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Water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka

Patrice Cohen
S. Janakarajan

Part II. Different issues of irrigation and social water management

3. Degraded Ground Water Regimes and Feckless Governance in South India: an Example of Competition, Conflicts and Crisis**

S. Janakarajan

Texte intégral

1The main motivation of this paper is to examine the potential of groundwater as a local water supply option for irrigation and to analyze conflicts which emerge in the process of its use. More specifically, its aim is to document the nature and the sources of conflict in groundwater use and their implications for the resource base as well as for different sections of society. This paper draws evidence from the studies carried out by the author in different river basins in the State of Tamil Nadu at different points of time.

2The organization of the paper is as follows. The first section explores the groundwater situation in South India. The second elaborates on conflicts in the use of groundwater within rural areas. And the third section enters into a discussion on conflicts arising between rural and urban areas. An analytical discussion and summary is presented in the final section.

The groundwater situation in South India

3The importance of groundwater irrigation in India needs no emphasis. At the time of independence, there were around 85,000 irrigation pump sets in India. This increased to about 14.50 million in the early 1990s. Roughly, around 60 % of the net area irrigated in India is through sub-surface water sources according to latest available statistics. The success of the high-yielding biochemical technology introduced in India in the mid-1960s is in a large measure attributed to the well irrigation. The high yielding varieties (HYV), unlike the traditional ones, require more assured and controlled application of water. Moreover, the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which is a precondition for the use of HYV, require the timely application of water. The conventional surface sources of irrigation such as canals and tanks are very often untimely and inadequate. Further-more, they cause a great deal of drainage problems. Therefore, as a natural means to overcome these problems, farmers have resorted to groundwater irrigation. What is more, the short-duration HYVs, tempted farmers to grow three crops in a year, for which the available surface water was grossly inadequate. Indeed, India’s self-sufficiency in food grains (the country was a net importer of food grains in the 1950s and 1960s) was to a great extent made possible by the HYV technology, which itself was feasible due to the expansion of the irrigation infrastructure, in particular groundwater. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that the massive growth of groundwater irrigation, coupled with the tremendous expansion of irrigated agriculture, has contributed to India’s food security and overall economic growth.

4Although the agricultural sector is the single largest user of groundwater, in the recent times, there have been competing demands for this resource. For instance, a large majority of Indian villages and towns are still dependent on groundwater for their drinking and other domestic purposes. The urbanization process, increasing demographic pressure and the expansion of industrial activity have all contributed to the growing competive demands for groundwater. This is more acute in a State such as Tamilnadu in South India, where almost all the available surface water sources have been utilized. Of the 1261 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of surface water annually available, about 1155 TMC, or 92 %, have been utilized for irrigation, municipal and industrial purposes (1050 for irrigation and 150 for drinking and industrial purposes). The competing demands between different users and uses have added enormous pressure to groundwater resources. Approximately 1.6 million wells extract an estimated 450 TMC of water annually in Tamilnadu. The cumulative effect of the unlimited extraction of groundwater has been progressive decline in the water table. This is, in particular, acute in low rainfall hard-rock regions, which constitute most of the arid and semi-arid zones of India such as Tamilnadu. In the particular case of this State, the unregulated pumping of groundwater has also contributed to the drying up of traditional surface water bodies such as tanks and springs.

5As competing demands for groundwater have increased over time, conflicts or conflicting interests have also emerged among various uses and user groups. The word ‘conflict’ in our present context need not be understood as refering to physical violence. It should be rather seen as a potential force for change. In particular, the conflicts should be set in a context in which most of the developing countries have been subject to a tremendous pressure due to a combination of many factors, such as economic liberalization and growing economic dependence upon dollarearning exports, the introduction of new bio-chemical technologies, eroding common property resources (like traditional surface water resources, common land, forest, etc.), demographic pressure, urban expansion and burgeoning consumerism.

6These conflicts may occur in the process of using a natural resource base between individual users within a rural community, between communities, between rural and intruding urban users, between different natural resource bases, and between user communities and state.

7In the particular context of groundwater resources, conflicts take place due to one critical factor, namely, scarcity. The scarcity in turn is caused by an imbalance between the supply and demand of water. To put it differently, groundwater, as a crucial productive and natural resource base, is under great threat for two fundamental reasons: first, due to excessive unregulated pumping, resulting in secular lowering of water table (in some cases, the damage due to depletion is irreversible) and second, due to groundwater pollution as a result of discharge of industrial effluents, the use of chemical inputs in agriculture which seeps into the ground as a natural process of the return flow of used water, and as result of domestic and municipal sewage. In all these cases, scarcity occurs. While in the case of the former, scarcity occurs due to over-extraction, in the latter, it is due to contamination. In both these cases, aquifers are damaged and in some cases, the damages are permanent.

8In the case of the former, the over-use occurs due to indiscriminate pumping both for direct agricultural use and for trading in water (for both agricultural and non-agricultural uses). This results in conflicting interests within rural areas which are reflected in (i) competitive deepening of wells (conflict between individual well owners), (ii) sub-division and fragmentation of wells along with land, resulting in competitive pumping and deepening even a single well (conflicts occurring between individuals over a well which jointly owned), (iii) association between widespread well irrigation and the drying up of surface water bodies such as springs, tanks and so on (conflict between different natural resource bases) and (iv) the differentiation of the farming community into those who have their own wells and those who do not (the consequence of which is the emergence of conflicts between water sellers (well owners) and water purchasers (non-owners). The main reason for the occurrence of conflicts in each one of these cases is the rise in the number of claimants to use this limited resource. In particular, in a scarcity environment, when well owners exercise their property rights over land and groundwater, one encounters an outburst of conflicts.

9The trading in groundwater occurs for non-agricultural uses also. The primary non-agricultural users are urban industrial owners and municipalities (to meet drinking water needs). In other words, the dreadful story of water crisis that is imminent in the countryside is not only due to the use or over-use of this precious resource for agricultural purposes, but enormous stress is added due to diversion of a good deal to urban industrial and domestic purposes. A high degree of urbanization, coupled with rapid industrialization induced by the policy of economic liberalization of the government of India, has increased the demand for water for industrial purposes many times over. Whatever quantity of water that is consumed for industrial processing is discharged as trade effluent in the open surface, streams, lakes/tanks and rivers, contributing thereby significantly to the pollution load of surface and groundwater bodies. Therefore, the transportation of potable groundwater from villages to urban industrial uses not only aggravates the already depleting groundwater table, but also contributes to permanent damage to groundwater due to the discharge of industrial effluents. All these, in turn, contribute to drinking water scarcity, health hazards, decline in soil quality, reduction in agricultural yield, a rise in the cost of living and so on. In addition, there has been manyencroachments by industrial owners on the villages as more and more agricultural lands are sold for industrial purposes. The irony of the fact is that the lands which are interior and which are still used as agricultural land are least demanded and fetch very low prices because of declined soil and groundwater quality, thanks to the damage caused by industries. On the other hand, those plots which are closer to the main roads and which have better groundwater quality fetch a disproportionately high price. These are the plots of land which have been demanded and bought by the industrial owners. In many cases, the industrial owners have bought plots of land specifically with the intention of installing deep bore wells – beating every other well owner in the vicinity by disproportionately raising the marginal cost of well digging or deepening – with a view to transporting water (this is the case in which conflicts occur between rural and urban intruding users). Furthermore, the indiscriminate pumping of groundwater from the rivers for industrial and drinking water needs (in particular from the Palar river) have resulted in the drying up of several hundred spring channels which originated from the river and which were yielding water until the last couple of decades (this is again a case in which conflict occurs between different natural resource bases).

10All these are logically consistent statements. But one wonders how this is related to our overall theme, ‘local water supply conditions and conservation options’. As indicated above, the available surface water bodies such as tanks, canals and springs were the potential local water supply options for a long time. However, these sources are defunct or in the process of decay. Moreover, the introduction of HYV technology by the state in the 1960s has induced farmers to explore sub-surface water as a potential alternative source of irrigation to cope with the demand for water. Therefore, groundwater has emerged as one of the possible local water supply options, more so after the 1960s. However, in the particular context of the Noyyal river basin, groundwater has been almost the only local water supply option. The canal irrigation introduced in some parts of this basin during the 1970s is not used due to the expansion of industrial activities.

11How to conceptualize such a dismal picture? To begin with, it is necessary to clarify three important points. First, although we are concerned with groundwater, we view this resource as integrated with surface water bodies. Second, we view water resources not as an isolated hydrological unit but as an integral and indispensable feature of a given economy / village society. And third, in order to capture the changing characteristics of the water regime, it is necessary to contextualize the study both over time and space.

12Water resources in any given economy may be studied in terms of three sub-systems: (a) natural sub-system, (b) user sub-system and (c) institutional sub-system.

13– Natural sub-system: The total water resource available in a given geographical region constitutes a natural sub-system, or what may represent the supply side of water resources. The supply side basically refers to all surface and groundwater bodies which perform a number of functions with differentiated values for a variety of users.

14– User sub-system: The user-sub-system represents basically demand side. The main user agents / sectors which demand water include user groups /sectors like agriculture, domestic and industries. Besides, future generations of users and ecosystems also have a legitimate claim on the natural sub-system.

15– Institutional sub-system: The institutional sub-system represents basically the government or its implementing and monitoring agencies, whose primary task is to keep a balance between supply and demand. The main responsibility of the institutional sub-system is to develop a water resource base, regulate its use, enforce laws wherever necessary and above all to maintain equilibrium between the first two sub-systems, namely, the natural sub-system and the user sub-system.

16The system would have smooth sailing so long as the supply does not fall short of demand. Even if demand exceeds supply, if the institutional sub-system operates scrupulously, equilibrium may be maintained between the natural sub-system and the user sub-system. Under these ideal circumstances, there is no ground for conflict. But this is only a knife-edged equilibrium where even a small disturbance is bound to result in conflict.

17The kind of a system, which we encounter, is known neither for any state of equilibrium nor is it marginally disturbed. In other words, the scenario that we confront is quite far from a state of equilibrium condition in which the institutional sub-system is ineffective and unproductive. The management of the natural sub-system is dominated by specific interest groups which exercise control through enormous economic and political power.

18The hierarchy of power is such that urban industrial owners dominate farmers, rich farmers dominate poorer ones and economic expansion dominates ecology. This is the context in which the present study is.

Conflict in the use of groundwater rural areas

19As in the case of any other property, the owner of a well claims (by virtue of the fact that he owns a piece of land) a bundle of rights to water, such as the freedom to enjoy exclusivity and transferability. These rights over land and groundwater – the two most important productive resources in agriculture – confer immense power on individuals. The direct consequence is that groundwater, which is supposed to be a common resource, can be accessed only by those who own land. In other words, the landless section of the agricultural population is excluded from using this resource. Even among the landowners, the ownership right to groundwater is restricted to only those who have locational advantage (in terms of groundwater availability) and to those who do not have any other resource constraints. Therefore, the resource-poor farmers are also excluded from directly using groundwater. Further, a large number of well owners are excluded from the process of deepening and counter-deepening of wells (this is a process in which a well owner and a group of well owners continually deepen their wells in a competitive spirit in response to their neighbour doing the same). Eventually, the successful ones who can sustain the race of competitive deepening are those who have happened to strike a good aquifer and those who have better access to resources. Indeed, the restricted access to this precious resource to an identifiable group of individuals itself is the result as well as the source of conflict in the use of groundwater.

20Conflicts in the use of groundwater are the reflection of ambiguous property rights enjoyed by well owners, resulting in (a) fragmentation of wells into different shares along with land and the emerging conflicts between different sharers of a same well, (b) competitive deepening of wells and the emerging conflict between well owners who share a common aquifer, (c) trading in groundwater and the emerging conflicts between water seller and water purchaser, and (d) unregulated pumping contributing to the drying up of surface water bodies.

Conflicts arising out of joint well ownership or well fragmentation

21As it has been indicated above, the property rights claimed over groundwater and the operation of the law of inheritance have perpetuated the problem of sub-division and fragmentation of wells into many shares along with land. The survey conducted in 27 villages of the Vaigai river basin (in South India) shows that on an average, about one-third of the total of 1 100 sample wells are jointly owned (Janakarajan, 1997).

22A meso-level survey carried out in the Noyyal and Palar river basins shows a very high incidence of joint well ownership. For instance, of the total number of 7 120 wells spread over 51 villages covered for the meso-level survey in the Palar basin, the percentage of jointly owned wells works out to 43.6 %. Similarly, in the Noyyal basin, of the total number of 14 358 wells spread over 41 villages covered for the meso-level survey, 53 % of them are jointly owned. Therefore, the phenomenon of joint well ownership or well fragmentation is a significant issue which deserves due attention. It is quite striking that the number of shares in a well varies from a minimum of 2 to as many as 29 in the Palar basin, and in the Noyyal basin, the number of shares varies from 2 to as many as 30.

23The occurrence of conflicts between sharers of a well is quite imminent and widespread. The practical difficulties involved in extracting water by a multiple number of sharers from a single well happens to be the most important source of conflict. The most general practice of joint well management seems to be to install a single pump set and run the motor in rotation for a fixed number of hours. The cost is shared equally among the sharers. A frequently encountered problem, however, is the lack of cooperation or non-cooperation among the share holders in sharing the costs as well as the available water / power supply. Unlike the case of the disintegration of the traditional tank irrigation communities, which is primarily due to the lack of motivation among the users for various reasons (Janakarajan 1993), the lack of cooperation in the joint well ownership is by and large due to financial constraints or a poor resource position. In such cases, those who have ‘not cooperated’ are excluded from the use of a pump set. Even if everyone agrees to share the initial costs of installation of a pump set, many disputes occur in using / sharing of water, thanks to the erratic power supply. Many of these disputes, though, settled by village panchayats (informal village courts), are not sustainable, as they crop up again in the next period of scarcity. The other way of using the water from a jointly owned well is the installation of an individual pump set (either electric or diesel operated) by each share holder in a same well. The joint well owners end up in serious difficulties with this method of sharing a well, as the available water is drained quite soon. The problem is inflamed when the share holders install high powered motors in a competitive manner with a view to extracting more water. The incidence of such disputes is very high if the cultivators of different castes share a well.

24In many of these cases, one of the sharers who has a better resource position, buys up the shares of the others. There have been instances in which poor farmers also sold their tiny parcels of land along with their shares in a well. In several cases, when shareholders have different land holding statues, and a sharer thinks that the potential benefit after deepening goes to the others, he flatly refuses to cooperate. Conflicts occur in such an environment which are once again referred to village panchayats. The often proposed solution by village panchayats is to divide a disputed well physically into as many shares as needed, leaving it to the individuals concerned to dig and deepen their delineated parts as and when required. Such fragmented wells are quite significant in number in all the villages surveyed. Although this is the widely adopted solution, it is turning out to be a dangerous one as it encourages competitive deepening in a single well and results in the emergence of wells within a dug well. Very soon, in such cases, the sharers whose resource positions are weak, find it difficult to survive. Eventually, the well is dominated by one among the sharers, who is endowed with better access to resources. On the other hand, the position of the resource-poor farmers is quite vulnerable, as they are excluded from the use of a well. There are also instances in which the wells were completely abandoned due to the prevalence of too many sharers, resulting in far too many disputes for any solution to be effective.

Conflicts between well owners

25The rapid expansion of groundwater irrigation has resulted in the steady decline of the water table in several parts of the country. It is cautioned that the pumping rates exceed the recharge and that the secular lowering of the water table has resulted in the mining of water (see for instance, Bhatia, 1992; Rao, 1993; Moench, 1992a, 1992b; Vaidyanathan, 1996; Janakarajan, 1997; Mosaic, 1999). Conflicting interests among well owners surface precisely in this context. Since the conflicts among well owners manifest in the progressive lowering of water table, it is necessary in the first instance, to ascertain the extent to which the groundwater table has declined over a period of time.

26A more appropriate way of ascertaining the secular lowering of the water table is to measure over a period of time the depth of wells, the depth to the water table and the volume of water extracted. But this kind of information is not available from any published source, nor can it be discovered through any survey. Therefore, an attempt was made by the present author in his study of several river basins in South India to get an idea as to the extent of decline in the water table. The methodology adopted was quite simple. Two important pieces of information were sought from each sample well owner, namely, (a) what was the depth of the well when it was originally dug? (which is referred to as the ‘original depth’) and (b) what was the depth of the well at the time of the survey? (which is referred to as the ‘current depth’). The difference between the ‘original depth’ and the ‘current depth’ for any given well may give an idea as to the extent to which the water table has declined over a period of time.

27Tables 3.1 and 3.2 illustrate this point for the Palar and the Noyyal river basins, respectively, in Tamilnadu. It is seen from these tables that in both the river basins, there exists a vast gap between the original and the current depths of the wells. For instance, in the Palar basin, 141 wells (or 59.5 % of the sample wells) reported <30 feet as their original depth (i.e., the depth of a well when it was first dug). But only 85 wells (or 36 %) were reported as having this as their current depth. In other words, 56 wells (or 24 % of the sample wells) which reported < 30 feet as their current depth had moved on to a greater depth range at the time of the survey. Similarly, only 6 wells (or 2.5 % of the sample wells) fell in the depth range of 61-80 feet as the original depth, but for the current depth, the number of wells reported at this depth range moved up to 29 (12.4 %). This difference between the original and the current depths is much more significant in the case of the Noyyal basin (Table 3.2).

Table 3.1. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current dept hs in the Palar Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**

Table 3.1. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current dept hs in the Palar Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**

** Information presented in this table is the summary data for 8 sample villages in the basin; it includes wells located both in the wet and dry lands.

Source: main survey 1998-99

28Further, if the depth of the vertical bores installed beneath the dug wells is included in this calculation, the scenario one gets is more drastic. For instance, the number of sample wells which fell in the highest depth range of 101+ feet at the original depth was 4 wells (or 1.6 % of the total number of sample wells) in the Palar basin and 10 wells (or 5.5 % of the total number of sample wells) in the Noyyal basin. But at the current depth, this number has dramatically moved up to 35 (14.3 % of the total) and 57 (31.5 % of the total) in the Palar and Noyyal basins, respectively. The original and current depths of the wells dug at different points of time indicate that newcomers have to invest in deeper wells than those which were dug, doe example, a decade ago. An analysis of this information indicates that there exists a clear cut competition and conflict in the digging and deepening of wells.

Table 3.2. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current depths in the Noyyal Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**

Table 3.2. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current depths in the Noyyal Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**

Note: **Informatbn presented in this table is the summary data for 4 sample villages in the basin.

Source: main survey 1998-99

The use of water-extracting mechanisms in the Noyyal river basin

29Unlike the Palar basin, groundwater is extracted from deep bores in the Noyyal basin, where the depth goes up to 1 200 feet in some parts of the basin. The yield of water in most of the bores is quite meager, which makes continuous pumping hard and very often virtually impossible. Therefore, to pump again, one has to allow for recuperation to take place. With a view to avoid this, farmers use the compressor technology which allows them to run their motors (which are fitted with compressors) even when there is a very low yield of water. In other words, what may be normally pumped with full supply in one hour, takes about six or seven hours. About 95 % of the bore wells in this basin are fitted with compressors. However, since the yield of water from the bores is quite low, farmers cannot use the water for irrigation or for sale directly from the bore well. Therefore, they adopt the technique of storing the pumped water either into a well or in a big concrete tank (the capacity of which goes up to 100 000 liters), which is again pumped either for irrigation or for sale, as the case may be. Please note that electricity consumption in these bore wells are double or even triple due to (a) the use of compressors to run the motors, (b) the running of the motors for abnormally longer hours to pump a meagre quantity of water and (c) pumping of the same water twice (once from the bore well and secondly from either an open well or a concrete tank where the pumped water is stored).

Implications of competitive deepening

30The underlying point, however, that needs to be emphasized in the present context is that the competitive deepening is an odd situation in which an aggrieved party, whose well has dried up due to the deepening activity of his neighbour, would not seek legal justice, as it is also common knowledge that the property rights in groundwater are ambiguous and indeterminate. This is a delicate situation which poses a heavy negative externality on the future users and adds tremendously to the costs on the current users (Janakarajan, 1997).

31Therefore, the most important implication of the competitive deepening of wells is the ever-increasing costs. The study of groundwater irrigation in the Vaigai basin in Tamilnadu carried out by the present author indicates that the amount spent per acre of (net) well-irrigated area works out to be much more than what has been spent to create one acre of surface irrigation potential through major and medium irrigation projects. According to the Report of the Eighth Plan, Government of India (1989), the amount spent per acre of irrigation potential created for the Seventh Plan (1985- 1990) works out to Rs. 32 400 per hectare, whereas the Vaigai basin data shows that it is of the order of Rs. 80 000, which is about two and a quarter times the amount spent to create one hectare of surface irrigation potential. Perhaps the cost would have been higher, if what was spent on the abandoned wells, the trial bores and so on were also included in the cost calculations. Eventually, all the investments that have gone into wells accumulate to pose a heavy burden on the community as a whole, as well as on an individual farmer, since these investments are often unproductive or irrecoverable.

32There is another perspective in which to view this problem. After all, well irrigation has become a gamble. Not all those who invest in wells are successful. Many fail and lose in the race of competitive deepening. They either sell their land or become caught up in the debt trap. The direct consequence is the emergence of a new dimension of inequality between those who have sustained themselves in the race of competitive deepening and those who have not. While the former have emerged as the potential water sellers, the latter are reduced to the status of water purchasers. It is, in fact, the clear case of those who are successful and those who are deprived and excluded (Janakarajan, 1997, Vaidyanathan, 1996). What follows are the conflicting interests that arise in the process of commercial transactions in groundwater.

Rural water markets: conflicts and contradictions

33The sale of groundwater in the rural areas has come to be a common phenomenon. Like joint well ownership, the emergence of a water market in rural areas is yet another spontaneous institution which facilitates an opening for sharing of this scarce resource. Its magnitude and terms and conditions vary from place to place, depending upon availability of groundwater, quality, soil conditions, and need or purpose for which the sale of water is effectuated. Further, the price paid for water is often dictated by the type of water supplier / seller. For instance, if the state plays the role of water seller, the price that the individual buyer would want to pay is far less or insignificant, in India, compared to what is paid to a private seller. Thus the Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water reports: “At present, the actual gross receipts per hectare of area irrigated by major and medium projects is barely 2 per cent of the estimated gross output per hectare of irrigated area...” (Planning Commission Government of India, 1992). On the other hand, farmers pay up to one-third of their gross produce, or up to Rs. 40 per houre, towards water when supplied by a private well owner (Janakarajan, 1992, and 1997). Moreover, the private water seller pays very little or nothing by way of electricity tariff used for operating agricultural pump sets, in Tamilnadu. A subsidy on water or electricity or, for that matter, any other service or good should be motivated, targeted and be sufficiently justified. But in the Indian case, the subsidies are neither motivated nor targeted nor is any attempt made to justify them. Most of these measures are inspired by the myopic policy of competitive populism. For example, in principle, water tariffs should be charged not only to the extent of recovering costs (both fixed and recurring / maintenance), but should also aim to encourage water conservation. But in the Indian context, the water tariffs charged do not even cover annual maintenance costs, not to mention the zero recovery towards fixed costs. Further, the prevailing water tariff system does not provide any incentive for water conservation. In the process, a few are able to corner benefits and get access to more water, while many suffer without even a pot full of safe drinking water. Therefore, the present situation is neither efficient nor equitable nor sustainable.

34The exclusion of a majority section of the agricultural population from having access to their own well irrigation and the clear polarization in the resource position of water sellers and water purchasers are the principle sources of conflict between these two agents. The Vaigai basin study indicates that a little more than three-fourths of the water purchasers are poor farmers whose holding size is less than one hectare. Another study carried out in the Palar basin indicates that the extent of inequality in the distribution of land across all cultivators (excluding the landless population) was quite high, as reflected in a Gini coefficient of concentration of O.88. What is interestingm is that the Gini coefficients calculated separately for the water purchasers and the water sellers are relatively small, at 0.34 and 0.40. These figures indicate that the ‘between-group’ component of inequality (viz., between water sellers and water purchasers) is far greater than the ‘within-group’ component (Janakarajan, 1992). Moreover, a vast majority of the water purchasers belong to the socially deprived castes. In fact, the Scheduled Castes, the most deprived in the social hierarchy, constitute 27.3 % of the water purchasers (Janakarajan, 1997). Therefore, it is understandable that the agents involved in the water deals are sharply polarized socially as well as economically with unequal bargaining capacity.

35Let me discuss briefly the manifestations of the conflicts between these agents. There are two forms in which conflicts unveil. First is the prevalence of an informal rule that a water purchaser should purchase water only from a nearest well owner. However, if a concerned well owner agrees, water can be purchased from the next nearest well owner. This rule is enforced, basically with a view to avoid conflicts, which may otherwise arise, as water may have to pass through the field channels of others. There are instances of conflicts between water sellers and water purchasers due to the violation of this rule (Janakarajan, 1992). Even if all those concerned agree, the distant water seller would insist that the water purchaser should have a hose pipe of the necessary length, with a view to conserving water from seepage. A water purchaser, however, is reluctant since there is no guarantee that a water seller will sell water regularly (Janakarajan, 1997).

  • 1 This is in conformity with what Ruth Meinzen-Dick, in her study of groundwater markets in Pakistan (...)

36Second, the unequal trading relationship results in the exploitation of the weaker agent, not only through the mechanism of price (paid for water purchased), but through several non-price measures. One of the most usual non-price mechanisms used by the water sellers is to exploit unpaid or under-paid labour services of water purchasers. The water purchasers cannot refuse as they are constrained by the retaliatory act of the cessation of water supply in the middle of a crop season by the water sellers. In several cases, as we found in our survey in the Vaigai basin, the payments for water were required to be made through labour compensation and in several other cases through output (grains). In the process, the water market becomes interlocked with other agrarian markets such as labour, credit and products (Janakarajan, 1992 and 1997)1. Moreover, there are instances in which the water purchasers were forced to lease-out their parcels of land in favour of the water sellers, at the terms dictated by the latter. This is nothing but the case of reverse tenancy in which a leasee is seemingly more powerful than a leaser. Such cases have been recorded in the villages surveyed in the Palar river basin (Janakarajan, 1992 and 1996).

37Although instances of open conflicts between such aggrieved peasants / water purchasers and water sellers are sporadic and infrequent, by and large, the former are quite resentful towards the latter, a fact which they express while narrating the water supply conditions. Moreover, as has been observed in some villages, water sellers are in collusion in fixing the price for water, which again annoys water purchasers (Folke and Steen, 1996; Janakarajan, 1992).

38However, the incidence of water sale for agricultural purposes, seems to have declined significantly in recent times. While in the Noyyal river basin, water sale for agriculture never took place, in the Palar basin, the water market was a flourishing business until last decade, as explained in the previous paragraphs. In the last decade or so, there has been a significant drop in the extent of water sale, primarily for two reasons: first, the progressive decline in the groundwater table has made even one’s own cultivation difficult, leaving no surplus water for sale; second, a high level of groundwater pollution caused by the discharge of effluents from tanneries and other chemical industries has restricted water supply conditions, and thus also agricultural activities, quite significantly. We shall discuss this aspect in greater detail in a later section. However, what is relevant in this section is to under score the manner in which water market operations are hampered, leaving aside, therefore, the larger and important issue, namely, to what extent the water market is a solution to the conditions of groundwater scarcity.

Conflicst in the use of surface and groundwater

39Conflict in the use of surface and groundwater is yet another important dimension of the problem. The pumping of groundwater in prohibited areas (such as in riverbeds or in their vicinity) results either in the drying up of surface water bodies, or results in reduced flow downstream, or both. A survey of 27 tanks / villages in the Palar anicut system shows that in 22 of them, spring channels have stopped supplying water (Janakarajan, 1993). These spring channels, which originate from the Palar river, used to supply water for about 6 to 8 months each year. These were considered to be one of the important traditional sources of surface irrigation in this region. At present, most of them are either heavily silted or encroached upon by farmers. In another study carried out in 51 villages of the same river basin (Janakarajan ongoing), spring channels existed until the last couple of decades. The total area under wet lands in all the 51 selected villages is 6 191 hectares, of which 82 % was supposed to receive irrigation from these springs. At present, all these springs have dried up and stopped yielding water. Intensive pumping of groundwater around the clock all along the riverbed upstream by tanneries, as well as agricultural pump sets, have been attributed as the primary reasons for the drying up of these springs.

40The most glaring illustration, however, is the enormous pumping of groundwater in tank commands which has contributed to the neglect of the institution of tank irrigation. Evidently, since wells located in the tank commands are quite sign ificant in number and since these wells derive most of their supplies through seepage from tanks, the tank is losing its place as an important source of irrigation. (Vaidyanathan and Janakarajan, 1989). The rapid spread of well irrigation, accompanied by large-scale rural electrification and the introduction of high-yielding bio chemical technology, has contributed to a great measure to the rise of conflicting interests in the use of ground and surface water. Since the high-yielding varieties required more assured, controlled and timely application of water and since the available tank water was inadequate to raise three short-duration-HYV-crops, the growth of well irrigation in tank commands, became inevitable. The traditional irrigation institution was found to be defunct in 6 out of the 17 tanks studied in the Palar anicut system. These were also the tank commands in which well density was quite high. In one of the tanks, the tank sluices were kept closed permanently with a view to facilitating the recharge in the wells located in the tank commands. In the rest of the tanks, on the contrary, the traditional irrigation system was reasonably unimpaired, but these were also the tank commands in which the well density was very low (Vaidyanathan and Janakarajan, 1989; Janakarajan, 1993). A similar result was obtained in a large-scale study, undertaken in the Tamilnadu Agricultural University (Palanisamy, Balasubramanian and Mohamed Ali 1996). The close association between a high well density and the disintegration of the tank system also conformits to several other village studies carried out in Tamilnadu (Harriss, 1982, Chinnappa, Nanjamma, 1977; Janakarajan, 1996).

41In fact, Lindberg (1996) shows in his paper how individual rationality conflicts with collective rationality, which eventually results in the erosion of common property resources. An individual rationalizes his di sassociation from the collective action of tank / canal maintenance and resorts to indiscriminate pumping of groundwater, resulting in the progressive lowering of the water table. The government’s policy of supplying free electricity for agricultural needs has aggravated this problem. The net result is general environmental degradation in which not only has the water table progressively declined, but the wells are not adequately recharged because of the drying up of surface water bodies such as tanks.

42Most affected in this changing environment are small peasants who do not have access to their own well irrigation. This category of the peasant community is although resentful, helpless, as they are reduced to the status of dependents on big farmers / water sellers for their irrigation needs. The net result is further polarization of the already differentiated peasant society.

Conflicts arising out of industrial and urban water needs

43Conflicting interests between rural and urban water needs emerge for two main reasons: one, due to the rapid urbanization and ever-increasing urban water needs for industrial and domestic purposes and two, due to environmental damages to water bodies precipitated by industries through the discharge of their effluents into open surfaces, streams or into rivers. Let me elaborate on these two issues in the following pages.

Conflicts due to increasing urban water needs

44Tamilnadu ranks second in terms of the degree of urbanization in India, but stands first according to the composite index, calculated by including both the important features of urbanization, such as town density, and the degree of urbanization. While loo king across the districts in the state, it turns out that in many districts, the degree of urbanization is much greater than what is reported for India, which was 23 % in 1981, as well as for the third world countries as a whole, which was 31 % in 1980. For instance, Chennai and Chengalpattu districts report 68 %, followed by Coimbatore (51 %), Madurai (36 %), Tirunelveli (35 %), Salem (29 %), Ramanathapuram (28 %), Tiruch (26 %), North Arcot, Thanjavur and Periyar (23 %). And, the state average works out to 33 % (Rukmani 1993). The rapid urbanization process, coupled with speedy industrialization, added enormous pressure on the basic needs of towns, the most important of which is water.

45In the last decade or so, many industrial and commercial establishments (including five-star hospitals and hotels) in the urban areas have been drawing huge amounts of groundwater, either through their own deep bore wells or by purchasing water. Notable among the cities and towns in the state which depend upon the pumping of water from their rural neighbourhood are Chennai, the Coimbatore – Tiruppur – Erode corridor (constituting the erstwhile undivided Coimbatore district), and Karur (in Karur district) and Dindigul (in Dindigul district). The sale of groundwater has been quite extensive in these areas. Perhaps the largest consuming town is Tiruppur in Coimbatore district, which has earned a place in the industrial map of the sub-continent as one of the large foreign exchange earners due to heavy concentration of the knit-wear industry. There are about 752 dyeing and bleaching units functioning in this town, the operations of which heavily depend on good water. In the absence of any other source, these units have been transporting groundwater from the rural areas by truck-tankers. Out of 93 million litres of water used per day (mld) in this town, the private water supply (water sale) alone contributes to about 60 mld, or 64 %. The water is transported by truck-tankers from several villages of up to a 30 km radius around Tiruppur. A rough estimate puts the number of truck-tankers which transport water to the town at 900 to 1000, of which about 90 % are owned by the industry owners (as stated by an union leader from Tiruppur). While it is not news to learn that in several villages, a large number of farmers have resorted to selling water to the industries at Tiruppur, it is certainly astounding that the Tamilnadu Electricity Board has authorized 230 agricultural wells in this region (for the selling of water) by issuing them separate service connections.

46There are about 30 worst affected revenue villages around the town due to depletion of groundwater. Wet crop or garden crop cultivation in these villages has become history. The major crops that were grown in these villages were coconut, banana and turmeric. In the last 10 to 15 years, agricultural wells have become dry and people are finding it hard even to meet their drinking water needs. There are quite a few deep bore-wells which are owned by the industry owners and a few are owned by the local farmers but financed by the industry owners. When the problem became unsustainable, local people started agitating and made representations to the revenue authorities in groups. Finally, an agreement was signed in front of a revenue divisional officer, in June 1997, that no new deep bore-wells would be sunk and that groundwater would be transported to the town only from a few selected wells. But the industry owners are reported to have violated this agreement within a month. Similar agitations by the farmers of affected villages are reported in many other areas, in particular, Pongalur, Palladam, Sultanpet, Avinashi, Muthanampalayam, Nallur, Veerapandi, Mudalipalayam, Murugampalayam etc. On several occasions in the year 1997, revenue officials had to intervene to reach a compromise between the water sellers and the farmers. What is most striking is the participation of women in the agitation on a large scale, as they had to struggle hard even to get drinking water for their routine household needs.

47As a matter of fact, the extreme scarcity in many parts of the Noyyal basin has resulted in the sale of water even for drinking purposes at Rs.2 to 3 per pot, since most of the wells in this area are either dried up, or those wells which have water are making money by selling water to Tiruppur. Farmers, individually and collectively, have sent many memoranda to the concerned district collectors and to the ministers, urging them to ban the sale of water from the agricultural wells to the towns. Since all their representations yielded no positive result, outraged farmers, in particular women, have kept the water trucks under captivity in several villages.

48In other words, conflict is virtually taking place between rural people and the urban industrial users. Several farmers’ organizations expressed the fear that the widespread sale of groundwater to the urban consumers has caused distress in agriculture, manifestations of which are seen in the increase in rural unemployment, reduction in yield, large-scale migration from rural to urban areas, shift towards non-farm employment, and so forth. In fact, the farmers’ shift to urban employment, such as in the knit-wear industry, road construction, petty business, etc., is essentially distress induced non-farm employment.

  • 2 Metropolitan Chennai, which boasts of having a good metropolitan water network, depends quite heavi (...)
  • 3 A detailed investigation in the Noyyal river basin by Blomqvist (1996) reveals that the water level (...)

49Although we do not have statistical evidence for the other cities and towns2, it is common knowledge that their substantial water needs are met through the extensive pumping of groundwater from their rural neighbourhood. Although what is consumed in a town for domestic and industrial purposes is relatively little in terms of the total water availability in a given region and in relation to what is used for irrigation purposes, the water that is pumped and transported to the urban areas is of a better quality, compared to what is used for irrigation purposes. Therefore, there is high concentration of pumping of water from selected villages where the quality of water is relatively better. As a result, the people living in these villages, in particular farmers, have become more sensitive to the depleting groundwater conditions3.

Conflicts arising due to environmental damages

50Environmental damages to water bodies, in particular groundwater, by industries is indeed a serious issue which poses enormous concern to the policy makers as well as to the general public. Some of those industries which discharge their effluent in the open surface or into the rivers / streams, there by polluting groundwater as well as surface water bodies are tanneries, textile dyeing units, viscose, paper pulp, sugar, sago and oil refineries, fertilizer units, chemical industries and so on. In particular, contamination of groundwater has been reported to have occurred in several river basins of the state where tanneries and dyeing and bleaching units are concentrated, such as in the Palar, Noyyal, Amaravathy, Bhavani, Kalingarayan and Kodaganar. A corridor from Chennai – Pallavaram, Visharam, Walaja, Ranipet, Arcot, Vellore, Ambur, Peranampet and Vaniyambadi (a stretch of about 150 km in the Palar basin), Dindugul, Karur, Erode and Tiruppur and its neighbourhood are some of the worst-affected towns of the state .

51As most of these industries are highly water intensive in nature, they are concentrated along the river courses, not only with a view to get better access to water (both surface and groundwater), but also to make use of the rivers and streams for discharging their trade effluents. The most important among the rivers which are very badly affected in the state due to the discharge of industrial effluents are (a) Bhavani in Coimbatore district, where viscose, ryon, paper pulp, sugar, distilleries, etc., pollute both surface and groundwater, (b) Kalingarayan canal in Erode district, where tanneries and dyeing units pollute an age-old canal system and groundwater, (c) Noyyal in Tiruppur (of Coimbatore district), and (d) Amaravathy in Karur district, both of which are getting poisoned due to the high concentration of dyeing and bleaching units, (e) Kodaganar in Dindugul district, (f) Palar in Vellore district, which are dyeing due to the long history of the leather tanning industry in these regions. Of these, Bhavani, Kalingarayan canal, Noyyal, Amaravathy and Kodaganar are quite contiguous and fall within the large Cauvery basin.

Bhavani river basin

52The Bhavani river, the mainstay of a part of Coimbatore and most of Erode districts, is getting over-polluted with an enormous amount of chemicals and heavy metals. The most water consuming and polluting industry called South India Viscose (SIV), one of the premier viscose manufacturing industries in India, was started in the early 1960s, upstream in the river. This industry meets 70 % and 40 % of South India’s staple fibre and filament yarn requirements, respectively, and produces 180 tons of wood pulp per day. The latest available information indicates that the industry consumes on an average 40 million litres of water per day and discharges almost a comparable quantity of water, contributing quite significantly to the pollution of the river water, both surface and sub-surface (Appasamy, 1994). The Farmers’ Associations and The Bhavani River Environment Committee express the apprehension that the water stored in the Bhavani Sagar Dam, which is located 10 miles below SIV, is already polluted with chemicals and heavy metals, and claim that the area irrigated by the dam water is slowly but steadily losing its fertility and that the irrigation water also contributes to the salinity of groundwater in this area. A study conducted by the Stanley Associates Engineering Ltd., for the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board in 1994, reveals that SIV generates a large quantity of effluents with many chemicals and heavy metals. According to this study, even the treated effluent is very dark brown in colour and has a very strong sulphurous odour. The study concludes: “The large discharge volumes, the colour and odour form a potential threat for the water quality of the Bhavani river” (p. 1.63, Vol. III, Stanley Report, 1994). The Madras High Court, quite recently, ordered the industry (SIV) to stop letting effluent into the river – treated or untreated: the Court found this industry guilty of polluting the river for over three decades. The industry had to shut down its plants after the Court Order. Nevertheless, when SIV offered to use the ‘treated effluent water’ to irrigate its own farm, the Court allowed it. Therefore, the water that is ‘stored or irrigated’ continues to contaminate ground water. This is, perhaps, the limit up to which the judiciary could go.

Kalingarayan Canal

53Similarly, around 80 small and large tanneries are located along the 600 year old Kalingarayan Canal (near Erode town) which together generate about 5000 m3 / day of effluent contributing to the pollution load of this age old canal. The Kalingarayan Canal Farmers’ Association has expressed apprehension that the effluents discharged by the tanneries has polluted the surface as well as groundwater resulting in yield reduction. Besides tanneries, about 250 to 300 small and medium dyeing and bleaching units are located in this basin, most of which are concentrated in Erode and its neighbourhood. These dyeing and bleaching units are discharging their effluents on the road and open surfaces which together form a stream only to join the Canal.

The Noyyal river basin

54The growth of the hosiery industry in Tiruppur has been exceptional. The number of knitting mills in the town has gone up from 22, in 1941, to 2800, in 1991. The town had hardly any dyeing and bleaching units in the 1940s; but according to the latest information provided by the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board (1996), there are 752 dyeing and bleaching units in operation in the town. Apart from these, several unregistered units are reported to be operating, about which no reliable information is available. The direct export value of hosiery products from Tiruppur has gone up from Rs. 190 million (US$ 5 million), in 1985, to about Rs. 20,000 million (US$ 530 million) in 1996. Tiruppur contributed 11.2 % and 21 % of the total value of knitwear exports and quantity in millions of pieces, respectively, from India in 1984. In 1996, Tiruppur’s share had gone up to 42 % and 49.3 %, respectively, of India’s total exports in value and quantity. As a consequence, the population of the town has grown quite sharply from 80 000, in 1961, to a little less than 200,000, in 1991.

55One of the important processes in the making of knitwear products is dyeing and bleaching. This particular process not only consumes an enormous quantity of water, but almost the same quantity of water is discharged as effluent. The major part of the effluent is discharged into the Noyyal river and to a significant extent in other small streams, such as the Nallar and Jamunai rivers. The available evidence confirms that the effluents discharged by these units are quite hazardous and cause serious health problems. This is evident from the type and the extent of chemicals used in the bleaching and dyeing process. In the process of dyeing and bleaching, the chemicals used for a 100 kilograms of clothes are, wetting oil (100 %) 500 g, caustic soda 4 kg, hypern 750 grams, sodium peroxide 4 kg, hydrochloric acid 8 kg, soda ash 15 kg, acetic acid 3 kg, common salt 10 kg and petroleum oil 2 kg. This particular process is heavily water consuming and requires 40 000 litres. On an average, a dyeing unit can process 20 tons of cloth per month or about 700 kg per day, consuming about 8 million litres of water per month or 280 000 litres of water per day (Palanichamy and Palanisami, 1994). The estimated water requirements of the bleaching and dyeing units in Tiruppur is about 94 million litres per day (mld), of which about 60 % is met by groundwater as transported by the tank trucks from the rural neighbourhood. What is really disturbing is the fact that a comparable quantity of water is let out as effluent in the Noyyal river and other streams, which has already caused permanent damage to the river, top soil and most important of all, to the groundwater. Even before 30 years, the local textile operators have confirmed that groundwater is contaminated around the areas where dyeing and bleaching units discharge their effluents. In the absence of any perennial source of surface water, the villages around Tiruppur depend entirely upon groundwater for agriculture. As goundwater is contaminated, agriculture seems to have been abandoned as the key occupation in many villages (Stanley Report, Vol. II).

56The Government Order (G. O No.213,1) dated 30-3-1989 prohibits the establishment of any polluting industry at a distance of 1 km adjacent to the rivers. This Government Order has been subsequently amended to the effect that 1 km norm has been extended to 3 km. The Noyyal is one of the notified rivers in the Government Order. The Tiruppur Dyers’ Association wanted exemption from this Government Order, since, according to their claim, the Noyyal river is dry and whatever water flows in the river is not used for irrigation. On the other hand, the government of Tamilnadu constructed a dam across this river (called Orathapalayam dam) in the year 1992, about 10 km below Tiruppur, with a view to providing irrigation for 8 000 hectares. The dam’s catchment area is 2 245 km2, which includes most of the area in which the dyeing and bleaching units are located. The construction of this dam has turned out to be a mockery and has resulted in the waste of public resources. As it so happens, water that is stored in the dam is much more than the actual flow in the river. This is simply because a large quantity of water (about 92 mld/day) consumed by the Tiruppur dyeing and bleaching units is conveniently let into the Noyyal river (in the form of untreated trade effluents), contributing thereby to the ‘additional storage level’ of the dam. Thus, the dam effectively performs the role of a storage reservoir for the contaminated water, contributing quite significantly to the pollution of environment, in particular, groundwater. Unless 20,000 cusecs of water is released into the Cauvery river (a major river which the Noyyal joins downstream), the release of water from the Orathapalayam dam would be extremely harmful to the crops, soil, animals and groundwater. However, in February 1997, when there was no appreciable flow in the Cauvery river, the water from the Orathapalayam dam was released with a view to minimizing the damage to the villages around the dam. Since the dam was opened without any prior public notice, it resulted in great havoc to crops, animals, soil and groundwater. This polluted water of the Noyyal river joined the Cauvery 32 km below the Orathapalayam dam. It is reported that several hundred animals collapsed after drinking this water. A few petitions were filed in the High Court protesting against the decision of the government to release the polluted water and claimed compensation for the damages. The Tamilnadu government realized the danger and decided to release 20,000 cusecs of water from the Mettur dam even though it was a scarcity period, basically to clear the polluted water in the Cauvery.

  • 4 Jacks et al., (1994) write, "Downstream of Tiruppur at Orathapalayam, there is a newly constructed (...)

57Further, in all the villages along the river course from Tiruppur to the dam at Orathapalayam, a distance of about of 10 km., and in the villages along a distance of about 20 km of the rivers downstream below the dam, groundwater and agriculture have been seriously affected. Blomqvist’s (1996) field visits confirm that the groundwater on both sides of the Noyyal river has become brackish and considerably harder in the last 10-15 years. It is reported that the water quality remains bad, even at a depth of 300 ft, rendering it unfit even for irrigation4.

58A study undertaken by Thomas Jacob (1996) on the impact of industries on the groundwater quality in Tiruppur shows clearly the extent of damage caused to the groundwater in this area. He measured the quality of groundwater through a series of chemical tests. Several reports have appeared in the local newspapers about people walking for miles to get a pot of drinking water in this region. The negative effects of the environmental degradation due to the indiscriminate discharge of the trade effluents into the river has begun to affect the industry owners as well, as reported by many dyers in the town (Blomqvist, 1996).

Amaravathi river basin

59Like the Noyyal, the Amaravathi river and its basin area is also becoming polluted due to the mushrooming growth of textile dyeing and bleaching units (about 600) situated along this river in Karur. Like Tiruppur, Karur is also an important, dollar-earning, textile exporting town. The number of dyeing and bleaching units in the town has gone up by over six times in the last 15 years; town, which had hardly 100 units in operation in 1985, is now incredibly busy with more than 600 units, besides several unlicensed ones. Dyers in this area reported that the massive increase in the number of units is only one reason for the pollution caused to the surface and groundwater. The other reason is reported to be the change in the demand pattern from the foreign buyers, which required a different composition of chemicals and dyeing process. The earlier dyeing process used naptha-based chemicals, while the new process is said to be a ‘reactive type’. The latter type of processing requires 10 times more water, which also means that that much pollution load is added to the already polluted environment of the Karur and the Amaravathi river basins. This is probably also true of the dyeing and bleaching units located in Tiruppur. However, the damage caused to the groundwater in the Amaravathi basin is less compared to the Noyyal basin. Moreover, unlike the Tiruppur dyers, most of those in Karur and its suburbs manage their water requirement from their own wells located within their premises. A majority of these units are located along both sides of the riverbed or its branch canal called Thirumanilayur Canal, ever a length of 17 km. This area is reported to be quite rich in potable groundwater resource. However, since the entire industrial effluent is discharged into the river or the branch canal or the storm water drains or in the open surface, which eventually join the river Amaravathy, farmers in this region and the Cauvery River Protection Council express apprehension that both groundwater and surface water are quite heavily polluted.

60One of the highly polluted villages in the region is Tnanthonimalai, where groundwater has become completely useless. Therefore, on behalf of this village population, the Consumer Protection Council filed a case against the dyers and bleachers in the High Court (green bench). After the hearing, the High Court issued a notice to all the polluters through the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board to close down all the units with immediate effect. They could open their units only if they were to have access either to their own treatment plant or a joint one. Thus, 600 units were kept closed since November 1997. Subsequently, the High Court constituted a committee comprising a team of lawyers. An in situ inquiry with regard to the progress made in the construction of the treatment plants was conducted. Meanwhile, on 21 January 1998, the workers engaged in the textile industry went on a massive procession and picketed the district Collector’s office demanding the re-opening of these units. Around the same time the expert inquiry committee constituted by the Court submitted its findings and recommendations. According the committee, the dyeing units could not install their treatment plants due to lack finance and this problem is aggravated due to the closure of these units. Moreover, the committee felt that the closure of the dyeing and bleaching units in Karur had affected the economy of the town very badly. Therefore, the committee recommended that these units be allowed to function, but should be given a deadline of six months to install either their own treatment plant or to get access to a common effluent treatment plant (CETP). The Court recommended that, since only 434 of the closed units had undertaken to install a CETP, they may be allowed to reopen, but should complete the process of CETP functioning within three months. But, since several of the dyeing and bleaching units are small and operate with a very small capital, it is quite unlikely that they would install either their own or get access to a CETP within the deadline prescribed by the Court. Further, the mere construction of the CETPs does not ensure that the effluent will be treated according to the prescribed standards. Therefore, even with the intervention of the judiciary nothing much could be achieved. The polluters continue their operation, but with a structure raised (CETP) under the compulsion of the Court.

The Palar river basin

61The worst affected area, however, is the Palar basin, where a large number of tanneries are concentrated along both sides of the river, from Ranipet to Vaniyambadi on the Chennai – Bangalore national highway, a stretch of about 100 km. All these industries are located along the Palar river and dispose of their effluents directly into lakes, irrigation tanks, streams and into the Palar river. Moreover, the solid wastes like lime, hair, leather bits, etc., heaped near the tanneries are slowly washed away by rain water and are collected in the various surface water bodies. There are 1 589 tanneries located across various parts of the country, with the highest concentration of 833 in the Tamilnadu alone. The number of tanneries located in the Palar basin accounts for more than a half of the total number of tanneries in the state.

62Various production processes involved in leather tanning consume a good deal of water. The kind of chemicals used in the tanning process are common salt, wetting agents, lime, sodium sulphide, ammonium chloride or sulphate, enzymatic products, sulphuric acid, sodium carbonate, dyes and sulphonated vegetable oils. About 45 litres of waste water is discharged per kilogramme of semi-finished hide. The major pollutants in tannery effluents are alkaline effluent, lime, dissolved salts, sulphide, chromium and organic matter from hides and treatment agents.

63There have been quite a few independent reports or studies concerning the impact of tannery effluents on groundwater, soils etc, Narayana Murthy (1987), who works for a voluntary organization, has probed into the issue of groundwater pollution in the Palar basin. While the tanning industry in this region has registered an impressive growth over the past four decades, the quality of life has been progressively on the decline. The number of tanneries has gone up from 108, in the 1960s, to 240, in 1975, in Vaniyambadi taluk alone. During the same period, land rendered unfit for use has gone up from 240 hectares to 6 400 hectares. The number of polluted wells increased from 48 to 520 in 1975; by 1984, it had risen to 10,000, spread over 200 villages in this region. It has resulted in decreased agricultural yield, severe scarcity of drinking water, and in several villages farmers stopped their cultivation (Narayana Murthy 1987). Most important of all is the serious health problem caused due to the contaminated groundwater. The incidence of cholera, skin ailment and gastroenteritis are some of the most common health problems found in this area. Narayana Murthy writes: “The biological oxygen demand (BOD) level in the polluted water has already crossed 20,000 mg per litre, when the safe limit for drinking water is 3 mg per litre” (p. 97).

64A groundwater quality sample test conducted at various points in this region by the Tamilnadu Water Supply and Drainage Board, in 1983, and quoted in Narayana Murthy (1987) shows a high level of total dissolved solids (TDS). While the desirable level of TDS in groundwater is 500 mg per litre and the one recommended by the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board has been 2 100 mg per litre for the industrial effluent (Thomson, Jacob, 1996), as early as in 1983, the TWAD Board found that TDS level was ranging from 3 710 to 5 350 mg per litre in the Ambur and Vaniyambadi regions. Since then, the TDS level in this area must have reached quite an alarming proportion. It was reported that the effect of contamination was observed up to a distance of 8 km from the outfall of the tannery effluents. A more recent study carried out by the Water Resources Organization, Government of Tamilnadu, shows that the untreated effluents discharged by the tanneries in the Palar river and in the open surface for the past three decades or so have quite seriously affected the groundwater quality (Rajarathinam and Santhanam 1996). The study concludes that in 10 out of 12 sample locations, heavy metals like copper, zinc, chromium, iron and manganese were detected in the groundwater. The total dissolved solids (TDS) level was quite significant and the value ranges from 4 905 to 10 172 mg/l in most of the sample locations. The chloride values exceeded the normal prescribed limit in all the locations. The PH value ranges from 7.8 to 8.9, indicating that the groundwater is more alkaline. Most important of all is the presence of chromium.

65A detailed study undertaken by the Soil Survey and Land Use Organization of Government of Tamilnadu (Teekaraman G. and Faroogue Ahamed, 1982 and 1990) examined the impact of the tannery effluents on the region. This study brings out the shocking information that the disposal pattern of tannery effluents is quite far from what has been prescribed by the Pollution Control Board. In the first place, the tanneries should discharge their effluents only after adequate treatment. But the 1982 study found that hardly any tannery treated their effluent. They stored their effluents (which tanneries continue to do even now) in earthen lagoons (and some of them were lined) in order that the effluents would evaporate through solar power. However, the study discovered that the number and the capacity of these lagoons were not proportionate to the quantity of the effluents generated by the tanneries. To quote, "… it is a common sight to see overflowing lagoons and the waste getting drained into the nearby fields. There are also large-scale breaches in the lagoons and the effluents seep and flow to stagnate later in the fields. Quite a large number of tanneries dispose of their effluent directly into lakes and tanks which in turn contaminates the water in the lakes and surrounding wells. Many tanneries in this region let off their effluent directly into the Palar river, contaminating the potable water also" Teekaraman et al., 1982: 15). This study was repeated in 1990, only to find no change in the disposal pattern of the effluents and to notice further damage to soils and surface and groundwaters.

66In order to assess the effect of tannery effluents on the groundwater in the Vellore district, the Central Pollution Control Board conducted a study of groundwater samples collected from 12 locations from 12 regions during the year 1994 (Central Pollution Control Board, 1995). The sample tests from agricultural wells from 12 villages indicate, besides other pollutants, the presence of heavy metals like chromium, copper, zinc, iron and manganese. In particular, the high presence of chromium in 10 out of 12 sample wells indicates that the contamination of the groundwater is primarily due to tannery effluents.

67The ongoing study by the present author in the basin confirms drastic changes in the crop pattern in many villages. The shift has been from water – intensive paddy crops to coconut on the hope it would tolerate the chemical content. But the water contamination caused by tannery effluents is so damaging that there have been reports of complete crop failure in many of the villages surveyed in this basin.

68Therefore, environmental damage caused to the water bodies, and groundwater in particular, is not just occurring in one or two places; rather, damage caused to water bodies is severe and widespread in the state.

Responses of the civil society

69There have been mixed responses from the people in the affected regions. On the one hand, some sections feel that since these industries generate a good deal of employment both directly and indirectly, taking an extreme view of the matter might result in misery. A large majority, however, express their anguish and resentment over the damage caused to the environment such as groundwater depletion and pollution, land degradation, decline in agricultural productivity, and so on. Responses to these effects by the affected population have been spontaneous and are reflected in the processions, demonstrations, the picketing of government offices, hunger strikes and even physically impounding movements of the water-trucks. What strikes one more is the participation of large number women in all these protest demonstrations. On the other hand, the political parties in the state show very little interest in mobilizing masses against the polluters, for the latter are not only powerful, but have proved to be a useful financial source for their political activities. Also, since most of them have their support bases among the workers employed in these industries, they are more interested in organizing wage struggles through labour unions than organizing them on environmental issues.

70Nevertheless, many NGOs are active in these affected regions creating awareness among the people, representing their cases to the authorities, representing them in the court of law, assessing the damage caused to the environment and to the individuals and so on. In fact, the cases filed by individuals and supported by the NGOs have led to the closure of polluting industries like the tanneries and the dyeing and bleaching units in various parts of the state. On the whole, the pressure exerted on the government by the people, NGOs and the courts has been enormous. Quite recently, serious letters from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests have been sent to the chairmen of all State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), directing them to get tough with the tannery units which have not installed chrome recovery plants and effluent treatment plants. Further, the SPCBs were advised to initiate strict legal action against all defaulting tannery units (The Hindu July 2000).

  • 5 It was only after the intervention of the Madras High Court, in March 1997, that the dyeing and ble (...)

71Nevertheless, whatever measures the government take could only be through the State Pollution Control Boards. But the Board, which is supposed to be an empowered agency to control and monitor pollution, does not go beyond issuing reminders, guidelines or, at the most, initiating legal action5. In other words, the Board’s role as a pollution controlling agency is far from being effective. The ineffectiveness of the Board could be traced to the ambiguous government policies: On the one hand, the government has been quite blind in its export promotion in which their only motivation is to earn dollars. On the other hand, it tries to legislate and introduce pollution control measures a rather in half-hearted manner. Further, more the state finds it difficult to face the threat of the closure of these industrial units, as that would mean not only loss of foreign exchange to the state’s exchequer, but it would also mean millions of industrial labourers losing their jobs. Therefore, the state resorts to measures like heavy subsidies for the installation of treatment plants; for installing a common effluent treatment plant (CETP), only 50 % of the cost has to be borne by the respective units and the remaining 50 % is shared by the respective state governments and the central government equally. The industrial units get a further compensation of 30 % funding from foreign institutional investors and, in effect, only 20 % of the total installation cost of the CETP is required to be spent by an unit. Even this much is not forthcoming from the industrial units. (The Hindu, 1 July, 2000). Therefore, the government is in a deep dilemma and does not seem to have any long-term policy to handle the current dead-locked situation.

Summary and policy suggestions

72This paper probes into the nature of conflicts over the use of groundwater and provides insights into the forces which limit the effectiveness of efforts to seek remedies. First, within rural areas, conflicts occur between different users, essentially because of the restricted access to this important productive resource. We have also seen that the conflicts reflect upon the ambiguous property rights involved in groundwater.

73Conflicts occur within rural areas for many reasons, (a) As land gets fragmented, wells also gets fragmented into as many shares, posing serious managerial problems. Eventually, such disputed wells either remain in disuse or purchased by a sharer who has better access to resources, (b) Conflicting interests among well owners surface essentially because of excessive extraction over recharge. As a consequence, wells are deepened in a competitive manner and this eventually results in a few persons emerging successfully with adequate groundwater, while a large majority are deprived of their access to groundwater, (c) In the process of trading in groundwater, several conflicts occur between agents involved in the trade, namely, water sellers and water purchasers. Basically, the divergence in the resource position, as well as the unequal trading relationship between these two agents, cause enormous friction, (d) Conflict in the use of surface and groundwater is imminent, in particular tank commands. The aftermath of unregulated pumping in the tank commands and near the riverbeds has resulted in the drying up of tanks and spring channels which were once serving the purpose of the principal sources of irrigation. Many studies confirm the rapid growth of wells in the tank commands as one of the principal reasons for the disintegration of the traditional tank systems.

74On the other hand, there are at least two reasons for which conflicts between rural and urban areas occur in the use of groundwater, (a) An enormous quantity of groundwater is transported from rural to urban areas in order to meet the increasing municipal / industrial water needs, resulting in a decline in agricultural activities, as well as groundwater depletion (b) Environmental damages are caused to groundwater as a consequence of untreated trade effluents discharged into the water bodies or in the open surface. All these have significantly contributed to farmers unrest.

Where do we go from here?

75Appropriate legal measures and political will are the need of the hour in order to protect and regulate this precious but eroding resource, (a) The first and foremost legal measure could be to explore the possibility of disassociating the connection between land and groundwater. Furthermore, it is high time that the legal experts make an attempt to define the property rights in groundwater, which at present is so ambiguous, causing a great deal dilemma for policy makers and all those concerned. (b) Some legal coverage is necessary to regulate the sale water in rural areas, for both agricultural and non-agricultural purposes. It may even be useful to consider the possibility of banning the sale of water from agricultural wells for industrial uses, (c) Water extraction, beyond a critical depth when it is not any more rechargeable may be prohibited in the best interest of the society, (d) The official policy regarding the supply of free electricity for agricultural purposes needs rethinking. An uniform electricity tariff law for agricultural purposes should be evolved for all the states, essentially to curb the wastage and misappropriation of subsidies on power as well as to discourage the attitude of political parties which resort to ‘competitive populism’ (in subsidizing electricity and eventually supplying it completely free) with a view to capturing the vote bank at the cost of the exchequer (MIDS 1988, Lindberg 1996, Janakarajan forthcoming).

76And finally, appropriate legal cover is necessary to extract from those who are responsible for polluting the general environment and groundwater in particular. It is imperative because the damage caused, for instance, by the tanneries and the dyeing and bleaching industries is permanent, causing a severe negative externality on the future generation. Since the social cost involved is enormous, they cannot simply escape by erecting a treatment plant (which very often is not functional). In Tiruppur, for instance, many dyeing and bleaching units have started erecting the treatment plants quite reluctantly only after the court order, and that too after they themselves were personally affected due to groundwater pollution. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to device a legal measure in order to enforce what is called the “Polluter Pays Principle”, not only to internalize the cost of externalities caused to others, but also to recover the cost of permanent damage already caused to the environment.

77Nevertheless, we have seen in this paper that the judiciary could not go beyond a limit and that polluters continue to pollute and over-use groundwater. Moreover, for some, the policies and legislation imposed by the government may appear to be rather inadequate and partial, and may even perceived as adverse. Therefore, such policies and legislation will be effectively opposed by some sections. But this does not mean that legislation (to protect and regulate the use natural resources like water) is pointless or dispensable. Legislation is absolutely necessary, for not only does it enable and strengthen a civil society in its fight against the degradation of ecology and environment, it also confirms certain democratic values. At the same time, to rely only on legal remedies will turn out to be a futile exercise as we have seen in this paper. Under these circumstances, what may be as useful tool to apply is stakeholders analysis. The idea of stakeholders analysis is to identify various stakeholders of natural resources, say for instance water, their varying degrees of stake, their resource position, their different sets of objectives and interests. This may help to conduct a series of dialogues among various stakeholders, to improve the effectiveness of policies, to thrash out challenges posed by certain specific interest groups, to build confidence, commonalities and complementarities and eventually to enter into possibilities for cooperation and joint sustainable use. This may sound a bit utopian but a series of stakeholders meetings / forums, after considerable dialogue and conflict, may eventually turn out to be a people’s movement. Such strong movements, when backed up by a legal apparatus, might achieve some degree of success towards sustainable use of natural resources.



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1 This is in conformity with what Ruth Meinzen-Dick, in her study of groundwater markets in Pakistan has observed. She found that the water purchasers enter into informal contracts with water sellers as a part of the water deals, such as share cropping for water, havin g the water purchasers bring fuel wood and so on (Meinzen-Dick 1996).

2 Metropolitan Chennai, which boasts of having a good metropolitan water network, depends quite heavily on transported water from its rural neighbourhood. There are no precise estimates available on the extent of water sold / transported into the city, but during the current year, accordingly our estimate, there are at least 1000 tanker-trucks involved in water transport / sale every day. With each truck operating at least five times per day, the total water transported per day works out to 60 million liters.

3 A detailed investigation in the Noyyal river basin by Blomqvist (1996) reveals that the water levels have fallen due to extensive pumping by industrialists and that shallow wells have dried up resulting in the scarcity of water supply even for domestic purposes.

4 Jacks et al., (1994) write, "Downstream of Tiruppur at Orathapalayam, there is a newly constructed dam, aimed at arresting flash floods and utilizing them for irrigation. The water in the dam was brackish (7000 mg/l TDS) and had a SAR (Sodium Absorption Ratio) in between that found in the effluent and that in the groundwater in Tiruppur town indicating a mixing of effluent from the textile industries discharged directly into Noyyal and groundwater from Tiruppur town” (p. 5). In another place they write, "Downstream of Tiruppur, however, the salinity was excessive definitively rendering the water unsuitable for almost any purpose” (p. 4). The present author’s field visits in this region confirm that the villages on both sides of the Noyyal river below the Orathapalayam dam are quite badly affected due to the contaminated groundwater and people find it exacting even to meet their drinking water requirements.

5 It was only after the intervention of the Madras High Court, in March 1997, that the dyeing and bleaching units in Tiruppur took up the issue of erecting treatment plants seriously. The report submitted by the Pollution Control Board to the Madras High Court in June 1997, stated that many units had not taken steps to erect treatment plants and were running them without the consent of the Board. The report stated that only 31 had fully completed the work. While most others (of about 700 units) have just started the work, 44 of them have not even begun the work. The Madras High Court, on 23 June 1997, ordered the immediate closure of these 44 units and in respect of 708 others (which were in various stages of erecting the treatment plants), the Court granted four months time to complete the work (The Hindu, 24 June 1997).

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 3.1. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current dept hs in the Palar Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**
Légende ** Information presented in this table is the summary data for 8 sample villages in the basin; it includes wells located both in the wet and dry lands.
Crédits Source: main survey 1998-99
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Titre Table 3.2. Depth-wise distribution of sample wells as per their original and current depths in the Noyyal Basin (excluding the depth of the vertical bores)**
Légende Note: **Informatbn presented in this table is the summary data for 4 sample villages in the basin.
Crédits Source: main survey 1998-99
Fichier image/jpeg, 40k

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