The deep water crisis

P. Sainath

A few thousand drilling rigs roll
into parched states each year and
drill over a thousand feet to
extract scarce groundwater for
the farm.
The Hindu A few thousand drilling rigs roll into parched states each year and drill over a thousand feet to extract scarce groundwater for the farm.

Hard-working rig-operators are providing a real response to a very real demand from farmers, but with grave consequences for groundwater supplies

No other town can boast as deep a connection with the rest of the country as this little one in Tamil Nadu. Machines from here have struck great depths in most Indian States (and in many African countries as well). Tiruchengode is the nation’s borewell rig capital and thousands of machines and operators from here go down as much as 1,400 feet on any day, most months of the year. The monsoon has paused their activity in States like Maharashtra where they have picked up a great deal of business in recent years. But there are parts of the country where they’re still drilling for water.

The water-crisis in Maharashtra — which only gets highlighted in summer — saw many thousands of borewells drilled in just the Marathwada region in the first three months of this year. The truck-mounted borewell rig was omnipresent in the fields. And the borewell itself was a major source of debt, if not of water, in the rural districts. Most of the rigs we saw rumbling along the roads turned out to be from Tamil Nadu. (Some were from Andhra Pradesh). “They seem mostly to be from a single town,” a senior geologist of the government of Maharashtra had then told The Hindu. That town, it turned out, was Tiruchengode in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu.

“I stayed four months this year in a village close to Nanded in Maharashtra,” C. Vaiyapuri of Sree Balamurugan Borewells told me in Tiruchengode. He is a dynamic, hard-working rig-operator. In four months, this single operator sank about 500 borewells in Maharashtra, mostly in water-stressed Marathwada. “You can do up to 1,300 feet a day,” he says, “if the soil is ‘loose formation’ and so easier to drill. Which means you can sink even four a day if the wells are under 300 feet. If it’s ‘hard formation,’ you won’t go past 1,000 feet in a day.”

Each truck-mounted rig is supported by a second large vehicle ferrying both equipment and men. The whole team could be up to 20 people. A manager, two drillers, two assistants, two drivers, a cook and 12 manual labourers. The workers bring another pan-Indian dimension to Tiruchengode’s reach. The rig operators of Tamil Nadu have agents and brokers in every State. The workers are mostly from Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Just a handful is from Tamil Nadu. The standard pay is Rs. 200 a day plus three meals for work that could last many months in the year.

It’s hard work, and the rate varies according to how tough the job is. In some of the harder surfaces of Andhra, you can’t go beyond 80 feet in an hour. That fetches Rs.75 per foot. So drilling a 1,000 feet a day brings in Rs. 75,000. In the “loose formation” soil where Vaiyapuri says you can go as low as 120 feet in an hour, the rate drops to Rs. 56 a foot. But you can reach 1,300 feet, or almost Rs.73,000 a day. Even if you’re on the job for just 200 days (it’s often much more), that would total close to Rs.15 million.

How many rigs are there in Tiruchengode town and taluk? Not more than 5,000, says T.T. Paranthaman, Managing Director of PRD, a major drilling rigs concern. Nearly 7,000, estimates N.P. Velu, president of the Tiruchengode Lorry Owners Association, and a rig owner himself. Up to 20,000, insist other operators. All three estimates could be right — at different levels. An industry veteran says: “A lot of the owners and rigs are here. But many rigs are registered in other States, perhaps for tax purposes.”

Meanwhile, rig operators are returning from places as far off as rural Rajasthan. One had even sunk borewells in Jammu. There are two or three months in a year when the rigs take a break for servicing. That’s mostly when the rains have set in.

The average borewell depths vary in different States, says Mr. Velu. “In Karnataka, the average is now close to 1,400 feet. Not very much less in Tamil Nadu. It all started with a drought in the 1970s.” Sensing an opportunity in this sector, groups of farmers and workers engaged in sinking wells, pooled resources and bought a few rigs. (Even today, over a third of the rigs here are owned by such groups).

“At that time, the depths at which we hit water was no more than 100-200 feet,” says Mr. Velu. “Maximum 300. The greatest increase in depths to which the wells are sunk has come in the last five years.”

The story of this town’s rig operators throws up a serious dilemma. They have brought jobs and prosperity to Tiruchengode and nearby regions. Among them are those once illiterate workers who banded together in the late 1970s to buy their rigs and work their way out of poverty. (This entire belt of Tamil Nadu, including Coimbatore, Karur and Tirupur, has an impressive history of entrepreneurship from below). The rig operators also respond to a real demand from farmers across the country. A demand driven by despair.

The same process, though, implies grave consequences for groundwater supplies. Rampant exploitation of that resource has seen the water table plummet across the country. The Collector of Osmanabad in Marathwada said this March that the water table in his district (where the rigs had been active) was five metres below its five-year average. If 10,000 rigs from just one part of Tamil Nadu are sinking a 1,000 feet a day on average across India — that’s 10 million feet. Doing this even for just 200 days a year would make that 2 billion feet. That’s a lot of drilling. Even with high failure rates, that’s a lot of groundwater being sucked out.

The Tiruchengode rig operators did not choose this path of development for the country and can’t be faulted for that. They did not impose the regime of unchecked groundwater exploitation that prevails. And though they are the major force, there are also other operators in the country. Further, rigs have other uses too, but the great demand is for borewells. And the explosion of those signals disaster. (The groundwater accounts for two-thirds of irrigation water and over four-fifths of drinking water in India). The much-needed social control of this process won’t happen in the present water regime.

Why are there so few many machines at work in your own neighbourhood, I asked one Tiruchengode veteran. “There’s not so much water here, now,” he said. “We’re hitting 1,400 feet in nearby Erode town.”


Water in 12th Plan

Water: Towards a Paradigm Shift in the Twelfth Plan 2013 Mihir Shah – Water -Towards a Paradigm Shift in the 12th plan
by Mihir Shah

The author is grateful to Mekhala Krishnamurthy and P S Vijayshankar for comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Mihir Shah ( is Member, Planning Commission, Government of India.
The Twelfth Plan proposes a fundamental change in the principles, approach and strategies of water management in India. This paradigm shift was the outcome of a new and inclusive process of plan formulation, which saw the coming together of
practitioners and professionals from government, academia, industry and civil society to draft the Plan.

Beneath the Water Resource Crisis 2013 Beneath_the_Water_Resource_Crisis
by C J Perry

The Twelfth Plan proposals for a new approach to the water resources management as put forward in the article by Mihir Shah (EPW, 19 January 2013) are a bold recognition of the serious problems in the area. But some of the author’s ideas are less than convincing and the entire set of physical interventions that has been recommended seems to reflect a worryingly simplistic understanding of the realities
of hydrology and hydrogeology.

Water in India – Situation and Prospects

The ‘Water in India: Situation and Prospects’ report presents information on the water sector in an integrated, holistic manner. The report  compiles data on the full range of water issues from water hydrogeology to resource use, water quality, health impact, agricultural productivity, livelihoods, governance and gender. 
In producing this report, the UN in India hopes to contribute to efforts by the Government of India and partners to manage water resources more effectively during implementation of the Twelfth Five Year Plan.
Improved management of water resources will have a major impact on India’s social and productive progress. Nowhere is this more important than in the area of child health. Studies show that forty-five percent of India’s children are stunted and 600,000 children under five die each year, largely because of inadequate water supply and poor sanitation. 
Improving water supply, for example by reducing, and eventually eradication open defecation, would contribute majorly to reducing child morbidity and mortality and improving nutrition.
Photo Essay- ‘Water in India – Situation and Prospects’
Despite India’s booming economy, water insecurity and poor water quality remains a major cause of child mortality and morbidity, especially among the poor. India lost more than 600,000 children under 5 in 2010 due to WASH ( Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) related diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia.
The ‘Water in India – Situation and Prospects’ report by UNICEF and FAO takes a deeper look at the state of the water sector in India
Dr Aidan Cronin, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Specialist UNICEF gives a sneak preview to the FAO and UNICEF report ‘ Water in India – Situation and Prospects’
Water in India – Positive changes brought about by Communities 
These changes were brought about by the active participation and involvement of communities in finding solutions along with strong political will for change and focus on positive impact.
Related Documents
  • An overview of status and trends in the provision of drinking water in India (click here)
  • Progress recorded in the provision of drinking water services (click here)

Feeding a thirsty world: challenges and opportunities for a water and food secure future

Source: Stockholm International Water Institute | August, 2012

This report presents the latest thinking and new approaches to emerging and persistent challenges to achieve food security in the 21st century. It focuses on critical issues that have received less attention in the literature to date, such as: food waste, land acquisitions, gender aspects of agriculture, and early warning systems for agricultural emergencies. It also offers perspectives on how to better manage water and food linkages.

Water Options for India in a Changing Climate

SANDRP new report on

Water Options for India in a Changing Climate


On the eve of the World Water Day 2012, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP) is happy to publish its new report: Water Sector Options for India in a Changing ClimateThe report highlights that for the poorest sections, also most vulnerable in the climate change context, the water, food, livelihood and energy security, closely linked with the environment security, is already getting severely affected in the changing climate. It is well known that water is the medium through which climate change impacts are most dominant. South Asia is considered possibly the most vulnerable region in terms of number of people that would be affected by climate change impacts, and within South Asia, India has the largest vulnerable population. The importance of understanding the Water Sector Options in such a situation cannot be underestimated. The report highlights the options for coping and mitigating climate change challenges in water sector in India.


This report tries to capture the relevant issues for Indian Water Sector in the context of changing climate. The 93+ix page report divided in 12 chapters (including on Rainfall, Himalayan Glaciers, Groundwater, Rivers, Floodplains, Wetlands and water bodies, Big Water Infrastructure, Agriculture, Urban water options and Positive local water adaptation cases). It includes a case study each on Organic Farming (by Shripad Dharmadhikary) and on Forest-Agriculture settings in Western Ghats (by Dr Latha Anantha and S Unnikrishnan).


The report concludes that Climate change offers a unique opportunity to revisit our water resources development and management Plans, policies and practices. It also provides an opportunity to learn lessons from past approaches to development and management in a credible way. The purpose for a revamped water management strategy in changing climate could be that of equitable, sustainable, participatory, decentralised, democratic and transparent approach to water management; an approach based on sound knowledge and data to make decisions. Further, this approach would need to include a protection strategy for the rivers, forests, wetlands, water bodies, biodiversity, critical ecological habitats and groundwater reserves, as well as demand side management measures, along with a definition of the clear linkages between these domains. In water scarce situations, all demands cannot be sacrosanct, and there is a need to prioritise the just use of water with right based approach that includes right to drinking water, livelihoods and health. The final chapter gives a list of recommendations in this context.


The opportunities provided by climate change are still within reach. India, with the world’s largest water infrastructure also has the biggest performance deficit in terms of what that infrastructure can deliver and what it is delivering now. Groundwater is India’s water lifeline and opportunity beckons to make it sustainable, in the changing climate when demands and losses would go up. Our foodgrains requirements and water for the same would go up, but there are huge opportunities like increasing soil moisture holding capacity, taking up chauka systems in grazing lands, organic farming, System of Rice Intensification, also applicable to other crops on the one hand and water saving crops like millets on the other. Glaciers aremelting, the IPCC glacier-gate notwithstanding, but we have the options of creating large number of local storages and also using underground aquifer storage space. Urban water demands are going up and will put greater pressures in future, but we also have the slew of hardly explored options including local water harvesting, protection of local water systems, achieving proper sewage treatment and recycling, participatory governance, among others.


Some of the sections of Indian population that are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change in the context of water and agriculture include: farmers dependent on rainfed agriculture, coastal populations, communities from Himalayas, Eastern & Western Ghats, Fisher-folks, Adivasis, Dalits, Rural populations, Urban Poor and Women. Any climate action needs to begin with identifying and listing such sections and than proceeding to prepare plans in a participatory way that would reduce their vulnerabilities through mitigation and adaptation. India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change, or the National Agriculture and Water Missions do not take this first crucial step and hence have remained directionless, ineffective and have not inspired much confidence.


Are we using these options and opportunities? If we go by the contents of the National Action Plan for Climate Change, National Water Mission, National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, National Mission for Himalayan Ecosystems and also the 12th Plan documents, including the direction of 12th Plan indicated in the Union Budget for 2012-13, the answer is, unfortunately, in the negative. But we hope better sense prevails and the existing opportunities and options also highlighted in this report would be given heed to.


The World celebrates March 22 as the World Water Day, following the recommendation of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). As the World prepares for the Rio + 20 conference in Brazil later this year, the theme of the World Water Day 2012 is Water and Food security (see: In reality, there is a close nexus between water, food, energy and environment security. The Bonn meeting organised in Nov 2011 (see:, floated the theme that there is a nexus between water, food and energy security. This was welcome, but it forgot to add the crucial fourth leg of this nexus, namely ENVIRONMENT SECURITY, without which none of the other three pillars are secure. The India Water Week 2012, to be held during April 10-14, 2012 with theme (Water, Energy and Food Security Call for Solutions, see: almost identical to that of Bonn conference, also needs to remember not to forget the fourth leg of this nexus. Truly democratic governance holds the key to address these issues.


The soft copy of the report is available at:, the executive summary of the report is available at: The Hard copy of the report can be ordered by writing to

Himanshu Thakkar (

Ph: 27484655/ 9968242798

The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture

Managing systems at risk

By 2050, food production is projected to increase by about 70 percent globally and nearly 100 percent in developing countries. This incremental demand for food, together with demand from other competing uses, will place unprecedented pressure on many agricultural production systems across the world. These ‘systems at risk’ are facing growing competition for land and water resources and they are often constrained by unsustainable agricultural practices. They therefore require particular attention and specific remedial action.

The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture (SOLAW) analyses a variety of options for overcoming constraints and improving resource management in these areas of heightened risk. In each location, a mix of changes in institutional and policy measures will have to be combined with greater access to technologies for better management of land and water resources. Increased investments; access to novel financing mechanisms; and international cooperation and development assistance will also help overcome these constraints.

This first issue of SOLAW, which complements other “State of the world” reports published regularly by FAO, is intended to inform public debate and policy-making at national and international levels.


Water as a limited resource – Rajendra Singh–water-as-a-limited-resource-rajendra-singh.html
The rivers of Alwar that has seen life after death, thanks to the committment and foresight of Rajendra Singh and his team Tarun Bharath Sangh, who were instrumental in mobilising communities to rejuvenate their own water resources.

Anil Agarwal always maintained that the entire nation could be made drought free through community rainwater harvesting. What is your opinion?

His vision has become a reality in Rajasthan. In these 17 years we have made certain dry regions including Alwar, Jaipur, Savai Maadhopur, Karoli drought-free. Nature has maintained a balance between population density and rainfall in our country. Population density is low in Rajasthan and so is the level of rainfall. When we study the ‘rain chart’ since 100 years, we can find that the rainfall is balanced unevenly in Rajasthan. Five to six years of meager rainfall will follow two successive rainy seasons. When the cycle repeats like this, it becomes very useful if the rainwater is stored through proper ways.

It is very essential that we realize water as a limited resource. Though there is a balance between the rainfall and density of population, there is no balance in usage of water. Everybody wants more water. If we use water like a poor man’s ghee, then no village or person will face the scarcity of water in India.

Is it possible for other villages in India to replicate your success in making Rajasthan drought-free?

Definitely. Not only in India, it is possible throughout Asia.

Your Jal-jameen-jungle (water-soil – forest) conservation campaign enhanced the confidence of the villagers in Rajasthan. Throughout the process, you limited yourself to inspire people and encouraged them to work for the cause. What is the idea behind this?

Our community is creative. It has the latent capacity to bring a social change. We woke up this sleeping knowledge bank and encouraged them to work. Tarun Bharath Sangh helped the villagers to rejuvenate their style of functioning. In Gopalpura, the first village, it took three years for us to get results. We could achieve the same in 45 villages in the next one year. It was made possible due to the active participation of the villagers. The formula for success was made known to those who are interested. The success stories of these villages influenced neighbouring villages to join hands and work towards another success.

This cannot be achieved through speeches. The society should feel the necessity for such a work. The methodology should be decided only after understanding the community’s notion about soil and water. Unless and until we live with them, we don’t understand their relationship with water resources and soil. It is very important to utilise the indigenous knowledge in any work. Tarun Bharath Sangh never used any outside help for water and forest conservation. A work becomes sustainable and replicable only when local knowledge is applied.

To grasp the customs and practices of Alwar you became a fellow villager and lived with them. There is a large gap between becoming one of them and showing so. Isn’t it?

Our society is sensitive and also responsive. It observes your each step towards them. If you are trustworthy and reliable then they extend fullest support to you and move ahead with utmost commitment to their work.

When you started your mission you didn’t had the aim or dream of rejuvenating the rivers. Had you ever thought of such a possibility?

Here I remember an incident. In 1993, when I was talking with Dhannaa Gujjar, a fellow villager, he said, “Bhai Rajinder, you are working for the cause of water. It fills mother earth’s stomach. The day her stomach is full, water flows out into the rivers. She is very kind and never keeps water to herself. Whatever you provide her she gives back. This fills even our stomach and helps sustain our farming.” The scientists who came subsequently and studied the process of river rejuvenation for three years also gave the same opinion!

You have contributed a wonderful skill to the nation. Now, at this juncture, it is natural for you to wish to move back to your family. If it happens so, what will be the future of those villages?

Years of slavery and negative forces in the society have made our society like handicapped. The villages struggle from lack of confidence. In this situation if someone becomes one of them and boosts their morale, society wakes up and works with a new hope. I became a sort of crutches for them. Crutches are needed till the community regains its strength and starts working independently. Now we have enough young enthusiasts who will sustain the new zeal.

When we see the West, those countries have fully exploited their natural resources by converting them to luxury items. This way, their natural resources are exhausted. It is not the case in our country. It is time for us to make use of our insights and our natural resources properly. This century is going to be ours.

From a man who has learnt to treat the diseases of a body, you have grown to the extent of treating the sickness of the country. How do you feel when you look back?

If I had continued to be an Ayurvedic doctor, I would have cured a few persons with the medicine. But now I am repairing the souls of people. I’m trying to broaden the minds and hearts of people around me. This will help the society to progress with confidence and responsibility. My second job has started giving good results.