Atal Bhujal Yojana is a prime example of India's water stewardship

Atal Bhujal Yojana is a prime example of India's water stewardship

India's water stewardship is increasingly crucial in the face of a warming world and escalating water stress. From unpredictable rainfall patterns resulting in floods and droughts to increasing sea levels, the impacts of climate change on water resources are massive. The country has implemented a multifaceted approach to water management, with a particular emphasis on groundwater, as it is the largest user of it globally. Groundwater fulfils 62 per cent of the country's irrigation demand and supplies nearly 85 per cent of the drinking water in rural areas and 50 per cent in urban areas. However, sustainable use and management of groundwater have been tricky in India given that its ownership is attached to land rights and policy of energy subsidies, leading to its unregulated withdrawal. One existing flagship scheme that's making invisible groundwater visible by engaging communities for better decision-making is the Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABY).

The Council on Energy, Environment and Water's (CEEW) recent study focuses on how the scheme plays out in Rajasthan. We chose this state because of its highly variable climate and groundwater overexploitation, which has resulted in increased water stress. The representatives of the village water and sanitation committee (VWSC) in 17 gram panchayats that were surveyed in eight districts confirmed that the intensity and duration of rainfall have become erratic, and groundwater levels have dwindled in the past 20-30 years. Owing to this, irrigation water availability has decreased in 10 out of 17 surveyed gram panchayats.

To better address these issues, ABY puts communities at the heart of governing groundwater. The government of India launched the INR 6,000 crore scheme in 2019 to improve the groundwater scenario in 203 over-exploited blocks (now 229) in water-stressed areas of seven states of India. We look at it as an example of India's water stewardship.

Ensuring water action and leveraging citizen science

Sustainable use of water can only be ensured when data flows from the ground regularly. The Atal Bhujal Yojana is among the largest participatory groundwater management programmes in the world. Its core financial structure incentivises community participation and convergence at all levels of governance. The release of funds through the disbursement-linked indicators (meeting targets of the scheme) is also unique enabling maximum implementation at gram panchayat levels. Additionally, the scheme actively promotes optimising water-use efficiency through various demand-side interventions, including the adoption of drip, sprinkler, and pipeline irrigation. CEEW's study found that in 15 surveyed gram panchayats across Rajasthan, about 24,481 hectares of additional area can be covered under efficient water use by 2024-25.

At the heart of this movement to judiciously use India's water resources are communities. ABY makes this possible through three key interventions.

First, generating micro-level data. The scheme prioritises the installation and usage of rain gauges, piezometers, and water quality testing kits at the gram panchayat level for groundwater monitoring and quality assessment, which it then integrates with technologies like hydrological modelling and real-time data systems. As of March 2024, all 1,139 gram panchayats of Rajasthan have rain gauges and testing kits. Further, 88 per cent of surveyed gram panchayats were aware of rain gauges, while approximately 70 per cent knew about using the testing kits. This kind of granular data collection can better inform actions, localise them and go to the root of the problem. However, there is a scope for improving data collection through proper installation of monitoring systems in places that are accessible to the community.

Second, leveraging the power of citizen science. Involving community members in data collection using the installed equipment is a key aspect of the scheme. For instance, community-driven groundwater management has shown promising results in Dhoti village of Rajasthan's Kota district. A locally empanelled officer along with active residents monitors and displays groundwater level data at the panchayat office, with women and farmers demonstrating considerable awareness of groundwater quality and levels. This data is essential for preparing village's water security plans. However, there is scope for further strengthening local capacities to ensure that the exercise continues even after the completion of the scheme.

Third, ensuring accountability and inclusivity. The scheme emphasises accountability through various measures – empanelment of civil society experts on agriculture, hydrology, sociology, and gender as district implementing partners, mandating data sharing in the public domain, mandating 33 per cent representation of women in VWSCs, and third-party verification of results. While these efforts have fostered accountability across different levels and areas, challenges such as member retention and the hiring process for district implementation partners require attention.

Way Forward

As India faces increasing water scarcity, there is a potential to scale the Atal Bhujal Yojana to about 68 per cent of water-stressed blocks in India, most of which are located in south-Indian states and Punjab. It is imperative that in the upcoming Budget session, the implementation of this scheme be extended to cover these regions. Further, the granular data gained from this can inform other national policies. For example, India's Jal Jeevan Mission, one of the world's largest drinking water supply programmes, and the National Green Hydrogen Mission, which aims to make India the global hub for the production, usage, and export of green hydrogen, both depend on groundwater for meeting their needs. Schemes such as these will now have access to granular real-time data on groundwater availability for their sustainable use.

This offers lessons for other schemes in India and for developing nations in the Global South that aim to make their water governance more participatory in a rapidly heating world.

Aditya Vikram Jain is a Research Analyst and Ekansha Khanduja is a Programme Associate at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). Views are personal.

Moneycontrol journalists were not involved in the creation of the article.

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