Making groundwater public property is a bad public policy choice

18 Jul

Today’s Times of India has published a news article on its front page, lauding a government proposal to make groundwater public property and engaging village communities in its management. The link is here.While this sounds reasonable in theory, there are several reasons why this is a poorly thought out idea.

First, it makes the assumption that once in public domain, groundwater will be better managed in the greater public interest. But where is the evidence for this? The newspaper, in another related article, said that this is being done in several villages in Andhra Pradesh.  I believe, they are referring to Andhra  Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems Project (or APFMGS in short). While APFMGS was indeed successful in involving farmers in managing groundwater through proper water accounting and demand management, but  our recent field visits show that this success was  limited to the duration of the project and has fizzled out since then. Not surprising , this is often the fate of most projects, especially projects aimed at ‘demand-management’ as opposed to ‘supply-augmentation’.

Second, this proposal also says that village panchayats should be involved in groundwater management. For those who think that village panchayats are capable of doing this, or will do a fair job of it, must indeed be living in Gandhian utopia of Gram Swaraj  than Ambedkar’s reality of villages as center of oppression against the poor and the lower castes. I ask again, where is the evidence that involving village panchayats in management of such a precious resource — a resource on which lives  of millions of farmers depend, will be any better than the status quo? Or that such one-off initiatives can be sustained? Indeed, if anything, there is a lot of evidence to show that performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been dismal all throughout out India.

Third, there are other countries in the world like Mexico and Spain which have made groundwater public property years ago and have since then tried to manage it through laws and regulations. Ours and others assessment of these initiatives clearly demonstrates the implementation challenges. And these are countries with five times our per capita GDP, less than 1/10th  our numbers of wells and tubewells and several times better implementation capabilities. Here are links to papers from Spain and Mexico  highlighting the challenges and limited successes so far.

Fourth, several states in India have tried  implementing groundwater laws. This has almost always led to corruption and rent seeking. Our work in West Bengal shows that officials in charge of giving permits to farmers acted arbitrarily  and were often accused of seeking bribes. Ramamohan’s work in Andhra Pradesh also highlights similar problems.

Our contention is that as an idea, this is not bad. But given the implementation challenges, the net result of making groundwater a public property may not be any better than the current regime. And if more government control becomes a channel for bribes and corruption, then the very people that this move aims to protect, will be even worse off than they are now. So, if such ‘direct’ regulations do not work, what does? Global evidence of managing groundwater shows that indirect measures often work better than direct interventions. In the context of India, the most important lever for managing groundwater is through managing the energy-irrigation nexus. It could be  done either through rationing or pricing of electricity. Various states in India are indeed trying to do this and they would need support in their endeavor. Making groundwater a public property will hardly help — it is neither here, nor there!

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3 Responses to “Making groundwater public property is a bad public policy choice”

  1. Aparajita July 20, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    enjoyed reading you counter argument especially in the the backdrop of the euphoria or is it euphoric hysteria that I witness all around me. If your interested would love to have you over at our dept for a discussion/presentation.

  2. Property Management Brisbane September 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Nice blog…….
    Keep it up……….
    Not surprising , this is often the fate of most projects, especially projects aimed at ‘demand-management’ as opposed to ‘supply-augmentation’.

  3. Diwan singh May 17, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    Its true that the condition is likely to deteriorate further if ground water management is left to Panchayats. But, what if, if it is left to Gram Sabha. After all, Gram Sabhas have preserved their natural resources for thousands of years and ensured an equitable distribution and preservation, both at the same time. Good awareness, authority to act, and the need to act are three main requirements for successful community management.

    Other countries have comparatively, poor experience and history of gram swaraj. Its a system of governance, our country had an expertise in. It involves building up a culture of self governance. No law from the higher authority can ever do better.

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