Progression of the Artificial Recharge Movement

The spread of the artificial recharge movement in India (ARMI) can be broadly classified under three phases: the first relates to the period before the Green Revolution when limited exploitation of groundwater was taking place, i.e. before 1960; the second is the period between 1960 and 1990 in which intense groundwater exploitation took place, leading to signs of overexploitation;

and the third is the period from 1990 to date when water scarcity became increasingly severe, and groundwater level decline became alarming in many pockets of the country.

In the first phase, which extended from early historic times until approximately 1960, traditional water-harvesting methods were given impetus through unorganized yet spontaneous movement by the local communities aided by kings and benevolent persons to meet the local requirement at times of crisis. During this period, there was very little knowledge-based input from the government or other organizations to provide assistance for understanding and systematically putting into practice artificial recharging. Instead, local communities used their intimate knowledge of terrain, topography and hydrogeology of their areas to construct and operate successful artificial recharge structures, some of which have managed to survive even today. In this phase, there was little application of science related to artificial recharging; most work was based on local knowledge and perceived wisdom. Very little understanding existed about the consequences of, and the knowledge required for, artificial recharging of underground aquifers.

The second phase, from 1960 to 1990, coincides with the period of large-scale extraction of groundwater that resulted in many aquifer systems showing signs of overexploitation, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. During this phase, curriculum relating to hydrogeology and groundwater engineering was introduced in many universities in India and the science of groundwater hydrology was better understood. Both the public and government had started realizing the importance of recharging aquifers to arrest groundwater decline and maintain groundwater levels. As a consequence, pilot studies of artificial recharge of aquifers were carried out by a number of agencies including central and state groundwater boards, water supply and drainage boards, research institutes such as National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), agricultural and other academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

During this period, various pilot studies were carried out and technical feasibility of artificial recharging and recovery of recharged water were established. Two important events with respect to artificial recharge also took place that are of relevance to the movement today. One is the synthesis of research and development works (Mission WatSan, 1997) carried out in India in artificial recharging by a team of experts under the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM), constituted by the Ministry of Rural Areas and Development, Government of India, New Delhi. The second is the effort provided by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to bring out technical guidelines and specifications for artificial recharging. These have given impetus for further experimentation on artificial recharging.

In the third current phase, from 1990 to the present, water scarcity, continuous droughts in certain pockets of India and continuously declining groundwater levels in many parts of India have led both the public and government to become more aware of artificial recharge and to take it up on a war footing. Four major events that have taken place during this period are especially significant to the movement. One is the spontaneous uprising and cooperation from the public supported by religious leaders, philanthropists and committed individuals to take up artificial recharging through dug and bore wells, check dams and percolation ponds and, later - with the government joining hands with the local community - in implementing such schemes on a mass scale (Shah, 1998). The second is the action taken by state governments such as Tamil Nadu in promulgating the groundwater regulation acts pertaining to metropolitan areas and ordering the communities to implement rainwater-harvesting schemes and artificial recharging on a compulsory basis. The third event relates to awareness created among the public by NGOs such as the CSE and Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), and media exposure to the importance of artificial recharging.

The fourth event is the recently increasing trend of large-scale abstraction of induced recharge witnessed in many gravity irrigation systems in states like Tamil Nadu. With increasing water scarcity in many irrigation systems and availability of large-scale pumping machinery at affordable prices and subsidized power, many enterprising farmers have turned to wells near storage reservoirs, and on the sides of canals and riverine courses to create induced recharge in their own wells. The induced recharge water is transported through pipelines sometimes many kilometres away from the pumping site to irrigate non-command areas of orchards and other high-value crops, often using drip and sprinkler irrigation. This practice of pumping-induced recharge water outside the command area has had a very negative effect in managing large irrigation systems due to the siphoning of a considerable quantity of water to areas not originally included in the command. This is more so in years of inadequate water supplies to reservoirs as well as in drought years. This is a spontaneous movement, which is spreading like wildfire; if it is not controlled and regulated, many surface irrigation systems will see their death in the very near future (Neelakantan, 2003).

Revered Shri Panduranga Shastri Athavale of the 'Swadhyay Parivar' has introduced a movement in Gujarat called 'Nirmal Neer' (clean water) with an aim to provide drinking water and support irrigation through effective rainwater harvesting. Under his inspiration, schemes such as recharging of wells and tube wells, diverting rainwater into the existing ponds as well as construction and maintenance of check dams and ponds have been taken up by the villagers. During 1995, in Saurashtra region alone, people have adopted the recharging of wells scheme in 98,000 wells (Parthasarathi and Patel, 1997). The massive adoption of the scheme explicitly indicates the awareness of conservation and better utilization of rainwater.

Another interesting and innovative initiative by Rajendra singh of TBS has revolutionized the mass movement of the people of Alwar district in the semiarid Rajasthan state and built bridges of cooperation and solidarity among them. A group of young individuals from TBS took it upon their shoulders, with people's participation and contribution, to rejuvenate defunct johads and construct new ones in the Aravari catchment at the foothills of the Shivalik hill ranges of Alwar district. Johads are ancient water-harvesting structures, constructed by the people, to store rainwater for multiple uses and to recharge groundwater.

Many johads have come up on the tributary streams of the Aravari catchment in the last decade, raising water level in the wells and facilitating irrigation on the cultivated lands. The dead, dry watercourses of the Aravari, which had flowing water only during rainy days in the monsoon months, came alive for the full year. Today, there are more than 200 johads in the catchment of Aravari. The successful water harvesting and recharging of groundwater in the upstream of the river followed by scores of johads along the main river had transformed the once ephemeral stream into a perennial river. These and other similar movements that are instrumental in achieving productive benefits locally have given rise to many such initiatives in other parts of India.

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