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Over-dependence on groundwater usage for irrigation: Gujarat average 72%, national 62%

By Persis Ginwalla, Sagar Rabari*
Over the three agriculture census periods (15 years), one can see that there has been an increase in overall holdings and the area under irrigation, and a net decrease in the unirrigated holdings and area in Gujarat. Increase in the irrigation cover in Gujarat is certainly significant, and is rightly attributed as one of the major reasons for the agricultural growth of Gujarat.
As per the Agriculture Census 2000-01, the percentage of wholly unirrigated holdings in Gujarat in 1995-96 was 63.94% of the total operational holdings which rose to 67.84% in 2000-01, and has seen a steady decline since. Similarly, the percentage of holdings receiving irrigation (wholly and partly) rose to 23.93% in 2000-01 from 20.39% in 1995-96 and has been on the rise since then.
Despite the impressive gain, more than half the agricultural land in Gujarat remains unirrigated. This means that around half of Gujarat’s agricultural area is rain-fed and/or dependent on groundwater irrigation. It must be also noted that irrigation figures include both surficial as well as groundwater. Therefore, the sources of irrigation need to be taken into account.
The most important sources of irrigation in the whole of Gujarat are wells, followed by tubewells. The percentage for both combined comes to 62.41% of the total irrigation sources in Gujarat. This is important, since both depend on groundwater extraction as against surficial water usage by canals and tanks which comes to 21.34% combined. 
Equally importantly, the share of tubewell irrigation has seen a steady increase over the last four censuses, which should be a source of concern. It indicates depletion of the groundwater tables necessitating the shift from wells to tubewells. Tubewells also indicate an increase in the input cost for the farmer since it means an expense associated with drilling and electricity for its operation.
Thus, while increase in irrigation cover of Gujarat may be impressive, it has come at the cost of overdependence on groundwater, raising serious concerns about the sustainability of agriculture. Also, this increase has been effected by farmers at great personal expense.
 
First of all, lacking alternatives, they are constantly going deeper to reach water sources. Deeper drilling means increased costs and faster depletion of the groundwater level, in turn entailing repeated drilling to go even deeper. At no point should it be interpreted as an achievement of the Gujarat government, which has done very little to eliminate this overdependence on groundwater resources.
Secondly, extraction of groundwater from deeper levels means that they require to install an electric motor of higher horse power (HP). This means more electricity consumption, but more crucially a shift in their ‘status’ from that of marginal, small or medium farmer to ‘large’ farmer, and hence a decrease in electricity subsidy that they would otherwise be eligible for.
Incidentally, there are reports that, despite a major state government initiative to recharge the groundwater table, Sujalam Sufalam Yojana, the incidence of dark zones has increased in the areas from which the canal passes. It implies that (a) water being pumped into the canal is not sufficient enough to recharge the groundwater; and/or, (b) the rate of extraction far exceeds the recharge rate.
The overall result is that groundwater depletion in Gujarat has reached an alarming level with one Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) study putting Gujarat among the top 15 states with depletion in water tables in wells between 2007 and 2016.
The Union ministry reportedly admitted in the Lok Sabha that of the 799 wells surveyed by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) in Gujarat, 473 wells (59%) across the state registered depletion in water levels from 2007 to 2016.
Of the 25 blocks examined by CWGB, 23 were found to be overexploited. The worst affected were the districts in North Gujarat, where depletion is more than 100% -- meaning that more water was being extracted from the ground than is replenished. Against the national average of 62% of groundwater resources used, Gujarat used 72%, and about 80% of this was used for irrigation, with groundwater water exploitation ranging from 30% to 150%.
In order to ensure sustainability and environmental balance, the use of surface water through harnessing it in dams and transmitting it via canals, needs to be expanded. And Gujarat has mainly invested, over the years since its formation, in dams and canals.
A survey of randomly selected dams from the website of Narmada Water Resources and Water Supply (NWRWS) department suggests there are massive gaps in information on many dams. The year on year area irrigated within the command zone is never provided. In many cases CCA (Culturable Command Area) exceeds the GCA (Gross Command Area) and the maximum irrigation (ha) exceeds the CCA!
Yet, data show that the maximum irrigation potential realised (except the erroneous reporting) has not exceeded 76%, which was achieved in 1996-97. The CAG report of 2016 (page 28) also confirms. It examined 22 irrigation schemes which have achieved an average irrigation of only 24%. It indicts the Gujarat government saying:
“There was no long term action plan for water conservation activities. Instead, the Department took up water conservation works, mainly, canal lining and desilting of dam reservoirs in a piecemeal manner. The average CCA achieved was only 24 per cent as against the CCA created for the irrigation under 53 Irrigation Projects during 2011-12 to 2015-16. This indicated sub-optimal performance in the water conservation activities.”
As for the Sardar Sarovar dam, the irrigation potential that had to be created, of 18,45,655 hectares (ha), as of 2017-18, it was languishing at 6,40,000 ha, which 34.67% of the total potential.
After almost 17 years of Narmada water flowing in the main canal, the canal network remains unfinished, and the most important component of the canal network, sub-minor canals, are at a mere 53.5% as per the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) Annual Report of 2016-17.
Clearly, the augmentation of the irrigation potential in Gujarat has been through groundwater extraction and poses adverse long-term impacts on sustainability of agriculture, so much so that nearly 22% (57 of the 252) blocks of the state have been declared as ‘dark zone’ talukas. Moreover, the augmentation has been through the effort and expense of individual farmers and not state government initiative.
---
*Development expert, senior farmers' activist. This is the abridged and edited version of the the original paper

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