Groundwater management- technical and social aspects, Methods of artificial groundwater recharge. Concept of watershed and watershed management.

Ground Water Management

Groundwater management to protect the aquifers from overexploitation, an effective groundwater management policy oriented towards promotion of efficiency, equity and sustainability is required. Agricultural holdings in India are highly fragmented and the rural population density is large. The exploitation of groundwater resources should be regulated so as not to exceed the recharging possibilities, as well as to ensure social equity. The detrimental environmental consequences of over-exploitation of groundwater need to be effectively prevented by the Central and State Governments. Overexploitation of groundwater should be avoided, especially near the coasts to prevent ingress of seawater into freshwater aquifers .

Clearly, a joint management approach combining government administration with active people participation is a promising solution . In critically overexploited areas, bore-well drilling should be regulated till the water table attains the desired elevation. Artificial recharge measures need to be urgently implemented in these areas. Amongst the various recharge techniques, percolation tanks are least expensive in terms of initial construction costs. Many such tanks already exist but a vast majority of these structures have silted up. In such cases, cleaning of the bed of the tank will make them reusable. Promotion of participatory action in rehabilitating tanks for recharging would go a long way in augmenting groundwater supply. Due to declining water table, the cost of extraction of groundwater has been increasing over time and wells often go dry. This poses serious financial burden on farmers. Hence, special programmes need to be designed to support these farmers. Finally, the role of government will have to switch from that of a controller of groundwater development to that of a facilitator of equitable and sustainable development. Shah18 mentions that three large-scale responses to groundwater depletion in India have emerged in recent years in an uncoordinated manner, and each presents an element of what might be its coherent strategy of resources governance .

Watershed management

For an equitable and sustainable management of shared water resources, flexible, holistic approach of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) is required, which can cater to hydrological variations in time and space and changes in socio-economic needs along with societal values. Watershed is the unit of management in IWRM, where surface water and groundwater are inextricably linked and related to land use and management.

Watershed management aims to establish a workable and efficient framework for the integrated use, regulation and development of land and water resources in a watershed for socio-economic growth. Local communities play a central role in the planning, implementation and funding of activities within participatory watershed development programmes. In these initiatives, people use their traditional knowledge, available resources, imagination and creativity to develop watershed and implement community-centered programme.

Currently, many programmes, campaigns and projects are underway in different parts of India to spread mass awareness and mobilize the general population in managing water resources. Some of these are being implemented by the Central/State Governments, while others have been taken up by various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). For example, Hariyali (meaning ‘greenery’) is a watershed management project, launched by the Central Government, which aims at enabling the rural population to conserve water for drinking, irrigation, fisheries and afforestation as well as generate employment opportunities.

The project is being executed by the Gram Panchayats (village governing bodies) with people’s participation; the technical support is provided by the block (sub-district) administration. Another good example of water conservation efforts is the ‘Neeru-Meeru’ (Water and You) programme launched in May 2000 by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. During the last three years, an additional storage space of more than 18,000 lakh m 3 has been created by constructing various water-harvesting structures such as percolation tanks, dugout ponds, check dams, etc. through peoples’ participation.

Rainwater harvesting

Rainwater harvesting is the process to capture and store rainfall for its efficient utilization and conservation to control its runoff, evaporation and seepage. Some of the benefits of rainwater harvesting are:

  • It increases water availability
  • It checks the declining water table
  • It is environmentally friendly
  • It improves the quality of groundwater through dilution, mainly of fluoride, nitrate, and salinity, and
  • It prevents soil erosion and flooding, especially in the urban areas.

Even in ancient days, people were familiar with the methods of conservation of rainwater and had practised them with success. Different methods of rainwater harvesting were developed to suit the geographical and meteorological conditions of the region in various parts of the country.

Traditional rainwater harvesting, which is still prevalent in rural areas, is done by using surface storage bodies like lakes, ponds, irrigation tanks, temple tanks, etc. For example, Kul (diversion channels) irrigation system which carries water from glaciers to villages is practised in the Spiti area of Himachal Pradesh. In the arid regions of Rajasthan, rainwater harvesting structures locally known as Kund (a covered underground tank), are constructed near the house or a village to tackle drinking water problem. In Meghalaya, Bamboo Rainwater Harvesting for tapping of stream and spring water through bamboo pipes to irrigate plantations is widely prevalent. The system is so perfected that about 18–20 litres of water entering the bamboo pipe system per minute is transported over several hundred meters.

Water management in independent India – A critical Analysis

  • India attained its independence from the British rule in August 1947.
  • With independence came partition of India and loss of large productive irrigated lands to Pakistan; and bulk of the public irrigation networks that British had created ended up in Pakistan.
  • Government of India’s main aim after independence was to accelerate development and address the regional disparity of investment, as it was facing serious food grains shortage and rapid rates of population increase.
  • The slow pace of irrigation development during the last decades of colonial regime had also aggravated to the current problem situation of food shortage.

Large scale irrigation as ‘temples of modern India’

  • To overcome the food grain shortage, huge investment in large-scale irrigation project was considered to be the best option to redress all these problems.
  • And this was apparent from the Five Year Plans (FYPs), which started in 1951.
  • Investment in the large scale surface irrigation was targeted under the first two plans and giant projects like Bhakra-Nagal, the Damodar Valley and Hirakud projects were undertaken during that time.
  • Minor Irrigation Projects did receive some attention but the importance was given to the Major and Medium.
  • The early post independence era was taking pride in launching vast new projects and large dams were seen as ‘modern temples of modern India’ keeping in view the vision of Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India.
  • With the zeal of commitment for rapid social progress, the vast new multi-purpose irrigation projects were projected as a matter of pride in the early post-independence years.
  • More than 90 percent of public investments in agriculture were allocated for large-scale projects during the first 40 years after independence. This also led to lobbyism by engineers, irrigation bureaucrats and contractors who had vested interest in the construction of large dams in the hydel projects.
  • This further led to a severe deterioration in the quality of programme planning and project design, during the second Five Year Plan, 1955-60 (FYP) (Hanson, 1966). Irrigation Projects after independence.
  • The large-scale irrigation schemes were multi-purpose and depended on reservoirs unlike the run-of-the-river irrigation schemes of the colonial India.
  • These ‘temples of modern India’ were flawed on three counts:
  1. Firstly, the construction of big projects at many places led to major delay in project completion due to budget constraints.
  2. Secondly, these projects failed to take into consideration, the complex topographic environmental condition that was not viable to build and extend canals in areas such as eastern floodplains, and in Deccan.
  3. Finally the old colonial legislation of giving unlimited powers to the government and the Irrigation Department (ID) continued to be practiced in all matters relating to surface water development and management, leaving no rights to water users.
  • Although there were few exceptions like the new schemes that were introduced in the North-West of India, which led to the disappearance of the centralized bureaucratic canal management system introduced during the colonial time.
  • The Northwest supply-driven rationing principles and the delta water management of the South were neither appropriate nor could be implemented due to the rigidly designed and often incomplete delivery systems. Which was left at the end of the construction process to meets its failure in other parts of India.
  • The strict formal allocation rules made Irrigation Department (ID) officials, vulnerable to pressures from influential farmers to mismanage the distribution of water to their mutual advantage.
  • This in turn led to a large network of corruption involving local politicians, large farmers, and contractors in influencing the planning and construction phases of surface water development as well as its managements.
  • Vote bank politics centering on relaxations of offering canal water at cheap rates by the local politicians, also undermined the earlier performance incentives, which were imposed on the scheme managers by the need to raise substantial revenues.
  • Fall of water rates, squeezing of the budgets corresponding to the fall of the salary levels of the Irrigation Department (ID) staff further added to the mismanagement and poor performance of big irrigation projects.
  • Widespread official acknowledgment of large schemes having severe water management problems began from early 1970s, after the second Irrigation Commission (IC) report was released by Ministry of Irrigation and Power under the Government of India.
  • But for a long time Irrigation Department (ID) professed that the main problems of water management is because of the farmers and the need of the hour is to educate farmers about how to use water effectively and properly.
  • Thus, in 1974-75 Central Government initiated the Command Area Development Programme (CADP) for water management in the command areas, but the programme did not take account of studying the vital central issue of system design and management practice.

Community-based management

  • In 1980s attempts were made to bring about reform in the management practices of Irrigation Department (ID), through the World Bank supported National Water Management Project (NWMP)
  • The concept of PIM in India has evolved through three distinct phases
  1. Firstly in the early 1980s, the concept was limited to farmers’ participation through their representatives in project management committees, but this was not very successful
  2. In the latter part of the 1980s, farmers’ organization such as chak (outlet) committees were formed but many of these committees remained only on paper and became dysfunctional after a while
  3. In the early part of 1990s, the concept of creating farmers’ organizations and of system turnover to farmers’ was adopted through the World Bank-funded Water Resources Consolidation Project.
  • Through which thousands of Water Users Associations (WUAs) were formed to take the responsibility for operation and maintenances of the downstream parts of irrigation systems, distribution of water among water users and collection of water rates from the farmers.
  • But none of these programmes made an effort to address the issue of the Irrigation Department’s (ID) legal powers, lack of accountability in the system management and the monopolistic control of public funds assigned for surface water development
  • During the early 1990s in India, Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) through Irrigation Management Transfer (IMT) to farmers was officially acknowledged as the best method to bring about efficient utilization of irrigation water, equitable distribution and sustainable irrigation service.
  • Nonetheless the implementation of PIM has been a bumpy ride in India due to heterogeneity of farmers, caste-class differences, physical system inefficiency, half-hearted support from irrigation bureaucracy, lack of committed local leadership, inadequate capacity building and lack of proper incentives.
  • In spite of all this, since independence the expansion of irrigated area by canals has been significant, from 8.3 million hectares in 1950-51 to 18 million hectares in 1999-00.
  • Furthermore in regard to community participation in irrigation management, Government of India had also launched National Water Policy (NWP) of 1987 putting emphasis on farmer’s participation in the management of irrigation systems especially in water distribution and collection of water charges.
  • The National Water Policy (NWP) of 2002 emphasizes on participatory approach for the management of the water by having cooperation between various governmental agencies and other stakeholders including women participation in various aspects of planning, design, development and management of the water resources schemes.
  • Moreover, involving the local bodies such as municipalities and gram panchayats in the operation, maintenance and management of water infrastructure was done in keeping in view the eventual transfer of management rights to the user groups.
  • The post independence era has seen impressive increase in the irrigated areas by large surface systems under state management.
  • But on the contrary, small water surface systems under community managed continued to decline due to low level of public investment and government measure of increasing its legal and administrative control over them.
  • For example kuhls system (farmer-managed gravity flow irrigation) of Himachal Pradesh, ranges from kuhl regimes which operate independently of any state involvement, to regimes which are totally managed by the Himachal Pradesh Irrigation and Public Health Department.
  • The micro-watershed based approach to natural resource management has been hampered due to compartmentalization of various government programmes and the centralization of various programmes meant for the water development.
  • For example Community Development Programme (CDP) was started in 1952 with the aim of community participation in the development of the village. But it resulted only in the administrative and developmental functions of a centralized state in the form of replacement by introducing from the 1960s, centrally sponsored programmes and schemes of individual departments .
  • The phads of Maharashtra have been physically absorbed into large new canal schemes. Whereas in the tank systems, population pressure on the upper catchments resulted in rapid siltation, denudation and erosion of the areas on which they depended for their run-off.
  • Secondly, with the expansion of modern groundwater extraction technology along with Green Revolution in 1960- 70s acted as key factors in the dysfunctioning of the tanks. Whereas Indian watershed projects started spreading widely in the late 1980s and 1990s with the aim to develop semi-arid areas that Green Revolution had circumvent.
  • Watershed projects approaches have evolved from the highly technocratic, large scale top-down approach to greater local participation, use of local technologies which resulted in better performance in terms of conservation and productivity.
  • Three extremely successful village level projects initiated in the 1970s: Sukhomajri, Ralegaon Siddhi and Pani Panchayat which focused on the link between soil conservation and water harvesting are seen as having the modern roots of the century old assortment of soil and water conservation efforts in India.
  • In order to replicate the success of these three projects several large-scale projects were started in 1980s A significant step for participatory and decentralized forms of decision making and fund allocation was started with the comprehensive common guideline which was evolved for all programmes with the and all these projects operated in relatively poor degraded areas and adopted the technological approaches of Sukhomajri, Ralegaon Siddhi and Pani Panchayat.
  • But none of them adopted the institutional arrangements and no or little efforts were made to organize communities as benefits and cost were unevenly distributed in the watershed development project.
  • The project fails to take note, that collective action to manage the common pool was tough as benefits were gradual, incremental and unevenly distributed
  • Hence the way community is conceptualized in watershed guidelines either ignored the individual differences in a village, assuming that the common good for the village will override these differences.
  • Moreover it is believed that the new-institutionalist perspective will facilitate the cooperation of the village community by developing institutions, which would enable difference to be resolved.
  • Thus the way community construction is conceptualized in the implementation of the watershed programmes has serious drawbacks. As mere presence of particular features does not always lead to feeling of togetherness, sense of belonging and moreover does not result in collective action in spite of purposively choosing the villages for implementation of watershed project.


Groundwater Revolution – Taming the Anarchy

  • The mechanized lift irrigation from groundwater started in mid 1960s with the advent of new pumping technology, which made possible to bore deep wells and extract water in large quantities. At the same time with the advent of Green Revolution a voracious demand for water was created for the highyielding hybrid crop varieties.
  • Green Revolution agrarian technology and the institutions of groundwater revolution played a significant role in transforming the productivity of India’s irrigated agriculture.
  • The Green Revolution and Tubewell Revolution went hand-in-hand. In India, mechanized pump irrigated area has tremendously increased from 6 million hectare in 1950-51 to 33.3 million hectare in 2000.
  • In the prosperous canal irrigated areas of the North-west where the revolution began and in other alluvial areas with easily accessible aquifers, small-capacity shallow tubewells (STWs) under individual ownership were given preference since the beginning.
  • Whereas promising aspects of deep borewells in water scarce hard rock areas made the groundwater technology quite popular. This was due to its capacity to provide water on demand, having good impact on production about twice as high as canals, per unit of water provided and three times higher than tanks.
  • Various public agencies provided support in the form of credits and subsidies for well installation and the supply of electricity. This again benefited the rich farmers, ‘once again, like the canal and dam technology, affluent sections of society benefited from the tubewells’.
  • Although the well were individually-owned and direct government involvement in tubewell management was through incentives and disincentives, only with the exceptional cases of Eastern Floodplains, like Eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal where State Irrigation Department (SID) were actively engaged in installing deep tubewells.
  • For example in Uttar Pradesh which had the largest public tubewell program among all the Indian states, World Bank introduced two technological improvements during early 1970s:
  1. Power line to insulate public tubewells from power outages;
  2. An 8-shaped buried distribution system with pucca (concrete) outlets for blocks of eight hectares of the command area
  • These developments benefitted already prosperous canal irrigation regions, especially in North-West of India. Moreover, private shallow tubewells (STWs) which were dependent on groundwater recharge from canal seepage were able to offer complementary flexibility which rigid canal supplies lacked, due to the availability of water on demand from the wells at time at will.
  • The spread of tubewell technology went hand-in-hand with the Green Revolution technology in the NorthWest region of India and projected the region’s experience as the best model for rest of India. Whereas the spread of private shallow tubewells (STWs) were slow and erratic in the groundwater abundant Eastern Plains, which led the policy makers believe that unequal and fragmented landholdings were acting as hindrance in the promotion of tubewell technology.
  • Therefore in many states of India, large capacity tube wells run by government corporation were introduced which were serving areas of 50 to 150 hectares from the support of World Bank in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
  • The main objective behind public tubewell projects was to encourage the use of tubewell and modern mechanical pump irrigation, and promote equity to bring irrigation benefits to poor farmers.
  • Furthermore tubewell technology was capital intensive and required large farms to make it economically viable, but majority of the Indian farms were small.
  • In order to avoid the situation where the larger farmers having tubewell technology become exploitative water lords, and to maintain the parity with canal irrigation, public tubewell projects supplied water for irrigation at heavily subsidized rates .
  • The expansion of groundwater irrigation has been largely due to improved drilling and lifting technologies along with liberal credit provision; lower per unit cost of water pumping, enormous rural electricity program with subsidized supply of electricity.
  • Therefore with the absence of effective institutional control measures and checks have led to severe over-exploitation of the groundwater. Farmers with adequate resources have constructed deep tubewells with submersible pumps and in the process have been more interested with their private gains and ignoring the social cost of over-exploitation of groundwater.


  • Water management has been a contentious and tricky affair in India due to socio-economic-political and ecological reasons.
  • Factors like caste-class differences, heterogeneity of farmers, rural–urban dichotomy, and extreme different ecological conditions have influenced the water management.
  • To complicate further, vote bank politics, lack of coordination between irrigation bureaucracy, policy making and various sectoral departments carrying out their own water programmes, have affected water management in a diverse manner to people.
  • In this diverse regime, India has been embracing water management in its water policies, but they remain a mere proposition. The Ministries seize the opportunity presented by the all-encompassing concept of ‘integrated’ and ‘community-based water resource management’ to push their ministerial objectives and to overcome financial deficit, together with their proclaimed adherence to democratic commitment.
  • The state governments have exploited the concept to remain forefront in ecological and social transformation using a vehicle of centralized single focus technology mission. While collective action is transformed into private collaboration for local elites in their continuous search for acquiring power to control.
  • These actors exploit the incongruence presented by the complex rules and administrative red tapism to achieve their social goal of survival by exploiting water management technologies.
  • Understanding how these different policies and programs influence water management at the community level is one of the unexplored issues. Its further examining will offer insights on the ability of the community to integrate different programs and policies by default given their complex livelihood requirements.
  • The co existence of static and dynamic elements in the society along with organic and inorganic linkages would pervade through paradox and ambiguities perturbing the debate. Thus it would invite and stimulate new inquiries emanating from policy makers, civil society, academia and institutional apparatus of state.