Major insights from India’s Minor Irrigation Censuses

10 Feb

My colleague Stuti Rawat and I have just finished writing a paper based on four rounds of Minor Irrigation (MI) Census data. Any irrigation scheme that serves less than 2000 ha is classified as Minor Irrigation in India. And over 90% of all minor irrigation structures are actually groundwater structures comprising of dug wells, shallow and deep tubewells.  So basically, a study of MI Census is a study of India’s groundwater sector. Results turned out to be far more interesting than I anticipated.  So, what were our major insights?

First, the most important insight is that rate of growth of India’s groundwater structures is slowing down. Just as India was adding a million wells and tubewells every year all through the mid-1980s to early 2000s and it seemed that the groundwater juggernaut of India was unstoppable, the 4th MI Census of 2006-07 showed that this growth was already slowing down. In most of India, growth in number of groundwater structures has slowed down, while in eastern India states like Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, absolute numbers of groundwater structures have also declined. There could be several reasons for this overall decline.

It is possible that many places in India have just run out of groundwater, in particular in peninsular India with hard rock aquifers. Tamil Nadu, one of the basket cases of over-exploitation is one such hard rock aquifer area where number of groundwater structures has gone down marginally from 1.90 million in 2000-01 to 1.86 million in 2006-07. However, absolute numbers have not declined in other hard rock aquifer states such as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, though rate of growth has declined. The same holds true for other states with over-exploitation problems such as Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat.

More importantly, than physical scarcity of groundwater, energy crisis may have played a role in this slow down. Many of these states mentioned above, depend on electricity for pumping and the deep crisis in the electricity sector meant severe rationing of electricity to farmers. For instance, in Gujarat, Punjab and Karnataka, farmers received 16-20 hours of electricity daily till early 1990s, since then electricity has been rationed gradually and now they receive not more than 6-8 hours per day.

This energy crisis assumes an entirely new dimension in eastern India. The fact that much of the decline in groundwater structures have come from eastern India where levels of development of groundwater is quite low (less than 40% of the renewable groundwater resources are tapped here) and rainfall and recharge are high, shows that decline in absolute number of groundwater structures is a function of energy squeeze experienced by farmers who depend mostly on diesel pumps and operating such pumps is a costly affair given high diesel prices.

Therefore, the second major insight is the important role that energy plays in regulating India’s groundwater economy of India. That the rate of growth in groundwater structures has declined from 2000-01 to 2006-07 seems to be  more of a function of electricity rationing in the north, south, west and central Indian states and dependence on expensive diesel for pumping in eastern India.

However, this is not to say that there is no physical scarcity of groundwater in India, or that farmers have not responded to declining groundwater levels. MI Census shows that villages with water tables of less than 10 m has declined from 62% to 56% from 1993-94 to 2000-01. How have the farmers responded to declining water tables? They have done so by shifting away from open dug wells with manual lifting devises to shallow and deep tubewells with mechanized lifting devices.  Thus, our third major insight is that composition of India’s groundwater sector is changing – from 70% of all groundwater structures being dug wells in 1986-87, only 45% of groundwater structures were dug wells in 2006-07. If anything, this trend is likely to continue, but with wide regional differences.

Our fourth major insight is that, some things have not changed over time and this includes ownership pattern of wells and tubewells. Majority (more than 90%) of all groundwater structures are owned by private individuals farmers and within this, small and marginal farmers (with less than 2 ha land) own a major share of wells and tubewells. This trend, far from diluting, is actually getting stronger, as both MI Census and Agricultural Census confirms. Thus, India’s groundwater structures are mostly owned and operated by small and marginal farmers – a fact that has important policy implications.

Our final insight is that there are wide regional variations in India’s groundwater economy, with some states further along the way and some lagging behind. The management strategies for the future therefore need to take these trends into account. Blanket groundwater regulations, like the ones proposed by the 12th Five Year Plan, without acknowledging that the groundwater economies of eastern India are on an altogether different trajectory will not lead to sustainable and equitable regional outcomes. Understanding regional variation in India’s groundwater economy is therefore a key for formulating future strategies.

I have some ideas on what such a future strategy should look like; I will blog on it soon.


5 Responses to “Major insights from India’s Minor Irrigation Censuses”

  1. Doug Merrey February 10, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    I think your interpretation is probably mostly right, except you may be mistaking a correlation of rising energy prices with slowing down or decline in growth of wells with a causal effect? For example, what about the demand side for the produce? In other words, could part of the solution be to improve the output marketing side so farmers can diversify and grown crops targeted to specific markets?

    • aditimukherji February 10, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

      Thanks Doug for your useful comment and yes, I am not showing causation, only commenting on correlation and providing a plausible hypothesis. What I argue more fully in our paper is that output prices have not kept pace with increase in input prices, especially in eastern India where dependance on diesel is high. Also, eastern India has very low levels of food procurement, that both West Bengal and Bihar are trying to take care of in recent times. Farmers where government procurement system works have fared much better, example, Punjab and Haryana. Farmers where state governments have invested in better infrastructure (e.g. Gujarat) have also fared better. So yes, decline in groundwater use in eastern India is possibly both a cause and a symptom of agrarian slow down.

  2. Dilip Kumar Chatterjee May 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

    The data of the 4th MI Census are not posted in the MoWR website till date. How are those available?

    • aditimukherji May 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

      Yes, it is not yet available publicly. We got a copy of the state level summary statistics from the Planning Commission. We have written a paper based on it, it will be published in EPW soon, I will let you know once its published.


  1. Strategies for Managing India's Groundwater / Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog - February 12, 2013

    […] Mukherji, water professional and researcher at IWMI, shares conclusions from her study on minor irrigation schemes in India.  Mukherji and her colleague Stuti Rawat found that the rate […]

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