Big worry

FIFTH COLUMN

By Nitya Nanda
  • Published 22.06.18
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The theme of World Environment Day, celebrated on June 5, was plastic pollution. While this is a major global environment concern, there are several other local issues that need immediate attention. In West Bengal, this is the groundwater crisis. According to the state Pollution Control Board, in more than half of the blocks of Bengal, the water level is falling by 20 centimetres a year on average. In tandem, arsenic and fluoride contamination is also increasing. In rural areas, drinking water supply is largely dependent on non-electrified tube wells. Many such tube wells have already failed, while many of them are yielding contaminated water, creating a drinking water crisis. The falling water table has also led to the drying up of many water bodies, with a serious impact on local flora, fauna and the ecology.

However, such trends are not coming to the fore just now. Bengal implemented a groundwater regulation law in 2006. Under the law, operations of electrified tube wells were regulated. But it gave preference to existing tube wells, and getting new tube wells was extremely difficult. This, as a result, created water lords who could dictate terms to the small farmers who depended on the existing tube wells. Regularizing the latter and granting new tube wells were often done arbitrarily. Local politics played a role in the process. More important, the government did not come up with any coping mechanisms for the farmers, who now had less water available for their farming activities. While the government also started metering the power supply to farmers, the flat rates charged on unmetered tube wells were also raised substantially. These created discontent among the farming community.

The new government that came to power in 2011 realized the discontent, and wanted to relax the regulation law, if not remove it altogether. The work of a young researcher at a reputed foreign university came in handy, even though several experienced local researchers advised against the move. The young researcher argued that if water-scarce Gujarat could afford to have so many tube wells, a water-abundant state like Bengal could have many more, ignoring the fact that Gujarat cultivates relatively less water-intensive crops compared to a highly water-intensive crop like paddy grown in Bengal. The concern for arsenic pollution was brushed aside. While the exact chemical process that leads to arsenic contamination in groundwater was still not completely understood, the fact that higher groundwater withdrawal leads to higher arsenic contamination was statistically established. Nevertheless, caution was not exercised. Falling groundwater levels can seriously damage the water bodies that are an important part of Bengal's ecology and generate additional income for the local community.

Metering all the electrified tube wells rather than raising the flat rates is required. In fact, higher flat rates can lead to farmers wasting more water. But metering alone cannot reduce water consumption if farmers do not have alternatives, and they continue to grow paddy. It will reduce wastage but farmers will not move to less water-intensive crops.

While farmers may often be reluctant to go for a new crop, what they dread most is the inability to sell what they grow, especially if the crops are perishable. They are willing to diversify, as dependence on one or two crops makes them vulnerable, but they do not know how to start. Marketing is difficult if just a few farmers grow a crop.

The government has to map the demand pattern of different crops in the state. Matching the demand, individual blocks could be assigned a particular product, and some assurance of minimum procurement could be given. Alongside, local entrepreneurs could be given support to establish plants to process and package the locally-grown crop. This will not only address the groundwater challenges but also improve the conditions of the farmers. Such an approach has worked well in Japan, Thailand and Malaysia. There is no reason why this should not work in Bengal.