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Are Wells a Potential Threat to Farmers' Well-being?

Since in many states surface water sources have been utilised fully, there has been a massive expansion of groundwater irrigation. With the progressive decline in the water table, farmers have resorted to the competitive deepening of wells. This has resulted in increased costs of well irrigation and in a new inequity among the well-owners and between well-owning and non-well-owning farmers. Similarly, urban water demands have increased tremendously for domestic and industrial purposes. While there has been an ever-increasing demand for water, there has hardly been any effort to develop infrastructure to treat used water. This contributes to the pollution of the existing water stock. Therefore, water resources are under severe threat not only because of the ever-increasing demand and competing demand (from various sectors), but also because of the diminishing quality caused by discharge of untreated domestic sewage and industrial effluents. The main objective of this paper is to show how the degradation of the groundwater resource base through over-extraction and pollution contributes to inequity, conflicts, competition and, above all, to indebtedness and poverty.

Are Wells a Potential Threat to Farmers’ Well-being? Case of Deteriorating Groundwater Irrigation

in Tamil Nadu

Since in many states surface water sources have been utilised fully, there has been a massive expansion of groundwater irrigation. With the progressive decline in the water table, farmers have resorted to the competitive deepening of wells. This has resulted in increased costs of well irrigation and in a new inequity among the well-owners and between well-owning and non-well-owning farmers. Similarly, urban water demands have increased tremendously for domestic and industrial purposes. While there has been an ever-increasing demand for water, there has hardly been any effort to develop infrastructure to treat used water. This contributes to the pollution of the existing water stock. Therefore, water resources are under severe threat not only because of the ever-increasing demand and competing demand (from various sectors), but also because of the diminishing quality caused by discharge of untreated domestic sewage and industrial effluents. The main objective of this paper is to show how the degradation of the groundwater resource base through over-extraction and pollution contributes to inequity, conflicts, competition and, above all, to indebtedness and poverty.


n this paper we argue that degradation of the groundwater resource base through over extraction and pollution are increasing rural poverty, social inequity and conflict in parts of India, particularly Tamil Nadu.

Groundwater is a crucial productive resource in both Tamil Nadu and India. For the rural agricultural population it has almost replaced land as a determinant of social and economic status. Increasing groundwater access has undermined maintenance of tank irrigation systems and other surface sources. In the process it has shifted the determinants of water access away from communities and into the hands of individuals. While access to groundwater has never been fully equitable due to natural variability in resource conditions, landownership, wealth and other factors, inequity is growing. Patterns of inequity are socially embedded and exacerbated by factors such as inheritance patterns. In many cases, the ownership of individual wells is now divided among many people. This can be a source of conflict and often results in differential access between dominant owners and others who are less capable of exercising their partial ownership rights. Competition and conflict are increasing in the face of pollution and substantial water level declines. Falling water levels are leading to competitive deepening and in many areas large financial losses, as existing wells become dry or new, unproductive, wells are drilled. In many areas, shallow dug wells have gone dry and farmers now drill multiple bores alongside or within existing dug wells. Water level drops are also leading to the decline of surface sources, such as the traditional “spring” channels used to divert the sub-surface flow in streams.

Water level declines and pollution are affecting the availability and reliability of water supplies for irrigation and other uses. Farmers have responded to scarcity by adopting efficient water use technologies. Nonetheless, water scarcity is reducing yields and is having a direct impact on agricultural incomes. Indirect impacts are also major. Informal markets, for example, initially emerged as farmers with access to surplus supplies sold water to adjacent farmers who either lacked the financial resources to dig their own wells or had insufficient supplies in the wells they did own. Now water markets are declining as farmers reserve all available supplies for their own use. Furthermore, even where water markets continue to exist, their operation is often highly inequitable since they function as part of interlocked land and labour markets where purchasers are dependent on the goodwill of water sellers. As water becomes increasingly scarce, dependency relations intensify with purchasers in an ever-weaker bargaining position.

What does this imply for policy? The evidence of increasing poverty due to degradation of the groundwater resource base implies that government policies supporting further groundwater development in areas suffering from overdraft must be reversed. Policies such as the supply of highly subsidised power are particularly problematic. In addition to encouraging indiscriminate and wholesale pumping, the benefits from such policies are largely captured by wealthy sections of the rural population. Overall, policies that support more equitable access to, and sustainable use of available groundwater resources are essential. Furthermore, in areas where inequity is high and current groundwater use patterns are unsustainable, policies that support the

Figure 1: Groundwater Irrigation Potential Figure 2: Growth of Well Numbers in India

Pt ti l

Shallow Tubewells Dugwells Bore Wells Public Tubewells Total Wells 30000 25000 20000 15000 10000 5000 0 Thousands
0 10 20 30 40 50 60 d & Mha Ultimate Irrigation Potential Potential created and proposed





efforts of marginal populations to shift out of agriculture and into other forms of livelihood may be required. Inherent inequities in power relations within rural communities imply that “simple” legal or other reforms to directly address groundwater overdraft and pollution are likely to be insufficient.

This paper is organised in the following manner. The first introductory section presents an overview of the growth of groundwater irrigation in India and highlights some of the problems emerging in many regions. Following this, the focus shifts to a detailed case study of the situation in Tamil Nadu where conditions illustrate the challenges emerging in the two-thirds of India underlain by hard rock aquifers. The first major section in the Tamil Nadu case study focuses on the characteristics of groundwater irrigation and use in the Vaigai, Noyyal and Palar basins. We then move to the core issue of water level declines: the dynamic process of competitive deepening. The cost of well irrigation and its relationship with the cost of surface irrigation are discussed following this, along with an analysis of how well irrigation is accelerating the process of social differentiation within village society. The final section summarises conclusions at both the local and all-India levels and discusses possible policy options.

I Introduction

In the decades since independence, official statistics indicate that the number of wells and area irrigated by groundwater in India have grown and are projected to continue growing at an exponential pace until the “ultimate” irrigation potential is reached circa 2007 – Figures 1 and 2 [Moench 1992a and b, World Bank 1998]. This increase in groundwater irrigation has been a major factor contributing to the increase in yields and agricultural production at an all-India level.

Yields in groundwater irrigated areas are higher by one third to one half those in areas irrigated from surface sources [Dhawan 1995]. The variability of production has also declined, in large part thanks due to the reliability of groundwater sources [World Bank 1998].

From approximately 50 million tonnes in the early 1950s, India’s cereal production has increased steadily to a level of 234 million tonnes in 2001-02. Per capita availability of foodgrains has also gone up steadily over a period of time from 141 kg per year in 1951 to 200 kg in the year 2000. Rice and other cereals are now exported. Nevertheless, production has not resulted in food availability for all sections of society. While there is a strong association between levels of groundwater development and reductions in poverty, inequity remains and progress is threatened by an emerging overdraft and other groundwater problems [Moench 2001 and 2002]. While India has been able to create and maintain a large bufferstock of foodgrains, a variety of concerns are emerging both at a global level and within India. According to Rosegrant at a global level: “the growth rate in irrigated area declined from 2.16 per cent per year during 1967-82 to 1.46 per cent in 1982-93. The decline was slower in developing countries, from 2.04 per cent to 1.71 per cent annually during the same periods” [Rosegrant and Ringler 1999]. Yield increase rates are also declining and projections indicate that this will continue over coming decades [Rosegrant and Ringler 1999, FAO 2000]. Furthermore, in some local areas such as Sri Lanka and in the rice-wheat system of India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, yields have been stagnant for a number of years [Amarasinghe, Mutuwatta et al 1999, Ladha, Fischer et al 2000]. Much of this may be related to emerging groundwater problems, particularly overdraft and pollution. We do not, however, believe that the relation is a simple one. Instead, the impact on yields and agricultural production – and more importantly, the impact on rural livelihoods – is embedded in issues of differential access to groundwater resources that are exacerbated by unsustainable development and power relations at a village level. As one of the authors argues elsewhere, over recent decades groundwater has played a crucial role in creating stable social conditions, conditions which are now threatened by degradation of the resource base [Moench 2002].

The situation in Tamil Nadu illustrates many of the issues that are now emerging in many hard-rock sections of India. Increasing


Figure 3: Well Irrigation in Tamil Nadu

1600000 1400000 1200000 1000000 800000 600000 400000 200000 0







has emerged as a crucial productive resource. Our research in Tamil Nadu indicates that access to it has almost replaced land in determining one’s socio-economic and political status [Janakarajan 1992, 1997a]. In the past, when surface water was the only source of irrigation, the single most important productive resource was land. At that time, access to land determined one’s power as well as socio-economic status in a village society. Nevertheless, in a changing agrarian context, it is the ownership of wells along with land, which determines one’s status. In Tamil Nadu, marginal and small farmers own 60 per cent of the wells [Janakarajan 1997a]. Ownership of wells is, however, nothing unless they are productive and water yielding. As a result,



GW irrigated area (Ha)

Source:Season and Crop Reports, government of TN.

well numbers are not, as Figure 3 demonstrates, equivalent to an increase in groundwater irrigated area.

Well numbers in Tamil Nadu are following a logistic pattern with the exponential growth rates of the 1950s through 1980s now slowing or even declining. Furthermore, although well numbers have been increasing, groundwater irrigated area has stagnated since the early 1980s. This pattern has emerged despite the presence of an extensive system of subsidies encouraging continued expansion of groundwater development.

What are these subsidies? The most important of them has been the provision of free power to agricultural pump sets. This cost the exchequer approximately Rs 20 billion in the year 1999. Other subsidy schemes have included the provision of low interest loans for deepening existing or constructing new wells, for purchasing pumps and for other equipment. The power subsidy has encouraged high levels of groundwater pumping and is widely implicated as a contributing factor in emerging groundwater overdraft problems [Malik 1993; Moench 1993; World Bank 1998]. Well development subsidies have also had a significant impact. Despite the presence of well spacing regulations, a study undertaken in the Vaigai basin of Tamil Nadu, indicates that there are now at least three wells located within the prohibited distance from every sample well selected for the survey [Janakarajan 1997a]. Furthermore, while subsidy schemes have encouraged groundwater development, very little attention has been devoted to the maintenance of traditional irrigation sources such as tanks and “spring” channels1 . See Table 1, which explains the fact that while well irrigation has increased by many folds in India, area irrigated by the conventional sources such as tanks is on the decline.

These sources (tanks and springs) have dried up at the moment, which played a key role in the past not only in providing irrigation water but also in recharging groundwater. Overall, groundwater ownership of 60 per cent of wells by small and marginal farmers does not mean greater access to groundwater resources. Declining water levels create a situation in which only those who are able to afford to compete in a process of competitive deepening can sustain access. Growing inequity in access to groundwater leads to a process of continued social differentiation, which results in deprivation, poverty and the consolidation of inequitable power relations within local communities. In the sections that follow these topics are the focus of detailed analysis based on field data collected in Tamil Nadu.

II Groundwater Ownership and Access in Tamil Nadu

Groundwater access depends on a wide variety of factors but one of the most important is the question of well ownership and the ways those interact with social relations and power structures in a village context. Under British Common Law, the basic civil law doctrine governing property ownership in most of India, groundwater rights are appurtenant to land [Singh 1990; Singh 1991]. If you own land, you can drill or dig a well and capture as much groundwater as you are able for use on overlying lands. When land is sold, groundwater access rights pass with the land and cannot legally be separated from it. In Tamil Nadu, some of the most important factors affecting access to groundwater include whether wells are owned by individuals or held jointly and ownership of wells across different categories of landowners. These ownership factors are affected by well density, area irrigated by wells in relation to area irrigated by surface sources; crop pattern and yield performance.

Ownership of Wells

Sole and Joint Ownership of Wells

In Tamil Nadu, agricultural land is generally divided between heirs at the time of inheritance. Increasingly this is also the case

Table 1: Trends in Net Irrigated Area (NIA) by Sources in India, 1950-51 to 2002-03

(Area in million hectares)

Sources 1950-51 to 59-60 1960-61 to 69-70 1980-81 to 89-90 1996-97 2002-03 Area Per Cent of NIA Area Per Cent of NIA Area Per Cent of NIA Area Per Cent of NIA Area Per Cent of NIA

Canals 9.2 41.2 11.2 41.9 16.3 38.3 17.4 31.5 15.0 28.2 Tanks 4.2 18.6 4.5 16.6 3.0 7.0 3.3 6.1 1.9 3.6 Wells 6.6 29.8 8.7 32.6 20.8 48.7 30.8 55.9 33.6 63.3 Other sources 2.3 10.4 2.4 8.9 2.5 6.0 3.6 6.6 2.6 4.9 Total NIA 22.3 100.0 26.8 100.0 42.6 100.0 55.1 100.0 53.1 100.0

Source: Indian Agricultural Statistics, 1985-86 – 1989-90,Vol I, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India and quoted in Vaidyanathan (ed) 2001, and CMIE, September 1997-98 and 2002-03.

with wells. Because landholdings are relatively small, water is a critical resource and wells are key productive assets. Ownership of wells is often split into shares at the time of inheritance. As a result, wells in Tamil Nadu are increasingly shifting from single owners to joint ownership. This is of fundamental importance for understanding emerging groundwater problems and potential solutions because it has become a central point of conflict within communities and families. Sometimes the results are extreme; after inheriting a share in a well, individuals often deepen their own portion and effectively exclude other shareholders from access to water. These types of micro-level conflicts complicate decision-making and appear to be undermining the possibilities for consensus for sustainable use of the resource base.

As opposed to sole ownership of wells, there is virtually no macro-database documenting the nature and extent of joint well ownership. Village level studies conducted in various river basins in Tamil Nadu by the first author, however, indicate the widespread nature of joint ownership and highlight dilemmas and uncertainties associated with management of jointly owned wells.

Joint ownership of wells is common in Tamil Nadu. Data collected in a survey of 1,100 wells in 27 villages of the Vaigai river basin (in southern Tamil Nadu) indicate that on an average, about one-third of the wells are jointly owned in that area [Janakarajan 1997a]. Higher levels of joint ownership (47 per cent of the sample) were found in another survey of 11 villages in the Palar river basin [Janakarajan 1999]. Research conducted in the Noyyal and Palar river basins for the Local Water Management Project also shows a high incidence of joint well ownership. Of 7,120 sample wells in 51 villages covered by the meso-level survey in the Palar basin, the overall percentage of jointly owned wells is 43.6 per cent. The extent of joint ownership is not, however, uniform between villages. At the village level, joint ownership varies from 17.2 per cent to 59.1 per cent. Variation is even higher in the Noyyal basin. Of 14,358 surveyed in 41 villages, 53 per cent are jointly owned and at the village level joint well ownership varies from 31.3 per cent to 87 per cent. Joint ownership of wells is a complicated phenomenon with the number of shares in any individual well varying from a minimum of two to as many as 30 in the Palar and Noyyal basins. There is some indication that jointly owned wells are more likely than individually owned wells to be in disuse. For the Palar basin as a whole the percentage of joint wells in disuse is 30.4 per cent, whereas, it is only 24.7 per cent in the case of individually owned wells. This pattern is, however, not prevalent in the majority of villages in either the Palar or Noyyal basins.

In addition to the widespread extent of shared well ownership, data from eight sample villages in the Palar basin indicates that the size of shares is strongly associated with the extent of land owned by an individual farmer (for want of space detailed tables are not be presented here). Detailed data analyses highlight the skewed distribution of well ownership and the strong association with landownership. Key points to be noted include: (a) That the average number of wells owned in each size class increases at an increasing rate as size class increases. This implies that better access to land is associated with the better access to groundwater.

(b) There is a negative association between extent of land ownership and the incidence of joint well ownership. Larger landowners tend to own wells outright rather than shares in wells. This could indicate either that they construct their own new wells or that they consolidate their shares in wells by purchasing from other shareholders. And, (c) unlike larger landowners, small landowners frequently own relatively small shares in wells. All sample farmers owning less than 20 per cent shares in wells are concentrated in landownership classes having less than six acres of land. This suggests that small landowners are likely to be more vulnerable than others to losing access to groundwater.

In principle, share ownership of wells should enable sections of society who are unable to afford construction of their own well to obtain access to groundwater. In reality, however, it is much more complex. While we have not documented the details of the management of jointly owned wells for every case in the survey villages, our interviews suggest that the incidence of conflict in the process of sharing of water from jointly owned wells is widespread and that practical difficulties surrounding pumping and management of shares are the most important source of conflict. The nature and consequences of conflict are rooted in the nature and operational practices associated with joint wells.

Joint wells are commonly operated by installing a single pump set and running the motor in rotation between shareholders for a fixed number of hours. Operational costs are divided among shareholders in proportion to the number of shares they own. Lack of cooperation in sharing costs and the available water/ power supply are common problems. Unlike the disintegration of the traditional tank irrigation communities (which is primarily due to lack of incentives for management [Janakarajan 1993]), financial constraints are the most common problem in the installation and operation of jointly owned wells. In cases where shareholders don’t cover their portion of the costs, they are excluded from use of the pump set. Many disputes also occur due to the erratic power supply, which disrupts schedules for sharing available pumping time. Village panchayats (informal village courts) are often involved in resolving such disputes but settlements are often not sustainable and emerge again in the next period of scarcity.

An alternative to sharing ownership and use of one pump on a joint well is for each shareholder to install its own individual electric or diesel operated pump set. This is possible because most wells are large diameter dug structures where the installation of multiple pumps is possible. This approach often leads to competition over available supply. Stored water is drained rapidly and competition is inflamed when shareholders install highpowered motors so that they can extract water rapidly. Disputes are particularly common when wells are shared by different castes. Such disputes are often only resolved when one shareholder buys the others out. In some instances this is accomplished by poor farmers selling their land along with their shares in a well.

In addition to disputes over pumping, disputes often occur over the need to deepen wells. In some of the cases we have documented, shareholders with different landholdings disagree regarding the distribution of the benefits from well deepening and one or more refuses to contribute to the cost. Conflicts under circumstances are again referred to the village panchayats. The panchayats often “solve” such disputes by dividing wells physically into as many shares as needed – leaving it thereby to the individual shareholders to dig and deepen their delineated parts. Such physically fragmented wells are common in all the villages surveyed. Although this approach is common, it often encourages competitive deepening between shareholders within wells – effectively the construction of wells within wells. In such cases, shareholders lacking the resources to deepen their own portion lose access to groundwater and those that remain effectively control the well. There are also instances where wells are abandoned due to the prevalence of too many shareholders and the emergence of numerous disputes.

While sharing of water from a joint well is often problematic, positive features also exist. The fact that at least one-third of wells in our survey areas are jointly owned indicates the sustainability of this system. Indeed, in all the villages, there are institutionalised (informal) rules governing sharing of water from jointly owned wells. The joint well system promotes use of groundwater and particularly benefits those who cannot afford a well of their own. Many joint wells however, fail for two interrelated reasons; declining groundwater levels and the lack of finances for well deepening. Because of this, many joint well owners became heavily indebted and are eventually forced to sell their shares along with their parcels of land. While the share system is supposed to promote equity in access to groundwater, inequality is reinforced in village societies.

Ownership of Wells across Size Categories

Because the development of a well for irrigation requires substantial investment, it is often portrayed as only affordable by the resource rich farmers. Our data does not support this. Survey data from 27 villages in the Vaigai basin indicate that nearly three-fourths of wells are owned by farmers owning five acres or less [Janakarajan 1997a]. A similar survey of eight villages of the Palar basin indicates that the 65 per cent of farmers whose holding size is less than or equal to four acres owns 54 per cent of all wells. This group owns only 29 per cent of the total land held by surveyed farmers. The average area irrigated per well is 1.46 acres in this size class. In contrast, the 3 per cent of farmers owning more than 15 acres also own 8 per cent of the sample wells and 19 per cent of the total land. The average area irrigated by per well in this size class is 26 acres. More detailed data are given in Table 2. These data indicate that, while the wealthy do tend to own more wells, the distribution is far less skewed than land ownership. Average well ownership per unit land, in fact, declines exponentially as land ownership size classification increases. The data do not, however, indicate the type and productivity of the wells owned by different classes of farmers. Since the average area irrigated per well is far larger in the larger landholding classes, the wells may be more productive and actual access to groundwater may be more skewed than suggested by comparisons between well and land ownership alone. Further, as water levels decline, large farmers are able to devote more resources to increasing the depth of their wells. In addition, access to larger land areas is equivalent to access to a wider variety of potential sites for establishing a well. Because hard-rock geology is highly variable, access to a variety of locations for new wells is often critical to success.

Most crucial point, however, is that many of the more wealthy farmers established wells earlier than smaller farmers and were able to benefit from them before competitive deepening became a major issue. As a result, although the poor appear to own large numbers of wells, many are trapped in a regime in which water table is retreating progressively. Their position is quite vulnerable. In order to be able to remain in the race of competitive deepening, they have to keep investing in well deepening activities without any assurance of striking substantial quantities of groundwater. While some are successful, the large majority fail and are pushed into a debt trap. We shall return to this issue later in this paper.

Linkage between Surface and Groundwater

Extensive development of groundwater resources is affecting surface systems in the Palar basin. The Palar basin is known for its rich river bed aquifer (RBA). This contributes substantially to the “spring” channels and, although extraction is prohibited, to thousands of wells located along the riverbed. Pumping of groundwater in the prohibited areas is drying up surface water bodies and results in the reduced flows down stream. Over 100 mld of water is pumped from the Palar riverbed for drinking and industrial purposes. Although the extent pumped for industrial and domestic purposes is small compared to what is pumped for agriculture, it has adverse effect for two reasons: One, what is pumped for domestic and industrial purposes is a potable quality, which is not available in all the villages, and two, such extraction of groundwater takes place in some selected regions or villages, causing tremendous stress on the local economy. Furthermore, this is having a direct impact on traditional “spring” channels, which were originally constructed to tap subsurface flows in the river. These spring channels traditionally provided irrigation for at least one full crop. Historically, at least one such spring channel provided water for each village located along the riverside. Thousands of such spring channels are reported to have existed in Tamil Nadu as per the village records. Most of these have now dried up and are encroached upon. Out of 51 villages surveyed in the Palar basin, spring channels are practically defunct in 35, they function but only poorly in six, and are fairly effective in three. In the remaining villages, spring channels have been taken over by the tanneries for discharging industrial effluent. Since these channels pass through interior parts of villages, even groundwater is heavily polluted.

In addition to the impact on riverbed aquifers, unregulated pumping of groundwater in tank commands is having a major impact. Since the number of wells located in tank commands is significant the tank is losing its place as an important source of irrigation [Vaidyanathan and Janakarajan 1989]. The rapid spread of well irrigation, accompanied by large-scale rural electrification and the introduction of high yielding technology, have contributed in a great measure to the rise of conflicting interests in the use of ground and surface waters. Since high yielding varieties required more assured, controlled and timely application of water and since the available tank water is inadequate to raise three short duration– HYV – crops, wells have major advantages over surface sources. Furthermore, some studies indicate a positive correlation between the rapid growth of well irrigation and the decay of traditional irrigation systems such as tanks [Vaidyanathan and

Table 2: Ownership of Wells across Size Classesof Landholding in the Palar Basin

Landholding Number Total Total Extent Average Extent Size of Well Number of of Land Owned/ Irrigated Per (in Acres) Owners Wells Owned Irrigated (Acres) Well (Acres)

Less than 1.00 26 29 16.7 0.64 1.01-2.00 64 86 101.7 1.59 2.01-4.00 67 100 193.9 2.89 4.01-6.00 28 43 140.8 5.03 6.01-10.00 35 75 257.7 7.36 10.01-15.00 14 35 173.8 12.42 15.01-25.00 5 13 97.0 19.40 25.00+ 3 17 111.1 37.04 Total 242 398 1092.7 4.52

Source:Main survey, 1998-2000.

Janakarajan 1989; Janakarajan 1993; Palanisamy, Balasubramanian and Mohamed Ali 1996]. Lindberg (1996) in his paper shows, how individual rationality conflicts with collective rationality and eventually results in the erosion of common property resources. Individuals have strong incentives to disassociate themselves from collective tank maintenance and pump groundwater indiscriminately. This results in progressive lowering of the water table. The government’s policy of supplying free electricity to agriculture has aggravated this problem. This leads to general environmental degradation where groundwater extraction is high and aquifer recharge declines due to the drying up of the surface water bodies such as tanks.

In our survey, traditional irrigation institutions were found to be defunct in six out of the 17 tanks studied in the Palar anicut system. These were also the tank commands in which well density was quite high. In one of the tanks, the tank sluices were kept closed permanently to facilitate recharge into the wells located in the tank commands. In the rest of the operational tanks, the traditional irrigation system was reasonably unimpaired but these were also the tank commands in which the well density was very low [Vaidyanathan and Janakarajan 1989; Janakarajan 1993]. A similar result was obtained in a large-scale study, undertaken in Tamil Nadu Agricultural University [Palanisamy, Balasubramanian and Mohamed Ali 1996]. The close association between a high well density and the disintegration tank irrigation systems has also been found in other village studies carried out in Tamil Nadu [Harriss 1982; Janakarajan 1986; Chinnappa, B Nanjamma 1977; Janakarajan 1997b]. The result is, however, not uniform. A separate study of tanks in the Periyar-Vaigai system shows that the spread of well irrigation in the tank commands does not lead to a total collapse of the tank institution although its degree of effectiveness varies according to well density [Vaidyanathan and Sivasubramaniyan 1998].

Our recent survey in 51 villages of the Palar basin indicates that there exists a close association between well density in the command area of tanks and springs and the decline of these traditional sources. In the villages surveyed, well density ranged from a low of 0.30 to a high of 0.79 per hectare; densities in wet lands – those traditionally irrigated from surface sources – are typically higher (0.33 to 0.79 wells per hectare) than those in dry lands (0.30 to 0.62 wells per hectare). This density was much higher than expected even in villages where tank irrigation institutions are reported to remain alive. According to interviews with farmers, the dependability of tank water is low and the risk and uncertainty associated with relying on it high. As a result, many farmers have invested in wells to get access to more assured irrigation. The tanks, if they function at all, are used as percolation ponds in most of these villages. Indeed, access to private source of irrigation (wells) has provided generous disincentive to farmers for non-cooperation in the collective action of tank and spring channel maintenance.

At one level, it can be argued that pumping recharged groundwater is a more efficient way of using water than through surface irrigation. In fact, in several villages, the better off farmers (multiple well owners) find it convenient and useful to close down the sluices of tanks so that the impounded tank water provides constant recharge to their wells. But, in many cases, since there is absolutely no maintenance of inlet channels, tanks and springs are heavily silted and store very little water. This has major implications for non-well owners who were solely dependent upon tank water.

III Pollution, Cropping Pattern and Yield

The Palar and Noyyal river basins are under severe stress not only due to over-use of groundwater but also due to pollution. It is, as a result, necessary to analyse irrigated areas, crop patterns and crop yields in this context.

In the main survey of the Palar and Noyyal basins, the net irrigated area per well in villages where groundwater has been affected by pollution is 2.72 acres; the average net irrigated area of 4.16 acres was found in the areas where groundwater has not been affected by pollution. Differences in cropping patterns are even more striking. The total area for all crops grown on land irrigated by sample wells in villages surveyed in the Palar basin is 903 acres, of this 505 acres (56 per cent) is devoted to paddy. Over 90 per cent (456 out of 595 acres) of this paddy is grown in villages where groundwater has not been affected by pollution. This is equivalent to 2.9 acres of irrigated paddy per sample well in the unaffected villages and only 0.50 acres of irrigated paddy per sample well in pollution affected villages. Cropping patterns in pollution affected villages have larger areas devoted to sugarcane and coconut which tolerate reasonably the polluted water. Distinctions in cropping patterns are not as great in the Noyyal basin because paddy is not a major crop.

The impact of over-use of groundwater and pollution on water scarcity is major in both the Palar and Noyyal basins. In about 33 per cent (in 80 out of 253 sample wells) and 28 per cent (80 out of 253) of the sample wells in the Palar and the Noyyal river basins respectively, the irrigated area is nil – implying the well is no longer utilised. The difference between affected and unaffected villages is substantial – 26 per cent (41 out of 159 sample wells) in the unaffected and 41 per cent (39 out of 94) in the affected villages of the Palar basin have zero irrigated area, and 25 per cent in the unaffected (i e, 28 out of 112 sample wells) and 34 per cent in the affected villages (i e, 23 out of 68 sample well) of the Noyyal river basin report zero area irrigated.

Differences in the net area irrigated by wells between affected and unaffected villages has a large impact on the crop yields. About one-third of the sample well farmers in both the river basins reported zero crop yield. Again the difference between affected and unaffected villages is substantial. While in the affected villages, 43 per cent of the sample well farmers reported zero crop yield, only 28 per cent do so in the unaffected villages. In both types of villages, however, the incidence of sample well farmers reporting zero yield is quite significant. In the case of villages where groundwater has not been polluted, zero yield is caused by groundwater over extraction and the drying up of wells. In villages affected by pollution, zero yields in sample wells are primarily due to severe water contamination. The economic impact of pollution is evident in the value of crop production in different villages. For instance, 79 out of 159 sample wells (50 per cent) in the unaffected villages of the Palar basin and 60 out of 112 sample wells (54 per cent) in the Noyyal basin reported more than Rs 5,000 value of crop yield per acre. In contrast in the pollution-affected villages of the Palar basin only 16 out of 94 sample wells (17 per cent) and 11 out of 68 sample wells (16 per cent) in Noyyal reported more than Rs 5,000 as the value of crop yields per acre. These impacts are particularly important for small farmers who cannot deepen wells or site wells in less polluted locations. However, the impact of pollution even

Figure 4: Change in the Original and the Current DepthsFigure 5: Change in the Original and the Current Depthsin the Palar Basin in the Noyyal Basin

Change in Well Depth Palar Change in Well Depth Noyyal 35



Per Cent of WellsCurrent depth with bore Current depth Original depth
Current depth with bore Current depth Original depth

Per Cent of Wells

20 15



< 30 31 -40 41-50 51-60 61-80 81101+
Depth range (ft) 10 0

on large farmers is often very substantial [Janakarajan and Marcus Moench 2002].

IV Decline in the Water Table, Competitive Deepening and Its Socio-Economic Implications

In many parts of India, rapid expansion of groundwater irrigation has resulted in significant declines in groundwater levels and in some cases pumping rates exceed recharge resulting in groundwater mining [see for instance, Bhatia 1992; Rao 1993; Moench 1992; Vaidyanathan 1996; Janakarajan 1997a]. This is widely viewed as a major cause of competitive deepening and for the emergence of conflicting interests among well owners. Little data are, however, commonly available to document the extent to which water level declines have actually occurred in specific locations. The most recent formal statement on the status of groundwater resources in India by the Central Ground Water Board was published in 1995 and is based primarily on data from 1989-90 and contains no information on actual water level changes [Central Ground Water Board 1995]. Furthermore, in most states groundwater monitoring data are insufficient to accurately depict water level changes at a local level even if the data were made generally available [Moench 1994; World Bank 1998; Janakarajan 2001].

Given the lack of detailed monitoring data, our approach to estimating water level changes in the study areas was to collect survey information on the original and current depths of sample wells. These data indicate that water level declines have been significant both within and outside canal and tank commands.

Declining water levels are clearly indicated by the change in original and current well depths for both the Palar and Noyyal basins. These data are presented in Figures 4 and 5 and are based on a survey of 237 wells in eight villages for the Palar and 171 wells in four villages in the Noyyal conducted between 1998 and 2000 (Figures 4 and 5). The data combine wells located in both dry and wet lands. The data show that wells in both basins have been deepened over time. The increase in depth is particularly pronounced if the bores drilled within dug wells are included. In the Palar basin, almost 60 per cent of wells were initially less than 30 feet deep, now, including the depth of bores, less than 30 per cent are. Originally no wells were greater than 100 feet deep, now over 14 per cent are. The change is even more dramatic in the Noyyal basin where, originally almost 60 per cent of wells were less than 40 feet, now only 17 per cent are; and further, more than 30 per cent exceed 100 feet in depth.

In addition, to the overall water level declines, earlier studies indicate that the “original depth” to which wells need to be dug has increased over time – a “new comer” has dug deeper than his predecessor had to, say 10 years ago [see Janakarajan 1997a]. This is confirmed by data from the current survey also. In the Palar basin, the average original depth of the sample wells dug before 1960 was 30.2 feet. It rose to 35.8 feet for wells dug between 1961 and 1970, went up to 41 feet for wells dug between 1971 and 1985, and has averaged 69 feet for all wells dug subsequently. Similarly, in the Noyyal basin, the average original depth of sample wells dug before 1960 was 42.6 feet while the depth of wells dug after 1985 averages 66 feet. If one includes bore wells (which are more common in the Noyyal than Palar basin), the depth has increased from 100 feet between 1960 and 1970 when the first bores were installed, to 260 feet in the post1985 period. For the Noyyal basin this suggests an annual rate of water level decline of approximately 10 feet.

< 30 31 -4 0 41-50 51-60 61-80 81101+
10 0
Depth range (ft)

Changes in the well depth have been accompanied by changes in the water lifting technologies. In the Palar basin, of the 253 sample wells surveyed, 191 reported‘kavalai’ (bullock bailing lift) as the original technology, only one of which was still reported to exist at the time of the survey (that too not in use). Similarly, in the Noyyal basin out of 181 sample wells, 121 wells reported kavalai as the original technology while only one was operational at the time of the survey. This is probably a function of two factors; water level declines, which reduce the functionality of manual lift devices within dug wells, the spread of mechanised pumping technologies and the necessity of using mechanical pumps in bore wells. It is also interesting to note that the number of wells with no water lifting device (WLD) has gone up considerably over time, from 3 (as per the original WLD) to 71 (as per the current WLD) in the Palar basin and nil to 19 in the Noyyal basin. These are the wells, which have been deepened but subsequently abandoned either due to lack of supply or due bad water quality.

Despite the extent of competition and conflict over well deepening, farmers do not seek justice through the court of law because property rights in groundwater are known to be ambiguous and indeterminate. This situation has heavy negative implications for future users and adds tremendously to the costs faced by the current users [see also, Janakarajan 1997b].

V The Impact of Water-level Declines on Well Technology

Dropping water levels and competition have major implications for the types of well technology that can be used. This has had a variety of impacts.

First, there has been a change in the design and type of wells dug. Conventional large diameter round or square wells cannot be used when water levels fall and new technologies for both wells and pumping have spread in recent decades. Now a large majority of wells in the Palar river basin are fitted with both vertical and horizontal bores and in the Noyyal most farmers now install deep bores from the surface. Hydraulic drilling companies have spread in large numbers in the Noyyal region and generate large profits from the continuous business available there. This kind of well digging technology has substantially contributed to competitiveness and over-pumping of groundwater.

Second, well deepening and the use of high power motors and compressors have a huge impact on energy demand. Until three decades ago, bullock bailing was the main method of water extraction. That practice is almost extinguished. It was followed, until the mid-1980s, by pumping with low capacity (3.5 HP) pumpsets. Now 10 HP motors are common, particularly in the Noyyal, and in many cases farmers use more than one motor in a same well. All this has been facilitated by the state’s policy of free power supply.

Third, declining water levels have encouraged increases in use efficiency. Until the late 1980s, open channels were used for conveying water from wells to fields. Now farmers often use underground pipelines and hose pipes.

Fourth, high well and equipment costs disproportionately affect small farmers who own about 60 per cent of wells in the state. While large farmers have the resources to survive unsuccessful investments in well digging and well deepening or persistent droughts (as occurred in the 1980s), for a small farmer the losses are often unsustainable.

It is worthwhile looking at the impact of competition on changing technologies in more detail. The case of the Noyyal illustrates the ongoing changes well. Unlike the Palar basin, groundwater is extracted from deep bores in the Noyyal basin. In some locations in Noyyal, bore-well depths approach 1,200 feet. Due to the hard rock nature of the geology, yields in such wells are very low making continuous pumping difficult or impossible. Wells need time to recuperate – for gradual seepage from fractures in the bedrock to re-establish a water column – before they can be pumped again. To assist in this, farmers use compressor technology, which allows them to run pumps even when there is very little water. Approximately 95 per cent of the bore wells in this basin are fitted with compressors. With compressors, the amount of water that could normally be pumped in one hour takes six to seven hours. Since the yield is low, the flow is insufficient to be used directly for irrigation or for sale. As a result, water is pumped and stored in cisterns – either adjacent dry dug wells or concrete tanks of up to 1,00,000 litre capacity. It is pumped again for irrigation or for sale. The electricity consumption in these bore-wells is double or triple due to: (a) the use of compressors to run pump motors, (b) running of motors for long time periods to pump small amounts of water and (c) the need to pumping the same water twice (once from the bore and again from the open well tank where the water is stored).

Because of low yields and compressor technologies, the way water is pumped and stored has major implications for both energy use and the overall cost of obtaining groundwater access. Farmers often need to invest in high capacity pumps and in the substantial storage structures. Low yields also often require farmers to drill multiple bores within dug wells. Finally, in many cases (37 per cent of the sample wells) the same water is pumped twice, once directly from the well and once again for irrigation or sale.

VI Costs and Investments in Wells

The variety of pumping and well technologies now in use has major implications for the cost of obtaining access to groundwater. The cost of a well is much lower in the Palar basin compared to the Noyyal, because water tables are higher and the more expensive compressor and storage technologies are not required. In the Palar basin, the average cost of pumping equipment is Rs 14,600 per well (including motors, pumps and other related accessories). In the Noyyal equipment costs average Rs 31,000. In addition, each successful bore-well requires at least five or six trial-bores. Furthermore, around each operating bore or open well, there are several closed bore points, which have stopped yielding water. There is no assurance that successful wells will remain productive. Indeed, according to the available statistics for Tamil Nadu, the wells not in use constitute about 10 per cent of the total number of wells in the state [Government of Tamil Nadu 1998]. Many wells have been abandoned after investing over Rs 1,00,000 [Janakarajan 1997a]. Eventually, all the investments that have gone into wells accumulate to pose a heavy burden on the community as a whole as well as on an individual farmer. The cost is not, however, just at the community level. Since electricity for agricultural pump-sets is free in Tamil Nadu, the taxpayers pay this cost as a whole. Farmers face no marginal cost and do not hesitate to pump water even if the delivery of water is quite low.

As a part of the survey in the Palar and Noyyal river basins we collected basic information on the investments farmers have made to first get and subsequently maintain access to groundwater. These data are discussed below. Before presenting the results, it is important to note key data limitations. In most instances, the figures well owners gave are below current prices. As a result, the current value is likely to be higher than the data suggest. In addition, significant difficulties were faced in gathering this information due to memory lapses, sale, inheritance and transfer of wells to others. In consequence, data for some sample wells are not included in our analysis.

Our data indicate that the cost incurred on wells by individual farmers is high and and often disproportionate to the level of farm income generated. In addition, it varies between wetlands (those located in the command of surface systems) and dry lands. The amount spent per well in the wet and dry lands of the Palar basin (aggregate for 8 sample villages) is Rs 72,000 and Rs 86,000 respectively at current prices. Wells in wet lands tend, however, to supply much larger command areas and require lower supplementary equipment investments. As a result, although the well costs differ by less than 20 per cent, the net costs are higher – equivalent to Rs 70,000 and Rs 95,500 per hectare in the wet and dry lands or 36 per cent higher in dry lands. Costs incurred in the dry land wells are much higher because the water table has declined much more steeply than in the wetlands. In the Noyyal river basin, average current cost per well is much higher (Rs 2,21,000) and the cost incurred per hectare of net irrigated area is higher as well Rs 1,88,000 (Tables 3 and 4).

Two points are worth noting from the tables. First, the costs incurred per well and per hectare are high. According to the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1997-2002), the cost incurred to create one hectare of major and medium irrigation potential in government works is Rs 40,166 at current prices [Government of India undated]. In our survey, individual farmers spend Rs 70,000 and Rs 95,000 to get one hectare of net area irrigated by wells in the wet and dry lands respectively in the Palar basin. In the Noyyal basin the costs per hectare (average Rs 1,90,000) are far higher

– approximately 4.7 times what the government has spent to create one hectare irrigation potential under major and medium irrigation projects. Newcomers would need to spend this to develop one hectare of net area irrigated by well. In addition, they have to bear the risk of failures due to water level declines, drought or problems in locating a productive zone. There is substantial variation between villages. Local groundwater conditions and the presence or absence of pollution have a large impact on the costs of wells and irrigated area. Well irrigation has become a gamble. Not all those who invest in wells are successful. Many fail and lose in the race of competitive deepening or wells go into disuse due to pollution. Many well owners either sell their land or become trapped in debt as they try to develop new wells. A new dimension of inequality emerges as a result. Those who have, so far, been able to keep up in the competitive deepening race have emerged as potential water sellers, others are reduced to the status of water purchasers [Janakarajan 1997b; Vaidyanathan 1996].

VII A Return to the Larger Perspective

The detailed case study of groundwater issues in Tamil Nadu presented above relates closely to core issues facing groundwater development and management at a national level in India and Nepal.

That groundwater can play a critical role as a buffer against drought needs no elaboration. It is also now well established that crop yields in groundwater-irrigated areas are generally higher than those in areas irrigated by surface sources and that groundwater access plays a critical role in agricultural development. In addition, strong arguments can be made that access to groundwater can play a major role in poverty alleviation and has done so in India [Moench 2001]. Access to groundwater reduces agricultural risk. By doing so, it can enable farmers (whether poor or wealthy) to begin a gradual process of agricultural intensification and accumulation that allows them to move out of poverty. The problem with groundwater, as this paper documents, is that access is not uniformly distributed. Even in areas where groundwater is close to the surface and major investments are not required to obtain access, groundwater development tends to parallel existing resource differentials within society. Innovative farmers, farmers with exposure to new ideas and sufficient land to test them in their own plots (equivalent to saying “wealthy farmers”), tend to be the initial adopters. As a result, the initial benefits from groundwater development tend to disproportionately favour those who are already economically well situated. This differential is exacerbated as the cost of accessing groundwater resources increases due to water level declines, pollution or other factors. Early adopters have often accumulated sufficient resources to diversify their operations, to afford new equipment and to be able to deepen or drill wells as the water table declines. Later adopters and those whose overall resource base (land, education, access to capital, etc...) is limited, face major difficulties maintaining access. As a result, economic differentiation within communities increases. Differentiation and competition over scarce resources increase conflict. The situation is particularly exacerbated by the fact that groundwater access is dependent primarily on an individual’s context. Unlike tank maintenance, it doesn’t depend on community action. Furthermore, once an individual has access to groundwater, the incentive they face to contribute to community water supply systems is, for all practical purposes, eliminated. As a result, community systems erode and the “safety net” present for the poor in joint systems such as tanks, spring channels or large surface irrigation projects erodes with them. In this context, groundwater, or rather the struggle to maintain access to it, can contribute to poverty and further socioeconomic differentiation.

The situation in Tamil Nadu is affected by the hard-rock nature of the geology. Because wells are dug into hard-rocks where storage is low and well yields depend heavily on chance (whether or not wells hit productive fracture zones), the dynamics of groundwater access are different from areas underlain by alluvial aquifers. Several factors contribute to this difference:

(1) High, location dependent, risk: The risk of investing in unproductive wells is far higher in hard rock areas than in alluvial

Table 3: Costs of Well Irrigation in the Wet and Dry Land Wellsof the Palar Basin

Village No of Original Average Original Current
Sample Cost Per Current Cost Average Average
Wells Well (Rs) Per Well (Rs) Cost Per Cost Per
Hectare of Hectare of
NIA (Rs) NIA (Rs)

Kathiavadi 13 2615 91000 1935 67,000 Poondi 15 8733 79000 6488 58000 Gudimallur 7 857 86000 534 54000 Periavarigam 5 8800 58000 9205 61000 Solur 5 1800 51000 5556 159000 Damal 38 13289 75000 4297 24000 RN Pettai 8 4875 65000 7800 104000 NM Pattu 8 6250 87000 2317 32000 Average 8242 72286 4767 69875 Costs of well irrigation in the dry land wells of the Palar basin Kathiavadi 27 11074 116000 8413 88000 Poondi 7 16857 84000 19250 96000 Gudimallur 12 5583 79000 9293 131000 Periavarigam 25 5400 93000 6139 105000 Solur 16 7063 93000 7766 103000 Damal 11 16000 81000 6780 35000 RN Pettai 34 10471 76000 19734 143000 NM Pattu 18 10444 68000 8835 58000 Average 10362 86250 10776 94875

Note: Solur, Periavarigam, Gudimallur and Poondi are affected villages due to discharge of tannery effluent, where groundwater is badly contaminated; Among other villages, while Kathiavadi is partially affected, Damal, NM Pattu and RN Pettai are not affected.

Source:Main survey, 1998-2000.

Table 4: Costs of Well Irrigation in the Noyyal Basin

Village No of Original Average Original Current Sample Cost Per Current Cost Average Average Wells Well (Rs) Per Well (Rs) Cost Per Cost Per Hectare of Hectare of NIA (Rs) NIA (Rs)

SA Palayam 54 9907 230333 7778 180837 Ugayanur 59 22797 199559 20345 178097 O Palayam 20 9000 202450 6020 135418 K Pudur 48 21000 252521 21279 255879 Average 15676 221216 13856 187558

Note: O Palayam and K Pudur villages are affected due to discharge of effluent from the dyeing and bleaching industries, where groundwater is badly contaminated. The other two villages, namely, SA Palayam and Ugayanur, are not affected.

Source:Main survey, 1998-2000.

areas. In most alluvial areas, regional water levels are the primary factor determining the ability to access groundwater – one just needs to drill wells to sufficient depths. In hard rock areas, however, fracture patterns are often highly variable. As a result, the chance of success in tapping a productive zone depends on the financial resources to drill multiple bores and on a large landholding with multiple locations where it may be possible to drill a well.

  • (2) Low storage: The low storage in hard rock areas heavily biases benefits toward early adopters. Because storage is low, water level declines occur rapidly and those who dig or drill the first wells are far more likely to obtain water at a reasonable cost than those who attempt to do so later.
  • (3) Low well yields: Because well yields tend to be low in hard rock areas, little surplus is generally available beyond the amount needed to irrigate immediately adjacent lands.
  • Low well yields, low storage and the high risk nature of hard rock aquifers have important implications for the nature of water markets. Many of the studies on water markets in India have been done in the deep alluvial aquifers of Gujarat. There, although water levels are falling, the capacity to pump water from any given well tends to be relatively high and relatively uniform within a given area. As a result, small, medium and even large farmers are often able to reliably pump significantly more water than they can use for irrigation on their own lands. There is, as a result, often a strong incentive to sell excess supplies. Since power is charged at a flat annual rate based on pump horsepower, there is no marginal cost and sale of any excess supply at any rate reduces average costs. In many such locations, the bargaining position of both buyers and sellers is relatively equal. This type of dynamic can lead to incentives for water sales at rates below the full cost of well development [Shah 1993; Moench 1995; Moench 1996]. The situation is fundamentally different in hard rock areas where well yields are low and often vary greatly across seasons. In this situation, surpluses are far smaller and tend to vary greatly across seasons and locations. It is a seller’s market in which the bargaining position of water buyers is weak. This is probably a major factor underlying the interlocking of other agricultural markets with those for water.

    Where does this leave us with respect to global and local debates over the role of groundwater markets? This role is discussed in detail in Moench and Janakarajan (forthcoming), which deals with markets and commodity chains. It is, however, important to emphasise the observation from fieldwork that water markets in Tamil Nadu and in the rest of India are self-initiating institutions. They weren’t created by the government interventions and their characteristics are difficult to influence through government policies. They exist as informal institutions outside the formal legal or regulatory frameworks of the government. In addition, their characteristics vary greatly between regions and locations. Furthermore, as conditions change the characteristics of water markets also change with them. As a result, while it is important to understand the impact of groundwater markets on access to a key resource for local populations, there probably isn’t much that can be done to influence their dynamics under existing circumstances.

    The above observation on groundwater markets raises the question of how civil society is going to respond to escalating and competing demands on a shrinking groundwater resource base. Tushaar Shah illustrates the issue at a national scale in a diagram he prepared for the book Groundwater and Society [Burke and Moench 2000:66]. This diagram illustrates the transitional nature of groundwater development and use across India. Initially groundwater development catalyses change and the development of an intensive agricultural economy. Then, as development levels reach or exceed sustainable levels, the economy that has grown based on intensive groundwater irrigation must transition. In some areas, intensive agriculture based on groundwater use may be sustainable. In other areas, limitations on the physical availability of water will force a transition. How this transition occurs is, perhaps, the biggest question facing groundwater management. Will it be possible for populations to make a planned (or at least smooth) transition to other forms of economic activity and limit groundwater extraction to sustainable levels – or will the transition be driven by the types of dynamics currently seen in the case of Tamil Nadu? In the Noyyal basin, small well owning farmers in Orathapalayam and Karaipudur have been so badly affected by water pollution that they are being forced out of agriculture and are becoming job seekers in the urban areas. A similar dynamic is occurring in Ugayanur and SA Palayam villages where farmers have been driven out of agriculture due to their inability to keep up in the race of competitive well deepening. In SA Palayam 16 out of the 54 sample wells have gone dry and are not in use. Their owners have lost in the race of competitive deepening and are heavily indebted. Over 60 per cent well owners in Tamil Nadu are small and marginal farmers with landholdings of less than 5 acres. Their economic survival is threatened by pollution and groundwater overdraft. How rural populations of this type can transition to more sustainable livelihoods is a critical question throughout much of India.

    Two final issues have to do with the question of power subsidies and pollution.

    As documented above, most of the existing power subsidies are captured by the wealthy. In addition, the provision of free power encourages highly inefficient water use practices and groundwater overdraft. This is a clear case where policy reform is required. Reform must, however, also address the issue of transition. At present, even if Rs 0.50 is charged per unit of electricity consumption, many small farmers will have to close down their wells because of uneconomical conditions [Janakarajan 2001]. Continuing subsidies that primarily benefit the wealthy and encourage unsustainable patterns of groundwater use would be counterproductive. But the displacement caused by policy reform must also be recognised and addressed.

    Pollution is also a critical issue. This will not be addressed through policy reform alone – existing pollution laws in Tamil Nadu, as in the rest of India, are sufficient to enable action. They are not, however, generally enforced. As we argued in our earlier book Rethinking the Mosaic [Moench, Caspari et al 1999], social auditors, the independent voices that raise uncomfortable truths in society are essential to build pressure on governments and others to act.




    [This paper is the outcome of the larger study “Local Water Supply Options and Conservation Responses” carried out with the financial support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. We gratefully acknowledge the research assistance provided by K Sivasubramanian and G Jothi. However, the authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this paper.]

    1 ‘Spring’ channels are the traditional methods for diverting the sub-surface flows.


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