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Groundwater levels plunge, contamition rises

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  11 March 2016 12:00 AM GMT

By Sandeep Pai & Prathamesh Mulye

Five years ago, when Ramakant Desai, 55, hired a drilling rig to sink a borewell to irrigate his maize fields, he struck water at 200 ft. Today, the rig must drill more than four times as deep to 900 ft.

This is a common story in Desai’s village of Gargoti in the southern Maharashtra district of Kolhapur, as it is 682 km to the north in Jalgaon district’s Bhusaval, where Rajendra d, 52, rrates a similar story, complicated by fertiliser overuse. “Overuse of fertilisers has contamited our groundwater”, said d, who farms millet, sorghum and groundnut.

In a country where 74 percent of farmland is not irrigated and water shortages are growing - a report by the EA Water consultancy warns India will become “water scarce” by 2025 - depleting groundwater levels add to an ongoing farm crisis. In recognition of groundwater declines, Fince Minister Arun Jaitley said his government would spend

Rs.6,000 crore (almost $900 million) on “groundwater magement”, but the details are unclear.

India draws more freshwater annually compared to any other country - 761 billion cubic meters per year for domestic, agricultural and industrial use, according to four-year (2011 to 2015) World Bank data. The scarcity has worsened because more than half of that water is now contamited, mainly by industry and sewage, sparking diarrhoea, typhoid and viral hepatitis.

With larger population, Chi uses 28 percent less freshwater than India: A common argument is that India’s growing water use in inevitable. But Chi, with 1.4 billion people, uses 554.1 billion cubic meters of freshwater every year - that’s 28 percent less than India.

The consequence: India’s annual per capita availability of water fell 74 percent over 69 years, from 6,042 cubic metres in 1947 to 1,545 cubic metres in 2011, according to a government water policy report.

“The political economy of subsidies has resulted in unsustaible extraction and use of groundwater and eventually to its depletion,” said Ayan Biswas, a water-magement expert. Farmers using cheap, subsidised electricity are encouraged to draw groundwater without restriction, he said.

Water depletion in rural India is a result of unsustaible agriculture practices such as farms in water-scarce regions with water-hungry crops like paddy, cotton and sugarcane.

Groundwater levels “critical” in nine states: In nine states - in south, west and central India - groundwater levels are now described as “critical”, according to a 2016 parliament committee report on water resources. “Critical” implies a stage where 90 percent of groundwater has been extracted, with a significant decline in recharge capability.

As of December 2015, of 6,607 units (blocks, mandals, talukas) assessed, 1,071 in 16 states and two in union territories, were categorised as “over-exploited”, which means 100 percent of groundwater has been drawn, with little chance of recharge.

Groundwater levels in India are now more critical than anywhere else on earth, IndiaSpend previously reported. More than half of India now faces what is called “high” to “extremely high” water stress, most across the fertile Ganga-Brahmaputra basin.

Tamil du and Rajasthan have the most over-exploited blocks.

More than half of India’s groundwater is contamited: The other aspect of the water crisis is contamition. Surface and groundwater is laced with fluoride, nitrate, arsenic and iron.

As many as 650 cities and towns lie along polluted rivers, which contamite groundwater, according to the latest report of the Central Pollution Control Board.

“Poor environmental magement systems” in industries lead to toxic and organic waste discharges of water, the report said. This has resulted in “pollution of surface and groundwater sources from which water is drawn for irrigation and domestic use”.

More than half of India’s groundwater is contamited, according to the Central Groundwater Board report. As many as 276 districts have high levels of fluoride, 387 districts report nitrates above safe levels and 86 districts have high levels of arsenic, the report said.

On average, contamited water caused 10 million cases of diarrhoea, 740,000 cases of typhoid and 150,000 viral-hepatitis cases between 2007 and 2011, the groundwater board said. Back in Jalgaon, d’s village is falling back on traditiol methods to fight the crisis. “We are looking at reviving the watercourse, to water pooling,” he said. “Hopefully these will provide water for drinking and crops during dry spells.”

(In arrangement with, a data-driven, non-profit, public interest jourlism platform. Sandeep Pai is a freelance jourlist and a member of Prathamesh Mulye is a New Delhi-based jourlist a member of The views expressed are those of India Spend. The authors can be contacted at

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