Disappearing lakes and depleting groundwater: the plight of Jharkhand

Four decades back, Jharkhand was drained by many rivers and lakes. Recent reports show the poor performance of the state in water management. The lakes that once adorned the state are slowly disappearing and the water table is critically falling due to colossal extraction

Jharkhand is a region with highly uneven land situations with successive plateaus, hills and valleys, drained by several large rivers such as Damodar, Subarnarekha, Barakar, Brahmani, and Baitarani. The vast stretches of forests add to its beauty which catch the eyes of all.

Rich in ores and minerals, the state itself contributes about 10% of the total fossil fuel minerals in India. A substantial part of the state falls under the Chota Nagpur Plateau region which can be further subdivided based on its physiography into Ranchi and Hazaribagh.

Source: India River Blog

Rich Resources, Poor Protection

The landscape of the state isn’t the same as it was 40 years back. In the guise of development, vast forests were cleared, swathes of inhabited land have been submerged with dam water, and drinking water is now polluted beyond the prescribed safety limits. Areas like Singhbhum, Dumka and Ranchi were once adorned with many lakes. Almost 5,219 of the 12,847 privately owned lakes in Dumka have vanished in the last 45 years in 2017.

The story is no different in urban areas such as Ranchi and Jamshedpur.

Back in 1946, JB Auden, a British geologist surveyed the water holding capacity of Chota Nagpur plateau region, reporting the presence of Archean rocks beneath the plateau. These rocks are categorised with lower water-retaining capacity restricting higher dependency on the groundwater. A NITI Aayog report underscores the vital importance of lakes and small water bodies in maintaining the fragile balance between Jharkhand’s groundwater and rainfed hydrological system.

Lakes constructed between 1960 to 1970s in Ranchi were built for sustaining a population not more than 6 lakh. Rapid growth of mining industries and the subsequent urban sprawl led to an increased extraction of groundwater. The total area affected by mining industries is actually much higher than the leased area, as it also entails supporting infrastructure in the form of roads, warehouses and much more, affecting the ecology severely.

These industries have exploited the resources at all levels. Damodar and Subernrekha river valley, the two main sites of industrial exploration are also the most polluted rivers in India, generating 130 million litres of industrial waste and 65 million litres of untreated domestic waste, causing severe damage to the water quality. Even though the government talks about water conservation, almost all these polluting industries are state-owned. Flooding, silting and waterlogging are now a common sight in the mining areas of Jharkhand, reducing the available groundwater.

Today, with ponds and hand pumps drying up in many areas of Ranchi and the ongoing exploitation of resources, people now rely on the water supplied by tankers of RMC. These tankers arrive once or twice a week, only adding to the residents’ problems. Violent clashes, even leading to deaths are an indication of the severity of this crisis during water distribution. This problem is not only confined to the capital but extends to other urban residents too. Another city, Deoghar faces severe water shortage with hand pumps failing every other year. Deoghar Municipal Corporation had put taps in place, but the water never ran through those channels. Today residents of Deoghar and nearby areas are forced to extract water using private tubewells out of the deep aquifers with massive content of iron, nitrate and fluoride resulting in several health diseases.

The Way Forward

NITI Aayog and the State Water Policy 2016 recommend measures like desilting and renovation of old lakes, construction of check-dams and farm ponds to collect rainwater which otherwise would drain off, and greater lastly reliance on the surface water, rather than groundwater. Though these policies have been observed as vital, they aren’t new.

The government has been talking about the desilting and renovation of lakes since years, often turning a blind eye to the local ecology. Padma Shree Simon Oraon also remembered as ‘Waterman of Jharkhand’ has expressed that the state government's focus is largely restricted to the beautification of lakes rather than desilting them. Even for desilting, heavy machines are used, which extract everything present in the lake damaging the native plant and fish species essential for the local ecology.

Simon Oraon became a recipient of Padma Shri Award in 2016 for his community driven efforts for water security in 51 villages in Jharkhand. Image Source: Indranil Bhoumik, India Climate Dialogue.

The implementation of NITI Aayog’s guidelines by the state government in its true essence is critical. Restoration of these lakes for sustenance and management cannot be executed without the participation of the local communities. The community contributes to protecting the resources when seen as stakeholders than mere beneficiaries. Most of the urban areas today used to fall under tribal belts, but with the expansion of cities they are continuously pushed to the outskirts, scholars like Sharad Kulkarni have highlighted the role of tribal communities in resource management. These tribes do not just view these resources as their source of livelihood but are attached to it in traditional and cultural aspects and tend to preserve it, by systematic and controlled use.

Maintenance of lakes is equally essential as the restoration, which is a slow process that requires patience and continuous community involvement. For this, we need to change our perspective and view the local community not as an exploiter but as a preserver of the resources. Unless this view is accepted, the city would lose its connection with its local ecology. In the absence of this community attachment, the survival of any lake seems impossible. A central policy cannot help to tackle these issues, as the plan and strategy must speak to the local environment hence a decentralized initiative for restoration and management is critical for planning, involving the Gram Panchayat and local NGOs. To a certain extent, direct community involvement is indispensable for better results. Community initiatives such as revival of the Ahar Pyne System in Bihar are widely known for yielding success. In Jharkhand, such initiatives driven by Simon Oraon Minj to revive wells and ponds are few examples to learn from. The ecological crisis that Jharkhand is facing cannot be tackled in isolation. The crisis calls for vast sections of people to come together to ensure sustainable development in the state.

Views are personal.

About the author:

Md Kafil Khan is pursuing Master's in Development at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. He works closely with youth-led organisations such as Enactus- Jamia Millia Islamia. Recently, he also had the opportunity of working with the Water Practitioners Network at Samaj Pragati Sahayog. Kafil’s career interest lies in promoting sustainable livelihoods intertwined with local ecology and studying human behaviour around them.