Mumbai: India is the world’s largest consumer of groundwater, extracting twice as much as China, the world’s most populous country. India extracted 250 cubic kilometre of groundwater in 2010--1.2 times the capacity of the world’s biggest dam--of which 89% was used for irrigation, 9% by homes, and 2% by industries. Subsidised electricity for farmers, who use it to pump groundwater, is largely to blame, according to Tushaar Shah, economist and public policy specialist, and former director of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat.

Currently a senior fellow at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Anand, Shah helmed a pilot project in rural Gujarat that facilitated the creation of a farmers’ solar power cooperative. In an interview with IndiaSpend, Shah discussed the possibility of increasing farmers’ income by using solar power and the need for restricting power subsidies to farmers. He also spoke about the challenges and possibilities for water governance, and why the interlinking of rivers may never materialise.

IWMI’s pilot project in Dhundi, Gujarat, led to the setting up of a solar pump irrigators’ cooperative, the first of its kind in the world, which seeks to develop solar power as an additional “remunerative crop”. Tell us about it.

The cooperative was a small experiment designed to draw the attention of the nation to a bigger problem and a much bigger opportunity in solar energy. We found that the primary driver of groundwater crisis is perverse power subsidy. The western corridor of India has the highest concentration of overdeveloped [overused] groundwater blocks. In these parts, over the last three to four decades, farmers have been either getting free or subsidised power. There’s no political will to rationalise these power subsidies. It is possible to provide power subsidies in a manner to ensure that its impact on the aquifer [the underground layer of water-bearing rock] ecosystem is minimised.

When solar pumps became commercially available, we thought the multiple issues related to the water economy can be resolved if the introduction of solar pumps is planned well. Although removing subsidy may not be immediately possible, with Dhundi, we thought that farmers can be rewarded for conserving water and energy.

We gave the local farmers solar pumps, connected them to a micro-grid, and then the national grid. The local power company was persuaded to treat the cooperative at par with independent power producers and offer a 25-year power purchase contract to buy surplus energy at the best price possible, which in this case is Rs 4.63 per unit.

With the government planning to incentivise farmers’ transition to solar pumps through schemes such as Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM), how prepared is the supporting infrastructure including distribution companies, banks (for loans), and farming communities? Is the model ready to be scaled nationwide?

Until now, subsidised power came to farmers with interruptions and mostly at night. With solar power, famers have daytime power. [On days] when they do not need power for irrigation, the surplus power offers a source of additional income. [It also helps] conserve groundwater--the farmers have started investing in pipes to reduce leakages that earthen canals were prone to, and we expect them to use drip irrigation more in cases where it is suitable. In addition to this, it reduces the subsidy burden on distribution companies and reduces the carbon intensity of agriculture.

This is a gain for electricity distribution companies. Financially, distribution companies and state governments have to fork out subsidies of Rs 90,000-95,000 crore annually. Part of it is recovered by charging commercial and industrial customers a high tariff just because the state governments want to provide free or subsidised power to farmers.

An issue, as I see it, is that distribution companies have a cultural problem. They have been in the business of selling power, now they have been asked to buy. So, there is some cultural resistance. What we require to scale rapidly is the right kind of incentives. The budget announced the KUSUM scheme, which I think can do the job.

The installation of solar panels typically requires land and investment. Does encouragement of solar energy in irrigation (and agriculture) particularly favour rich farmers with large land holdings? At an estimated cost of around Rs 1-1.5 lakh for solar pumps post-subsidy, is it feasible, especially as indebted rural households owed, on average in 2013, Rs 1.03 lakh, as we reported on January 4, 2018?

All Dhundi farmers have landholdings of less than one acre. They, of course, were provided capital subsidy from us [IWMI]. But under KUSUM, 30% of the capital subsidy is to be provided by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), another 30% by the state government, 30% is a priority-sector loan [sectors such as agriculture, housing and renewable energy that banks are mandated to encourage, by the central government and the Reserve Bank of India, with adequate and timely credit]. Farmers are to contribute only 10%. For example, a farmer will have to contribute Rs 25,000-30,000 for a 5-kilowatt pump, which I think is feasible for even small and marginal farmers.

The challenge is that a scheme like KUSUM needs a champion at the highest level, which in my opinion should be the MNRE. It must educate the distribution companies that this can revolutionise the Indian energy economy, especially because the farm sector uses around 23% of the electricity generated but is responsible for nearly 85% of the losses.

Should the ownership pattern be through a collective or is individual ownership as effective?

The ownership of panels and pumps must be individual. The micro-grid will be a collective. But at a feeder level, which is preferred by electricity companies, there is no need for a micro-grid or other infrastructure because the existing connections can be utilised and only a meter needs to be added.

India’s groundwater withdrawal increased 10-fold between 1969 and 2010, according to IWMI. You have advocated for a system of water management that encourages integrated use of rainwater, groundwater and surface water at an individual user-level. What are the hurdles?

We need to create community-level governance organisations and local-level governance mechanisms. Here, too, perverse subsidies are a factor. A state like Punjab, which in the 1960s had 70%-80% canal irrigation, today largely depends on groundwater. A farmer will continue to run a tube-well despite having a canal close to the field due to free power. Tubewell offers convenience and control that canal irrigation may not offer. We need to resolve these incentives that are leading to groundwater depletion as a first step toward such management practices. Additionally, canal management needs to be improved. Many states have not hired irrigation engineers in almost three decades. Resources must be allocated for the management of dams and canals. Large irrigation systems in Punjab and Gujarat are running without such measures.

The Bharatiya Janata Party government is keen on doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Given the dire water situation due to high groundwater extraction and climate-related issues such as erratic rainfall and drought, is the target realistic?

Even without our water crisis, doubling farmers’ income in five years is an unreachable target. However, there are things we can do to enhance farmers’ income. Ensuring on-farm water control is top on the agenda, but for maximum beneficial income impact, more interventions are needed once water security is established. Examples of villages like Hiwrebazar, Pirewadi, and Ralegan Siddi [all in Maharashtra] show that water security followed by value-addition interventions and market linkages [for farm produce] can rapidly raise farm incomes.

Promoting solar power as a remunerative crop that farmers can grow can also add risk-free income to farmers’ livelihoods. If implemented properly, KUSUM can majorly ramp up farmers’ incomes. Nearly 30 million solar pumps proposed under KUSUM can [produce] up to 240 gigawatt-hours of solar energy to sell to distribution companies every year and can increase a farmer’s net income by over Rs 1 lakh a year, besides also increasing income through reliable on-farm water control.

There have been discussions on a second green revolution, especially in the eastern regions of India. Is there a danger of repeating the mistakes that led to groundwater exploitation in the western corridor with the additional burden of climate change-related change in rainfall patterns?

Although nobody can be sure, the climatic models seem to suggest that climate change will leave India with larger aggregate rainfall, especially peninsular India. But the rainfall events will be shorter with high intensity, leading to longer dry periods. There will be a need for a different sort of water infrastructure which a project like river linking will not necessarily help address.

We will have to manage our aquifer storage. Throughout India we are heavily dependent on aquifers. But we do nothing about managing them. In developed countries such as Australia and the western parts of the US, which are also dependent on groundwater, they have intensive regimes that include managed aquifer recharge and groundwater banking. We will have to adopt some of these measures for management of groundwater. Gujarat managed to allocate resources in Saurashtra in the 1990s and early 2000s for decentralised groundwater recharge. The returns have been enormous. I think Gujarat is the only state where despite a rapid growth in agriculture up to 2015, the groundwater regime has been improving.

Redirecting surface water through interlinking of rivers is projected to provide irrigation for 35 million hectares and generate 34,000 megawatt of power, apart from the incidental benefits of flood control and navigation, etc. The estimated cost of the project is Rs 5.6 lakh crore. Given the associated social-economic costs of rehabilitation of affected communities, do you think this in an effective strategy to enhance water availability in drought-prone and rain-fed areas?

The Rs 5.6 lakh crore is an old estimate. If it were to be revised, today the cost would be more than four times that figure. I do not take it [interlinking of rivers] very seriously. Local-level river basin transfers will happen, but they are relatively low-cost. I do not think the river linking project will ever take shape quite simply because it will take four or five decades to complete. By then the agricultural economy of India would have changed completely.

The original purpose of the project was to provide water to the western and southern parts of India. By the time the project is completed, agriculture would have shrunk in these parts and the focus would be on the north and eastern parts of India, IWMI’s research shows.

The National Project on Aquifer Management (NAQUIM) was initiated in 2012 and aimed to map 23.55 lakh square miles by 2022, according to the water resources ministry. It seeks to inform and build awareness among gram panchayats, NGOs, water departments, officials, etc. to encourage localised management of aquifers and groundwater. What are your thoughts on this initiative?

At present, I do not think it is working. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government sanctioned it. It was supposed to encourage such community-led approach to ensure that there would be an increase in association of local people in understanding the process of mapping, unlike how, say, a geographer would map. This stopped once the UPA government [went]. Under the Central Groundwater Board, only the resource [water] and the geology were mapped. Some of the maps created are very technical and only give a supply-side understanding and not the demand side. There is no idea of where the concentrated pockets of groundwater demand are or where pressure on the resource is the highest. The idea must be to change the behaviour of people and not the aquifer, which is the problem with the maps presently available.

This year’s budget allocated Rs 2,600 crore for the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) to develop groundwater sources in 96 districts where less than 30% of land holdings get assured irrigation. Do you think this will exacerbate the groundwater situation for farmers and reduce the availability of water for already marginalised communities? How do you view this development from a water sustainability perspective?

This policy decision is based on some research we did under the IWMI-Tata programme. The idea was to address regional biases. There was a dumping of large amounts of resources for irrigation on certain parts while other areas were left out.

When we started mapping the areas which were deprived, we realised that they largely fell in the tribal areas of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, western Odisha and Assam, where some of the largest river systems originated but had very little irrigation. So, we posed this skewing of allocation to the finance minister during the pre-budget discussion. The 96 deprived districts have been chosen from 112 districts originally identified. These are also regions where less than 10% of the known groundwater resources are utilised.

In these parts, although there is low groundwater development, the non-tribal affluent groups have cornered the resource. So, our recommendation was that the government must focus on the poorest tribal families who have stopped migrating and are dependent only on rain-fed farming. This provides supplemental irrigation for water security to such groups. Now, we have identified nearly 500 blocks within these 96 districts where less than 10% of the farm holdings have a source of irrigation. We will recommend that the focus should be on these most deprived areas during the first year. Even if the government provides two or three million dugwells, it’ll be only 25% of the groundwater development in these parts. This is the quickest way to ramp up low-cost irrigation in the poorest areas of India.

The Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY) looks to regulate the rampant groundwater utilisation in over 78 districts across seven states. What do you think of this programme?

With ABY, the investments must be made for demand and supply of water. It must focus on measures of groundwater recharge and, importantly, get communities and other stakeholders involved in the management of groundwater. I am hoping that this scheme would allow communities to understand the natural processes and lead to change in behaviour.

Investments must be made to strengthen groundwater availability. Our research has shown that when farmers in Saurashtra were involved in the creation of percolation tanks and check dams or any other infrastructure, property creation took place. These groups create norms and protocols to regulate utilisation of water. Once this happens, local management and governance of groundwater strengthens.

In your experience, is the decision-making process at the local level vested within individuals or groups who are already dominant due to sociocultural or economic reasons?

It depends entirely on how the process is designed. If it is done bureaucratically, then the powerful locals will take control. There are non-government organisations (NGOs) that have been able to demonstrate good work. The ABY must involve NGOs in managing this process as they have more experience in involving and handling communities under different contexts.

A draft report on inventory and revival of springs was submitted to the NITI Aayog recently. Springshed development has not been given much prominence in the Indian water landscape even though over 50 million people living in the Indian Himalayan region depend on spring sources. How does this development feed into the larger understanding of water governance?

The submission of the report is a good development. It has materialised in the last few years. For the longest time people didn’t even recognise that springs are a form of groundwater. In the same way we try to understand aquifers in the plains, we also need to understand the geological conditions that give birth to springs. NGOs have been involved for some time, and now with the government getting involved, it’s an opportunity to understand and secure springs for mountain communities. Balochistan recently started a large programme to save its karez [traditional underground channels for tapping groundwater]. Similarly, surangas [horizontal wells] in north Kerala and south Karnataka are also vital traditional resources. There is a need to initiate programmes to protect all such traditional measures in India, not just springs.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.