundwater resources.


  • On individuals:
    • Reduced availability of groundwater can cause shortage of potable water and eventually droughts.
    • Use of polluted groundwater can result in several health issues, such as Hepatitis, Flurosis, Itai-Itai and Arsenic poisoning.
  • On agriculture:
    • Over-dependence:
      • India has an over dependence on groundwater to meet its agricultural demands.
      • Hence, any change in the quantity or quality of groundwater can severely affect the production and productivity from farm lands.
    • Decreasing farmer’s income:
      • Water scarcity decreases farmer profit, as they have to spend more on ensuring adequate irrigation by digging deeper wells or buying water.
      • Groundwater depletion is a major reason for the rising number of farmer suicides in India.
    • Increasing pest attacks:
      • It can also lead to pest attacks, as was seen in Harchandpur village of Haryana.
      • In this village near Gurugram, groundwater has depleted severely >> this has led to rise in termite attacks.
      • Earlier the presence of water choked the pores in the soil and killed the termite. But when the soil became dry, the termite attack increased.
      • The termite problem has in turn resulted in changes in cropping pattern. Earlier the farmers grew pulses. But now they have shifted to water intensive mustard and wheat, as water protects the crop from termites.
  • On economy:
    • By 2030, the country's water demand is projected to be twice the available supply, implying severe water scarcity for hundreds of millions of people and an eventual 6 per cent loss in the country's GDP.
  • On society:
    • Groundwater depletion can lead to subsidence of land, forcing people to relocate.
    • Jakarta is an example of this issue. The city is sinking because residents and industries have been draining aquifers, often illegally, to the point that the land is now collapsing.
    • This is one major reason why Indonesia has announced shifting its capital from Jakarta to the province of East Kalimantan, on Borneo.
    • Water scarcity has a disproportionate effect on the poor and vulnerable sections. They will have to spend more on water, while facing increased threats from contagious diseases like Cholera and Hepatitis.
    • This aggravates the vicious cycle of poverty and widens the gap between have’s and have-nots in the society.
  • On environment and ecology:
    • Groundwater shortage keeps additional water from flowing into lakes, rivers and seas.
    • This means that over time, less water will enter as the existing surface water continues to evaporate. As the water becomes less deep, it will affect everything in that particular region, including fish and wildlife.
    • Loss of soil moisture
      • Groundwater depletion results in loss of soil moisture. Thus soil becomes less cohesive and more susceptible to erosion and degradation. This leads to rise in desertification of land.
    • Affects quality of air
      • Loss of soil cohesion leads to rise in dust particles in air. This drastically reduces the quality of air. This is evident in case of New Delhi air pollution.
      • Here dust is added to the air from the rapidly desertified areas surrounding the Northern Aravallis and Sutlej-Yamuna plains.


  • Atal Bhujal Yojana:
    • It is a World Bank-funded, central scheme aimed at improving groundwater management.
    • It will be implemented in seven states: Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh over five years from 2020-21 to 2024-25.
    • It is expected that it will benefit about 8,350 gram panchayats in 78 districts.
    • Two major components of the scheme:
      • Institutional Strengthening:
        • Monitoring and disseminating ground water data, concepts such as ‘Water User Associations’ and Water Budgeting and preparation/implementation of gram panchayat-wise water security plans.
      • Capacity Building Component:
        • Better performing districts and Panchayats will get more funds
  • Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana:
    • Launched in 2015-16 with objectives to enhance physical access of water on farms; expand cultivable area under assured irrigation; improve water use efficiency in agriculture and introduce sustainable conservation practices.
    • It has four components:
      • Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP): focuses on faster completion of ongoing Major, Minor and Medium Irrigation including National Projects
      • Har Khet ko Pani: Focuses on creation of new water sources through minor irrigation. It also encompasses the restoration and renovation of water bodies, strengthening carrying capacity of traditional water sources and construction on rain water harvesting structures.
      • Per Drop More Crop: Focuses on construction of micro-irrigation and storage systems. This component also promotes efficient water conveyance and precision water application devices like drips, sprinklers, pivots, rain-guns in the farm.
      • Watershed Development: This component focuses on effective management of runoff water and improved soil & moisture conservation activities.
  • National Project on Aquifer Management (NAQUIM):
    • The objective of this programme is to achieve equitable, safe and sustainable management of India’s groundwater resources through improved systems of resource mapping, utilization and governance.
    • The purpose of aquifer mapping is to prepare maps of the complex geometry of different aquifer systems of the country, defined by hydro-geological settings.
  • Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana:
    • The Government launched the scheme for rural electrification.
    • One of its key components is the separation of agriculture and non-agriculture feeders to facilitate judicious restoration of supply to agricultural and non-agriculture consumers in the rural areas.
  • Model Groundwater Bill:
    • The Union Ministry of Water Resources had brought up a Model Bill for Conservation, Protection and Regulation of Groundwater
    • The bill seeks to move groundwater away from its current avatar under the Easements Act as a private property resource to a Common Pool Resource.
    • The State will hold groundwater as a resource in public trust.
    • It seeks to empower Gram Panchayats and Nagarpalikas through a process of Gram Sabhas and Ward Sabhas to develop management plans for groundwater use in public domain and through people’s participation and approval.


  • We need to think of groundwater as a common pool resource
    • For this, legislative changes, such as changes in the Easement Act, are essential. In this regard, the model groundwater bill promises immense potential.
  • Community water management
    • States can draw inspiration from community water management which is followed in Andhra Pradesh which has already shown how aquifer management and sharing of borewells can ensure equitable distribution of water.
  • Two-pronged approach
    • Both technological solutions (Eg: groundwater injection, micro irrigation) and traditional water management practices must be suitably incorporated in the development and conservation of groundwater resources.
  • Addressing over-exploitation in agriculture sector
    • Curbing extensive groundwater withdrawals will require limiting agricultural electricity subsidies provided by state governments and rationing of power.
    • The CWMI report recommends solutions like persuading farmers to adopt more efficient technologies such as drip irrigation.
    • The government should promote alternatives to water-intensive crops. For example, Maize requires only one-third of water than paddy.
    • Further there is need for training farmers on water conservation practices.
  • Need to set up National Water Commission
    • It should be a body with multidisciplinary expertise including in hydrology (surface water), hydrogeology (groundwater), meteorology (atmosphere), river ecology, agronomy, environmental economics and participatory resource management.


  • Mazhapolima Initiative, Kerala
    • It is an artificial groundwater recharge program.
    • Under this initiative, employees of 100 NGOs received training to install roof water harvesting systems. In the rainy season, the rooftop rain water is led through pipes with sand filter at the end, to open dug well to replenish the aquifer.
    • The intervention gives subsidies to poorer households especially in overexploited groundwater blocks and in areas of high salinity.
  • ‘Bhungroo’- Ground Water Injection Well
    • Bhungroo' is a water management system  in Gujarat that injects and stores excess rainfall water underground.
    • This water is then used for irrigation during summers.


Q. ‘Policy supported intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use in India’. Comment?