Himanshu Kulkarni

Data has to be collected through a participatory mechanism. And if stakeholders are involved, especially the urban local body, developing granular data on urban groundwater is not difficult, shares Himanshu Kulkarni, Former Executive Director, ACWADAM, and Member of the National Water Policy Drafting Panel in an exclusive interview with NIUA.

India is heavily dependent on groundwater, yet our practices are not sustainable. It’s literally like we are biting the hands that feed us. In your view, what are those two to three things that we must fix on a priority basis?

What is interesting is that India has a long legacy of groundwater use. If we look at some of the old archaeological sites, like Lothal, and Dholavira in Gujarat, there is evidence of groundwater usage from as far back as 4000 – 4500 years.

If we actually look at what has happened in the last 50 to 100 years, it’s again a unique proposition because no other country in the world has gone from an almost rain-fed and largely river- dependent user to significantly high groundwater usage. So much so that India is the largest user of groundwater in the world today and we extract almost 25 per cent of the total global annual groundwater extraction.

To cut a long story short, the two or three things that come to mind would be to promote the concept of what is called ‘sharing and caring’. Because unless we come together, unless people participate, unless we pool all our resources and unless the billions of stakeholders who are involved in groundwater usage in some way or the other, unless these people are involved consciously, I think there’s no solution ahead.

The participation of stakeholders in developing a groundwater management and governance process is of utmost importance.

The second point is that any policies that we make on groundwater, any policies that we make on the water in general, must include the participation of stakeholders as an integral component.

It’s also important to bring in elements of science that will facilitate both of these – something on the practice side and something on the policy side. At last, the demystification of transdisciplinary science is the third aspect that I would bring to the table.

Somehow, whenever there is talk of integrated water resources management or IWRM in Indian policy, groundwater does not feature very prominently. The focus is a bit skewed toward surface water, with an emphasis on river basin management, and river basin organisations. Groundwater aquifers do not necessarily follow river basin boundaries. How can this imbalance be addressed?

This is an important question, but it’s a difficult question to answer fundamentally because groundwater is an invisible resource and therefore, it’s out of sight, out of mind, and it doesn’t become everyone’s business.

Very often, people who use groundwater don’t necessarily know that they’re using groundwater.

The policy has again remained adrift of giving the importance that was due for all this time because consciously the policy was making efforts to promote surface water sources, to promote large dams, to promote canals, which is fine and I think was necessary.

But what earlier policies forgot is the spaces in which groundwater figures as an important resource, either as a standalone resource or as a resource that is significantly supplementary and complementary to surface water resources.


I think it’s important to bring groundwater into the limelight of policy and highlight what it basically entails.

It entails bringing groundwater into the domain of cooperative management because unless there is cooperation, we won’t be able to address the question of groundwater competition. Linked to groundwater competition are questions of access, questions of sources, questions of distribution of groundwater, equitable distribution of groundwater and improved efficiencies in water supply, and additionally, perhaps the most difficult but most important aspect of water management, which is demand management.

I think all of this is important to bring groundwater into the limelight of policy by not calling it out as a separate resource when we compare it to surface water. Both are integrated, and because they both are integrated in very complex ways, both must be accorded equal importance.

Groundwater is typically a state subject. But 55 per cent of the water in our cities comes from groundwater. What kind of institutional arrangements can be created at a city level to ensure judicious management of groundwater?

Before we come to the cities, let me put some metrics in front of you.

In the rural water sector, anywhere between 90-95 per cent is for agricultural water use. The share of groundwater in agriculture today is as high as 70 per cent. Industrial use, we don’t know, but my guess is 50 per cent of water use in industries comes from groundwater and perhaps urban use is a little more than 50 per cent. So, how do we mainstream groundwater in urban water management? That to me is the big question.

First, I think there is a great need to take up large-scale sensitisation and awareness programs on groundwater in the towns and cities of India. Second, there is also a need to bring in citizens’ participation in monitoring, measuring, and understanding urban aquifers.
Again, it makes it a very participatory exercise. There is also a need for the government and for policymakers to invest specifically in developing an understanding of urban groundwater, urban aquifers, urban groundwater usage, and urban recharge, where India is concerned.


I think it’s not happening at the scale that it should in India and as a part of any urban water management effort or any urban development effort, we must bring in groundwater as an important and integral element of the so-called city, the so-called idea of smart towns and cities in India.

There are a lot of ideas. We have been working on some of these ideas in ten cities with the help of NIUA and supported by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, along with urban local bodies in the ten cities, and civil society organisations in each city. And I think this form of collaboration and partnership must be scaled up if we have to address the question of groundwater in urban India.

A primary reason for the mismanagement (or lack of management) of groundwater in urban areas is the non- availability of granular data for decision-making. How can cities overcome this challenge indigenously without having to depend upon parastatals or external agencies?

Data has to be collected through a participatory mechanism. And if stakeholders are involved, especially the urban local body, developing granular data on urban groundwater is not difficult. In Pune, we have done it and put it completely outside the mandate of the urban local body or any government agency for that matter. It has been an entirely participatory process where urban local bodies have also helped us get some information. We have gone to many NGOs. Citizens have come forward to help out with data collection and although there have been many challenges, I think we’ve done a fairly decent job of granular data in Pune.

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There are various ways and means this can be taken ahead, but like you rightly said, it becomes necessary because it’s only good granular data that can lead to a decision support system at the local to regional levels or at the local to regional scales and beginning with data collection of high granularity today becomes an important aspect of this entire vision of managing and governing urban aquifers in India.

There is a growing notion that cities must start using treated used water to recharge aquifers. What are your views on this? Are there any pitfalls associated with this?

I think when we talk of recharging aquifers, we must carefully look at the internationally accepted concept of Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR). It is a comprehensive concept that looks not just at pushing water into the ground, but viewing recharge as a critical option, whether it is through fresh water, through rainwater, river water, or whether it’s through any harvested water, or whether it’s with treated used water.


Having said that, particularly with treated used water, it’s important for us to be very careful. Because you don’t want even 1 per cent margin of error in terms of what is the input water. If the input water is not good enough, even if there is some semblance of contamination in your water, we don’t know what’s going to happen to that contaminated portion of used water when it enters the aquifer. Because when it enters the aquifer, it’s completely out of our hands, and it’s going to be governed by the hydrogeological features of the aquifer.

How far will it go?

How deep will the contamination plume go?

How much will it spread or how long will it remain?

These are questions that might become a nightmare if we are not careful about the quality of used water pushed into aquifers.


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