Bengal nod to extract groundwater divides experts

May 25th, 2012 - 3:42 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, May 25 (IANS) West Bengal has allowed more farmers to use electric pumps to draw groundwater to expand its paddy output. Six months later, like many other things here, the move has become contentious.

One section alleges that this will destroy ecological balance — by depleting groundwater, putting arsenic and fluoride into crops and leading to subsidence if an earthquake occurs. Others say the move will bring about a second green revolution in the state by ending corruption, cut diesel usage for irrigation, improve food production and help poor farmers prosper.

The move has, however, divided farmers who own electric pumps and who don’t. And many farmers are already drawing water through illegal power-operated pumps.

Also opposed to the policy change to let farmers draw groundwater are geologists from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Geological Survey of India (GSI). Even the state’s Public Health Engineering Department is upset.

Backing the government are the Water Resources Investigation and Development Department (WRIDD), the Planning Commission, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Co Ltd (WBSEDCL).

It all started in November 2011, just five months after the Trinamool Congress took power in West Bengal, ending 34 long years of Marxist rule.

The WRIDD amended a six-year-old law to let farmers in 301 of the total 338 blocks to install low-power electric water pumps and tube wells.

The farmers were permitted to get new electricity connections for a fixed fee (Rs.25,000-30,000), without having to pay for wires, poles and transformers.

S.K. Nath, a geology professor at IIT Kharagpur, is aghast. “You can’t take out groundwater rampantly,” Nath told IANS on telephone. “The water has to be used judiciously.

“Instead of relying on groundwater, Bengal should harvest rainwater. Look how Rajasthan has done it and brought about a green revolution.”

Aditi Mukherjee, an IWMI researcher in Delhi, disagrees.

“Concerns about groundwater over-exploitation is not only grossly exaggerated but also inaccurate,” she said.

“Any measure to prevent farmers from extracting groundwater is against the interest of both farmers and the state as it compromises their livelihood and makes the state food insecure.”

Nath argued that groundwater in Bengal was not getting replenished.

“This makes the soil weak. In an earthquake, the ground will subside since there will be no water left to take the tremor’s impact.”

Countering, Mukherjee told IANS: “Is an unknown, unquantified risk of earthquakes and land subsidence more severe than the known risk of pushing millions of farmers on a road to poverty and starvation?

“We have data to show that permits for new pumps were being rejected arbitrarily. Till date, of the 23,000 or so applications, only 8,000 were approved.

“Farmers who can’t get electricity connection use diesel pumps. Cost of irrigation skyrockets, making it impossible to grow summer paddy. So farmers grow vegetables,” said Mukherjee.

Nath and GSI scientist Taraknath Pal are against the free extraction of groundwater, saying it will contaminate water with arsenic and fluoride.

Even Public Health Engineering Minister Subrata Mukherjee has warned that the new rule can cause a major social problem.

In turn, Aditi Mukherjee cited the case of Bangladesh, which too is arsenic-prone and whose farmers have access to groundwater.

“In 1987, there was a boom in groundwater irrigation. Within 10 years, the country became self-sufficient in paddy production without any permanent decline in groundwater tables.”

WRIDD secretary Subrata Biswas told IANS that most farmers were happy over the new rule. But some have gone to court because they used to - and still - sell water to other farmers, and feel their business will be hit by the new rule.

The demand for electric pumps has already shot up. It will touch 250,000 from 170,000 by the end of this year, S.K. Chatterjee, chief engineer in WBSEDCL, told IANS.

(Sourabh Gupta can be contacted at sourabh.g@ians.in)

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