Some studies apprehend that 21 big cities in India will run out of groundwater sometime in 2020, affecting over 100 million people. Parts of Chennai have already been through a searing, unprecedented water crisis. However, India is not new to water crisis — rural Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh routinely suffer parched conditions ahead of the South-West monsoons. Elsewhere such as Punjab and Haryana, the water table has been dropping due to excess extraction of groundwater by paddy and wheat farmers aided by free or subsidised power.
Vast swathes of land in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh are used to growing sugarcane and cotton. Paddy, sugarcane, cotton and wheat need volumes of water, and India produces much more paddy, wheat and sugarcane than is required for local consumption. Farmers grow these crops because they are assured of procurement.
Should excess production of water-soaking crops vis-a-vis the demand be encouraged in areas with limited groundwater? India exported 12.01 million tonnes of rice and four million tonnes of sugar in 2018-19. Policymakers need to take cognisance of the quantity of the virtual water exported with rice and sugar. And, also the quantity of virtual water wasted when tonnes of wheat are left to rot in storage. Paddy needs about 4,000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice. The corresponding figure for sugar is 1,500-3,000 litres of water, and for cotton, about 22,500 litres, according to estimates of Water Footprint Network, an NGO. Wheat grown during the winter months in irrigated areas of northern India requires about 900 litres of water to produce a kg of grain.
Even as the water situation in the country worsens, the Centre plans to ensure piped water supply to all rural households by 2024. Every citizen is entitled to clean drinking water. The government has promised to adopt a holistic approach to management of water resources and water supply.
Such an approach cannot, however, ignore excess extraction of groundwater for agriculture.