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Groundwater capitalism in Gujarat

Print edition : Apr 27, 2002 T+T-

Tubewell Capitalism: Groundwater Development and Agrarian Change in Gujarat by Navroz K. Dubash; Oxford University Press, 2002; pages 300, Rs.595.

WATER, or the lack of it, has often been a subject of controversy in Gujarat. Whether it is the Narmada dam, drought in Kutch and Saurashtra, water riots or falling water tables in north Gujarat, tussles over water have been central to the survival of Gujarat's people. In his book Tubewell Capitalism, Navroz K. Dubash has offered some insights into village realities that shape people's access to this growingly scarce resource.

Delving into the factors that determine the nature of water markets in two villages of north Gujarat where groundwater depletion has been acute, Dubash examines the growth pattern of private tubewells. The book, based on an academic study carried out by the author, analyses how the interaction of various forces like physical and hydrological features, social structures, government policy, local institutions and local history has shaped the character of groundwater commercialisation. Since tubewell markets are amongst the most developed in north Gujarat, the study has focussed on this region. Moreover, widespread well failures have also been reported here.

Groundwater irrigation in India has expanded rapidly. In 1993-94, 53 per cent of the net irrigated area in India depended on groundwater sources. In north Gujarat, this percentage would be substantially higher. This, despite the fact that 70 per cent of the public expenditure on irrigation is spent on major and medium surface irrigation projects. Most well irrigation has been driven by private investment. Since the spurt in well coverage has remained unregulated, there has been what the writer describes as "a race to the bottom of the aquifer". Water table levels have plummeted to more than 150 feet (almost 46 metres). The largest well in Ratanpura, one of the villages in Dubash's study, is 700 feet (213 metres) deep. "While the rate of overexploitation of groundwater in India as a whole remains a relatively low 31 per cent, a few States that are heavily dependent on groundwater, such as Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, show more disturbing trends," Dubash points out. In Gujarat, the number of taluks where overexploitation was reported rose from six in 1984-85 to 26 by 1992-93, a four-fold jump in a matter of eight years.

Severe depletion of aquifers has led to a high number of well failures in some areas of north Gujarat. Farmers who invested heavily in newer technology and deeper wells went bankrupt when their wells ran dry. In the quest for more water, farmers drilled deeper. The mounting costs associated with further boring resulted in the formation of group wells by large farmers, who pooled the investment amongst themselves and sold the surplus to others. This laid the foundation for water markets in the two villages of Dubash's study, Ratanpura in Visnagar taluk, Mehsana district, and Paldi in Deesa taluka, Banaskantha district, which are less than 100 km apart. Dubash traces the growth of groundwater irrigation in these villages to the 1960s when diesel engines were first used, to the conversion to electric pumps through to the more recent drilling for deeper aquifers.

The manner in which groundwater markets developed in both villages was shaped by geographical as well as societal institutions. Their expansion has affected not only the ecology but also patterns of agricultural production, caste and agrarian relations within the villages. In these districts, groundwater exploitation gave a huge spurt to the Green Revolution between the 1970s and 1990s resulting in a shift from food to cash crops such as mustard, cumin and castor. The subsequent commodification of the economy led to the pauperisation of the artisans and serving castes of these villages, and pushed them towards insecure agricultural wage labour.

Higher investments in deeper wells also meant that the lower castes were excluded from the benefits of groundwater exploitation owing to their limited access to land and credit. The benefits of the new technology were cornered mainly by the land-owning castes, such as Patels, further centralising control over water and widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Dubash found only one "Harijan group" well during the course of his study. But the "Harijan group" had relinquished control over the well to the upper castes as it could not sustain the business for long. However, the study found that an increase in demand for labour owing to cash crop cultivation improved the terms of labour and tenancy contracts. But he warns that this demand may not be sustainable. Overuse of groundwater could lower demand for labour, creating a group called 'ecological refugees' among agricultural workers.

In comparing the two villages, Dubash found several differences in the hydrology, caste composition, agrarian relations, groundwater technology used and water transactions. "In Ratanpura, water is sold as a free-standing commodity while in Paldi it is still closely associated with sharecropping," says Dubash. He also observes that Paldi is far more stratified socially and castewise than Ratanpura. His findings reveal that in Ratanpura, where water transactions have been institutionalised, the exploitation of and control over the groundwater resource by sellers is limited. In Paldi, where bilateral negotiations underlie the exchange process, the restrictions on water exploitation are fewer. Commenting on how the benefits have been distributed, Dubash writes: "Where institutional form, technology and local politics result in the social construction of stable exchange systems, as in Ratanpura, small farmers and tenants share in the benefits of groundwater, while it lasts. Where exchange is constructed around the exercise of class power, however, as in Paldi, groundwater is segmented by class and can serve as a further tool for the impoverishment of disadvantaged groups."

Skilfully straddling the territory between traditional political economy, new institutional economics (NIE) and economic sociology, Dubash's study tests the tenets of these approaches through his study. He points out that traditional political economy has viewed agrarian institutions purely as a means of surplus extraction through the exercise of power, ignoring the role of the environment in shaping outcomes. The more fashionable NIE approach, which assumes that institutional efficiency can overcome the problems of imperfect information availability, also provides a limited view. It fails to consider economic institutions as being embedded in social life, and which do not necessarily throw up the most efficient outcomes. Dubash rules out generalisations while looking at groundwater institutions. "Landholding configurations, caste composition, existing norms of exchange in a village and the ecological context of exchange, all provide considerable insight into the potential range of institutional forms. Nonetheless, there remains a measure of indeterminacy in the emergence of local institutions, which poses a considerable challenge for the development of policy around groundwater use and management."

While his observations may be insightful, Dubash's policy recommendations do not correspond to his findings. He advocates the setting out of formal property rights over groundwater to address the problem of depletion. However, he fails to explain how, what in essence would be privatisation of a public resource would curb depletion. Dubash advocates increases in electricity rates through power sector reforms as a means to more efficient use, but fails to consider its adverse impact on small and marginal farmers. Moreover, he ignores the fact that cost considerations did not deter the better-off well owners from drilling deeper.

Finally, Dubash turns his attention to the Model Bill to regulate groundwater use in Gujarat. The Bill would require the establishment of a state authority that would notify areas where groundwater extraction should be controlled. These areas would be monitored, and government permission would be needed for all wells. Dubash feels that such a 'heavy-handed' act is unlikely to succeed in its objective. He considers the government incapable of the monumental task of monitoring and enforcing groundwater use. Instead, he advocates providing incentives for self-regulation by local institutions, like the more organised water markets in Ratanpura. Local institutions, which are participants in groundwater markets, are partly responsible for aquifer depletion. It seems optimistic to leave the governing of groundwater to them. The more powerful groups amongst them are likely to corner and exploit this power to further their commercial interests rather than think of groundwater conservation.