What Will Modi’s Second Term Mean for the Indian Water Crisis?
16 JULY 2019 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF
- India faces a major water crisis; it is already water scarce and will become even more so without major intervention.
- The crisis is largely due to years of mismanagement, fragmented governance frameworks and contradictory policy.
- The Modi government failed to enact policies that would ease the water crisis in its first term and in some cases made the situation worse.
- Modi’s second term is not likely to be much better than his first as his administration seems set to continue ignoring the root causes of the crisis, despite promising to make water a second term priority.
India faces dangerous levels of water scarcity. Groundwater, which accounts for 40 per cent of the water used in India, is being exploited at a dangerously unsustainable rate, while surface water resources are often too polluted to be used for drinking or agriculture. While climate change is sometimes blamed as the main cause of the water crisis, India’s current situation is due more to mismanagement, weak governance and agricultural policies that encourage heavy water use. Successive Indian governments have failed to address the country’s increasingly scarce and polluted water and Narendra Modi’s government has been equally inadequate in tackling the water crisis. In the early months of his second term, Modi has created a new ministry to deal with water-related issues and has announced plans to provide piped water to every Indian household. Although Modi has promised to make water a priority during his second term, there has been no budgetary increase to support this promise, and the government’s latest water-related programmes have failed to address the root causes of the water crisis. With Modi’s re-election, it seems likely that little will change and the Indian water crisis will continue in the near- to medium-term, at least.
Indian Water Crisis: The Context
According to a report by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, approximately 600 million Indians face acute water stress and another 200,000 die each year from water-related illnesses. Current projections indicate that 21 Indian cities, including Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad, will run out of groundwater by 2020 due to over-exploitation. Groundwater accounts for 40 per cent of India’s water supply and is being used at an unsustainable rate. Between 1951 and 2011, per capita water availability fell by 70 per cent. If current trends continue, per capita water availability will fall to 950 cubic metres per year by 2025. When water supplies drop below 1,000 m³ per capita, a population faces water scarcity (an imbalance between supply and demand for water, which results in a high rate of demand for water in relation to its supply). When availability falls below 500 m³, it becomes absolute water scarcity, i.e. when supply is insufficient to satisfy demand for water, even after options to enhance supply and reduce demand have been implemented. By 2030, India’s water demand will be twice the available supply, which will not only be devastating for food security, health and livelihoods, but will also lead to a loss of around six per cent of GDP.
Climate change has been responsible for some degree of India’s water crisis. Between 1951 and 2010, annual precipitation fell by around ten per cent in central India and a slight decrease in rainfall has been recorded across the country (although this varies from region to region). Additionally, an increase in heavy rain events increased around the country, while small and medium rainfall events decreased. Some studies have also found that monsoon rainfall has decreased across the sub-continent.
Although climate change has (and will probably continue to) worsen India’s water crisis, the crisis stems more from over-exploitation, mismanagement and misappropriation than it does from a lack of available water. The Indian agricultural sector uses more than 90 per cent of the total water drawn in the country and 89 per cent of its extracted groundwater is used to irrigate crops (household and industrial use account for nine and two per cent of groundwater use, respectively). Groundwater use has increased by 500 per cent over the last five decades and it is estimated that 15 per cent of administrative units, including districts and blocks, extract more water than can be recharged. As a result, water tables across the country are dropping rapidly, to the extent that India now has the fastest rate of groundwater decline in the world. The situation is especially acute in north-western India, where much of the country’s irrigation is concentrated. Despite this, groundwater irrigation is generally inefficient, with only three per cent of farmers using drip or sprinkler irrigation to grow crops. By contrast, 88 per cent used flood irrigation methods to deliver water to fields. As a result of inefficient irrigation practices, it is estimated that more than 70 per cent of irrigation water is wasted and India uses two to four times more water to produce major food crops than in China or Brazil.
Agricultural policy also encourages irresponsible groundwater use. In the 1960s, the Indian Government introduced electricity subsidies to encourage greater groundwater extraction. The policy was successful in encouraging farmers to build tubewells and electricity prices have become part of political campaigning since. Cheap electricity for farmers has had adverse consequences for groundwater tables. Most tubewells need electricity to pump water and farmers face minimal prices for electricity consumption (in many states it is free as long as the water is used for irrigation) and there are no limits on how much water may be extracted. As water levels decline, rather than scale back pumping, farmers deepen wells and purchase more powerful pumps, further reducing groundwater availability. The problem is made worse by the types of crops farmers often grow. It takes 3,500 litres of water to produce a kilogram of rice, India’s main food crop – replacing it with millet, maize or sorghum could reduce demand for water by up to 33 per cent. In 2015, the Modi government increased incentives to grow water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat and sugar cane, instead of less intensive crops that the country does not export.
Other issues have also contributed to the state of India’s water resources. India’s rapidly growing population is putting pressure on increasingly scarce water supplies, both through direct consumption of water and through the increased amount of water that is needed to feed more people. India’s population is likely to reach 1.6 billion by 2050, which will increase demand for grain by 340 million tonnes. Per capita income is also expected to increase by around 5.5 per cent per annum between 2025 and 2050, which will also increase demand for food. Rapid urbanisation has also contributed to the water crisis. Generally, urban areas reduce how much rain can be absorbed into the ground, further reducing groundwater recharge rates and lowering water tables. In addition to this, 56 per cent of India’s cities are either completely or partially dependent on groundwater. As Indian cities have become larger, many have outgrown their aquifers, forcing them to rely on water imported from outside the city. While there is some surface water that could be used, more than 70 per cent of that resource is too polluted to be used for drinking or farming.
Indian Water Policy and Legislation
The Indian National Water Policy (NWP) was last updated in 2012 and aims to be a framework for the creation of laws and institutions to address India’s scarce water supplies. In reality, however, the NWP is a collection of vague and often contradictory proposals. Moreover, few of the concrete proposals recommended by the policy have been put into practice: no centre for water policy research has been established (nor has any rigorous research on water policy been undertaken by the Indian Government or any state government). The NWP also stresses the need to manage groundwater resources to prevent their overuse (this provision was diluted in the 2012 version of the policy. In the 1987 and 2002 versions, the NWP actively called to regulate groundwater extraction). Despite this, groundwater abstraction remains entirely unregulated.
In practical terms, Indian water policy remains too fragmented to tackle a growing crisis. A lack of coherent water management strategy was identified in a 2014 report as the ‘most pressing water challenge for India’. The current system incorporates colonial and post-colonial legal principles, legislation, judicial decisions and customary mechanisms that are sometimes contradictory. Water is also governed at the state level, which adds to the fragmentary nature of Indian water governance. Only one state, for instance, has a functioning water regulator (the state is Maharashtra; the regulator only has limited powers, however). Furthermore, the Easement Act, 1882 grants landowners vast rights over both ground and surface water resources. This allows them discretionary powers to dig wells and extract water without limit and makes it difficult to regulate water use. Landowners are also not liable for any damage done to water resources by over-extraction. Various layers of bureaucracy have also contributed to the difficulties in managing water resources, with multiple agencies responsible for different aspects of water (several of these agencies were recently incorporated into the Jal Shakti Ministry, which hopes to deal with all water-related issues. Several water issues remain under the auspices of other ministries, however).
Modi and Water Policy
India’s approach to managing its water resources has been less than ideal for some time and the election of Narendra Modi has not substantially improved the situation – in some cases it has made it worse. Shortly after Modi was elected, the Indian Government launched a new scheme, named the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY). The scheme focused on farm irrigation and water for every farm, with the slogan “more drop per crop”. While more efficient irrigation addresses part of India’s water crisis, there have been several issues with the scheme. In practical terms, it has effectively phased out the integrated watershed management programme, which began in 2009. The programme aimed to conserve water, soils and forests through different projects and the approach has been recognised as a successful method of conservation in drought-prone areas. Though the programme was incorporated into the PMKSY, funding fell by 35 per cent in the first year of the PMKSY, which has halted progress on watershed projects.
Not only has the PMKSY effectively put an end to a more scientifically sound programme, many of the irrigation projects that it promoted appear to have stalled as well. As of October 2018, no progress was made in up to 74 of the 99 planned irrigation projects. State governments, which are responsible for implementing the projects, appear to have taken little interest in the scheme. That is partly because it requires them to acquire land from farmers, creating a difficult political issue that many state governments do not want to risk creating. Other issues have also plagued the PMKSY: significantly less money has been spent on the project than was originally budgeted and technical specialists have had little say in how irrigation projects should be undertaken.
The PMKSY is not Modi’s only water policy to ignore technical advice. Despite huge government investment, the National Clean Ganga Mission has failed to make a significant impact on the cleanliness of the Ganges River and none of the towns it reaches has water that is safe for bathing or drinking. The National Ganga Council, which oversees the efforts to clean the Ganges, has reportedly not met since its creation in 2016.
The Modi Government has made water a key part of its second-term plans, promising piped water to every home by 2024 and the creation of a unified water ministry – the Jal Shakti Ministry. The new Ministry has replaced the former ministries of Water Resources and Drinking Water. It is tasked with overseeing the efforts to provide piped water to Indian households and for finding solutions to the water crisis. The Ministry hopes to implement ambitious programmes, but there is little reason to believe that it will have significantly more success in mitigating the water crisis than past ministries. Despite its ambitious goals, there has been no major increase in funding to the Jal Shakti Ministry, which may make it harder to implement plans to provide water to all households by 2024 (projections suggest that scheme alone will cost around five trillion rupees ($103 billion)).
The Jal Shakti Ministry has also initiated a programme called the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, which aims to increase rainwater harvesting in water-stressed areas during the monsoon season. The scheme has no specific targets to reach, nor does it give additional funding for water conservation plans. Instead, the Jal Shakti Minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, has indicated a hope to “bring sensitivity” to India’s water issues, rather than address the roots of the water crisis. Similarly, Shekhawat has claimed that there is no reason to create new groundwater guidelines as, if aquifers were recharged, it would be unnecessary to enact more stringent withdrawal policies. Exactly how Shekhawat intends to recharge aquifers without preventing their over-exploitation is not made clear.
Despite serious and increasing levels of water scarcity, it is clear that the Indian Government does not yet plan to seriously and honestly deal with its water issues. Modi’s newest water policies are likely to join a long history of failures. Not only has the government failed to provide any financial backing to his latest plans, it has also failed to address the root causes of Indian water insecurity. Though the inauguration of the Jal Shakti Ministry has removed one (of many) bureaucratic barriers to implementing water-related policies, the appointment of a Minister who has actively dismissed preserving India’s rapidly dwindling groundwater gives little cause for optimism for the near- to medium-term prospects of resolving the water crisis.