Punjab’s groundwater stress drowns in election noise

  • Groundwater levels and quality of drinking water are rapidly decreasing in Punjab.
  • If groundwater extraction continues at the current rate, Punjab will be a desert within the next 25 years, reports say.
  • The situation is stressing the agricultural sector of the agrarian state.
  • Mongabay-India reports on the situation of farmers in Punjab, where all 13 Parliament seats are going to the polls on May 19.

“It is easy to point fingers at farmers in Punjab for air pollution from stubble burning. But what about the pollution in rivers? Will people living in cities take responsibility for the rivers polluted by untreated sewage? Rivers are integral to agriculture, but nobody talks about their poor situation,” said a visibly exasperated Harpreet Singh, 52, a farmer in Faridkot area of Punjab, talking about the problems that the agriculture sector in Punjab is facing.

Farmers in the region have been receiving flak for contributing to air pollution with their agricultural techniques like stubble burning. On a visit to the primarily agrarian state, Mongabay-India found that for the farmers though, it is the pollution in the rivers and depleting groundwater table that is a cause of stress. “Punjab is no more the land of five rivers … the water table has gone down several notches but nobody is bothered,” said Singh, refusing to be photographed saying, he said he doesn’t want to invite any trouble.

Numerous reports over the past few years have highlighted that water, especially depleting groundwater, is an issue in Punjab, where the economy is heavily reliant on agriculture.

Recently, news reports highlighted a draft report of the Central Ground Water Board which noted that Punjab will be a desert within the next 25 years if the exploitation of its underground water resources continues at the current rate. The report said that at the current rate of extraction, all available groundwater resources in the state, till the depth of 300 metres, will end in 20-25 years and groundwater resources till the depth of 100 metres will end within the next decade.

Election campaigns not focussing on farmers’ water woes

The issue of water though is yet to find priority in the ongoing election campaigns, Mongabay-India found in conversation with several farmers, during its travels across several constituencies of Punjab,

Decreasing level of groundwater is an issue for farmers in Punjab. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/ Mongabay.

All the 13 Parliamentary constituencies of Punjab are going to the polls on May 19. Being a primarily agrarian state all the political parties in the fray are promising to solve farmers’ woes including water issues. But, given past experience, the farmers are sceptical and said none of the parties are serious about resolving the issues. They said the promises of the parties don’t last beyond the election campaigns.

Read more: Punjab farmers’ widows respond to apathy by standing in elections

Sirji, Green Revolution ne barbad kardita hai Punjab de kisanan nu (Sir, Green Revolution has destroyed the farmers of Punjab). To increase productivity, water and pesticides were used indiscriminately. Today the water level is going down every year by at least 10 feet,” said Nirmal Singh, a farmer in the Sangrur region of Punjab.

“Everyone encouraged us to use pesticides but no one told us how much. Today the groundwater is heavily contaminated. We consume that water which then leads to cancer – this has become a common feature across Punjab. When people who are suffering go to hospitals, there is no one to attend to them. Private healthcare is costly. We are doomed,” added Nirmal Singh while revealing that in some areas the groundwater level has already gone down to 250-300 feet.

However, a senior official of the Punjab government’s water supply department said that “It is not that no work is being done but the problem is that it is not enough and the issues are so huge and widespread that much more is required.”

Malwa region is the worst hit

The worst hit in Punjab, due to water woes is the Malwa region which includes areas like Ferozepur, Faridkot, Muktsar, Bathinda, Sangrur, and Mansa among others.

Farmers admit that excessive use of pesticides has also led to heavy pollution of groundwater which is threatening their health. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/ Mongabay.

In 2018, a study had said that groundwater in Punjab’s Malwa region is unfit for drinking and irrigation and it had even warned that children in the area are vulnerable to serious diseases. The study had also stressed that it found high levels of magnesium, fluorine, phosphates in the groundwater in many areas – for which one of the major reasons is the use of pesticides and fertilisers.    

Read more: India’s groundwater crisis, fueled by intense pumping, needs urgent management

The grouse of farmers here is that clean water for drinking and water for agriculture is not high on any political party’s agenda. “But what we end up with are the issues created by news channels. Who wants to talk about our real problems? Everyone is interested in just winning the election and then they will vanish,” said Kartar Singh, as he exited a rally in Bathinda of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

About 100 kilometres away, in Sangrur, people that had gathered to attend a roadshow of Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who was there to support Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate Bhagwant Mann, had similar views.

“Bhagwant Mann has done good work but he alone won’t be able to solve the problems of Punjab. The state needs urgent attention. Everyone needs to come together and sadly that is not going to happen,” said Lakhwinder Singh, who works in a private company and had stopped by to see the roadshow.

Lack of water stresses Punjab’s agriculture-based economy

Farmers across the state also expressed that a lack of groundwater and drinking water also means an additional burden on them. This could ultimately lead to the collapse of Punjab’s economy, which is highly dependent on agriculture. Over 95 percent (48,265 square kilometres) of Punjab’s total geographical area of Punjab is a rural area. Over 80 percent of the land is under cultivation and about 75 percent of its population of 27.7 million is involved in agriculture.  

“Every year, farmers like me spend hundreds of thousands of rupees on borewell for extracting groundwater. But we neither get timely returns nor a profit on our crops. This adds to the debt we already have,” said Karnal Singh, a farmer in Muktsar area of the Malwa region.

At some places in the Malwa region, farmers said that the groundwater level has already dropped to 250 feet. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/ Mongabay.

Former secretary of the Indian government’s Ministry of Water Resources Shashi Shekhar said that the realisation at the political and executive level about groundwater issue is highly inadequate. “If they had realised it then obviously the efforts should have been there to reverse the problem. It is like pushing the population to a dangerous level because the quantity of groundwater and its quality in states like Punjab and Haryana is already critical. The water levels are going down rapidly every year and at this rate, groundwater reserves will almost vanish in the next 12-15 years in both the states. And then the authorities will have to spend unimaginable amounts of money to tackle the problem,” Shekhar told Mongabay-India.

“The huge amount of pesticides used for agriculture in these states is being passed in the food chain. Basically, Punjab is sitting on a brink of a huge crisis. It is an emergency and time for measures,” he added.


Ahada C.P.S., & Suthar S. (2018). Groundwater nitrate contamination and associated human health risk assessment in southern districts of Punjab, India. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 25. Doi: 10.1007/s11356-018-2581-2.


Banner image: Though all political parties talk about it, farmers said water is not anyone’s priority right now. Photo by Mayank Aggarwal/ Mongabay.

Exit mobile version