Atal Bhujal Yojana: Rejuvenating India’s Groundwater

By Sajith Anjickal, National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

“Water, water, everywhere….nor any drop to drink.” These musings of Samuel Taylor seem nothing less than a foretelling of the looming water crisis in the current century. Water scarcity as a grave concern should be a wake-up call to the world, especially with Cape Town in South Africa doomed to become the first city in the world to hit an irremediable drought-like situation. And unfortunately, many cities like Sao Polo and Bengaluru are next in line in this rather sombre list.

In the Indian context, matters seem worse than many other developing countries. According to a recent report by the NITI Aayog, India is likely to face a water dearth of 40% by the year 2030 as the water demand will be twice its supply. In addition to this, India’s water requirement, currently of 1100 billion cubic metres, is estimated to go beyond 1447 billion cubic metres by 2050. With an ever growing populace, decaying infrastructure, inadequate planning, expansive water utilization, haphazard penetration of bore wells and a misguided sense of prerogative which results in the thoughtless utilization of groundwater, causing water deficiencies, it is high time that we, as a collective, address the issue of water scarcity. Groundwater, in specific, provides for around 60% of the nation’s irrigation system, 85% of the rural and half of urban water requirements and thus, renewing the aquifers must be perceived as a crucial step. As a major step in this direction, the Indian government, in collaboration with the World Bank, has decided to implement a ₹6000 crore scheme called the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY) which will be functional for a period of five years. Under this scheme, the budgetary cost shall be equally divided between the Government of India and the World Bank. Earlier known as the National Groundwater Management Improvement Scheme (NGMIS), the Atal Bhujal Yojana will be piloted by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation.

According to a World Bank report, approximately 245 billion cubic metres of groundwater is abstracted every year in India. This estimate accounts for around 25% of the overall global groundwater abstraction. Putting things in context, statistics by the Central Ground Water Board disclose 1034 out of the 6584 assessed blocks to be “over-exploited”, where the volume of groundwater extraction exceeds its recharge by a huge margin. All these figures portray the stark reality of the dismal groundwater management and lack of awareness regarding the same. This is where the Atal Bhujal Yojana turns out to be pivotal with regard to ensuring effective management of the country’s water resources. What makes this scheme unique is that it aims at revitalizing the recharge mechanism via the aspect of ‘community participation’ so as to ensure sustained utilization of groundwater resources. It is interesting to note that many of the government schemes these days, for instance, Swajal, stress on community participation. This can be attributed to the government’s idea of creating a sense of purposeful entitlement among the people which will subsequently result in developing some sort of awareness with respect to the depleting resources. It is exactly on these lines that the Atal Bhujal Yojana is modeled. It aims at recharging the groundwater resources and their efficient utilization by encouraging participatory groundwater management at the local level by working towards a supportive empowering domain, setting up an information base, sensitizing people and capacity development.

The Atal Bhujal Yojana will be launched in 2018 in States like Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, where groundwater paucity has reached alarming levels. It will be implemented in 78 districts, 193 blocks and approximately 8,300 gram panchayats within these States. The scheme aims at involving the gram panchayats for attaining better groundwater management targets by providing 50% of the funds to the gram panchayats itself. The States shall have access to the remaining 50% of funds for reinforcing institutional courses of action; for instance, facilitating a robust database and scientific method to enable them to achieve sustainable groundwater management. This arrangement regarding the division of funds is in the direction of primarily involving the local communities and focusing on the confluence of this scheme with various other schemes like Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana and the National Hydrology Project. Such convergence will surely benefit those who are in dire need of regular groundwater supply, especially the farmers who have long been suffering owing to the acute groundwater shortage. The aspect of community involvement is aimed at bringing about a behavioral change by seeding a sense of responsibility when it comes to management of groundwater resources. The scheme aspires to achieve ‘community participation’ through various activities such as establishing Water User Associations, observing and circulating groundwater information, “water budgeting”, arrangement and execution of gram panchayat wise water safety policies identified with sustainable management of groundwater, and a ‘performance-based’ incentive framework which will ensure improvement in groundwater management. Keeping all this in mind, it can be said that the implementation of this scheme will set the tone for many more similar schemes in the future.

In my opinion, we, as a country, cannot afford to be ignorant of the imminent threat of water shortage. High time that dire measures are adopted to limit water wastage, else the rationing of water supply in urban areas like Bengaluru, which has been positioned second in the index of 11 worldwide cities which face the looming threat of a shortage of potable water, may become an unfortunate reality. As a matter of fact, water supply is already a luxury available only on alternate days in specific urban areas and that too only for a restricted duration in certain areas. It is important to undertake conscious endeavors at the household level and by communities, establishments, and local institutions to complement the schemes and policies of government(s) and non-governmental bodies, in advancing water management as the priority of the nation. It is the need of the hour that unrelenting measures ought to be undertaken to avert contamination of water bodies, defilement of groundwater and guarantee appropriate treatment of residential and industrial wastewater. “Reduce, reuse, and recycle”- these words must guide our actions so as to ensure a sustainable planet which can accommodate the needs of many more generations to come.