Women in-charge: Battling the Food-Energy-Water Crisis in India

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Shrey Goyal's picture

India is the largest user of groundwater (GW) in the world, consuming more than a quarter of the global total. A 2010 World Bank study pointed out that GW supports about two-thirds of our irrigated agriculture, and five-sixths of the drinking water supplies.

Enter the linkages. India uses approximately 230 cubic kilometres of GW every year, and almost 70-80 billion kWh equivalent of energy is consumed annually simply to pump it up for agriculture alone. Most of this energy comes from subsidised electricity/diesel supplies, binding food, water and energy in a vile politicised nexus of mutual dependence. A single sector has thus drained the nation’s power as well as water supply in such an abhorrently unsustainable manner, that water tables have dropped several metres over the years, leading to even greater energy guzzling for the extra depths our pumps have to seek. And now, even growth in agriculture is threatened because of the exhaustion of this neglected resource. I do not condone hyperbole, but we have on our hands a food security, energy security, and water security crises packaged into one catastrophic juggernaut, while climate change is already looking in our direction with its nostrils flared up.

It is nearly impossible to come up with effective centralised solutions for this crisis. A single authority can’t even fathom the task of managing the tens of millions of groundwater extraction structures in the country, especially in the face of the most extreme political and policy challenges. Instead, bottom-up approaches that involve the local community to manage water resources are the need of the hour.

To see such an approach in action, let’s go to one of the most water-scarce states in India–Gujarat –where high saline levels prevent rainwater from penetrating the soil. During climate change induced events such as flash flood in regions with non-porous soils, water logging reduces soil fertility, affecting agricultural produce and ultimately farmer income.

Here, an organisation called Naireeta Services Private Limited (NSPL) has perfected a unique participatory irrigation system called ‘Bhungroo’.

I work with NSPL on the design and other technical aspects of the implementation, and we start off with installation of large underground reservoirs with a local partner, which can provide farmers with much-needed water for up to seven months. The innovation, however, is not just in the technology, but comes from NSPL’s unique natural resource management model. 

In India’s patriarchal society, women in rural areas are often forced to live in the shadow of men. However, as we have come to realise, giving women the upper hand on a critical resource can change this situation rapidly.

Groups of five women are selected to operate the Bhungroo system and repay service and construction costs through increased agricultural income over five years. These women are from underprivileged backgrounds, and are trained and empowered to run and monitor these units, effectively controlling irrigation supply.  Thus, to get even a single drop of water, essential for agri-livelihoods, men now have to approach them for permission to gain access. This has led to a near-reversal in gender roles, with our women members and their households being emancipated from debt traps, gaining land ownership, and participating in local governance as a result of their expertise and influence in agriculture and availability of water.

Once erected, each unit of Bhungroo, with a life span of 30 years, frees 5-10 acres of land from water logging each monsoon, and is giving water for irrigation for at least 20 acres of land in winter. Thus each unit saves five farming families’ land from fertility loss and guarantees cropping for two seasons for next 30 years, ensuring lifelong food security to at least 25 low-income family members, and agricultural income doubling for more than 6 families. Bhungroo thus ensures lifelong food security and doubling of income for marginal and small landholding farmers. The system has seen wide adoption and has received support and recognition from the state government as well as development agencies worldwide (Ashoka, 2012; Pachauri).

In India itself, waterlogging affects 12 states, encompassing 7% of the total national land mass, i.e. nearly 6.7 million ha of land is not cultivable in critical cropping period; A minimum 1.9 million marginal and small landholding farming family members are deprived of food security and sustainable livelihood, and yearly crop loss volume of at least USD 1580M can thus be avoided by use of Bhungroo.

Even though our country and the world at large is facing energy and water challenges of biblical proportions, this may be a good time to stop shoving one-size fits all solutions through top-down mechanisms. We can now reconsider our approach to governance and promote greater local involvement in ownership and utilisation of what are essentially public goods. Let’s not let a good crisis go to waste.






  • Gujarat Ecology Commission (Govt. of Gujarat) & Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (A World Bank Project). “Towards Green Gujarat” Report (Pages 36-40). Featuring Naireeta Services Private Limited & Biplab K.Paul


  • "Biplab Ketan Paul is an extremely Committed development innovator who has done remarkable work in Gujarat. He has the makings of someone who can spread his model of dedication and effective mobilisation of lecal communities far across this country."

-- Prof. R.K. PAchauri (Chairman, Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), "Innovator to the core", Financial Express, January 8, 2006


  • Bhungroo was recognised by the World Bank India Development Marketplace 2007 awards as a pioneer among  ‘Grassroot Initiatives for Management and Protection of Natural Resources’