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Correlation between groundwater depletion in North Gujarat and intensity of migration

By Rajiv Shah 
A new research paper, released in August 2013, “Groundwater Depletion, Adaptation and Migration: Evidence from Gujarat, India”, prepared by three scholars Ram Fishmany, Meha Jain and Avinash Kishore, published by International Growth Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science, has suggested how in northern Gujarat, which is one of the most groundwater-scarce regions of India, the gradual depletion of this vital resource has resulted in “shrinking of agriculture and increased migration rates by young males“, especially “those from the dominant land-owning caste”. The study is based on collection of primary data from two of North Gujarat’s talukas, Vijapur and Mansa. Significantly, it does not find no evidence that scarcity of water has led to higher investment in human capital, or in improvement in water use efficiency, despite the existence of technical potential.
The scholars comment, “Given the widespread and ongoing depletion of groundwater across India and other parts of the world, the results are a cause of concern for the sustainability of irrigated agriculture and food security”. Instead of going in for investment in higher technology to improve agricultural techniques, what one witnesses is “increasing water scarcity associated with higher rates of migration.” They find “no evidence for adaptation within agriculture… despite the substantial potential for improving water use efficiency.”
Pointing towards how water tables in the study area have been falling over the last 3- 4 decades, the scholars say, “Our estimates indicate that an additional 100 feet of water table decline is associated with a decrease of 0:15 to 0:25 in the cropping intensity in the non-rainy season (from an average of about 1:3), and an increase of 7% to 10% in the incidence of households that have a migrant son (compared to an average rate of 20%).” They underline, however, “We also find that migration is much more prevalent among the dominant socio- economic groups (land-owning castes), and less common amongst the landless and marginal land owning castes.”
The scholars further says, “Groundwater depletion and the associated migration is taking place against a background of equally rapid economic and social changes in this economically fast growing state that are also likely to be stimulating migration. A rough estimate from our data is that some 20% of migration may be attributed to the decline in water availability for irrigation.” Yet, interestingly, “respondents attributed about 10% of their sons migration due to water scarcity.” Looking beyond north Gujarat, however, they add, “this finding suggests migration may be an important mode of response to depletion in the many other parts of India where water tables are falling, but are still trailing behind north Gujarat in depth”.

Groundwater levels

Giving an idea of groundwater levels, the scholars say, “Local observation wells records suggest an average decline of about three metres per year over the last three decades, and a concurrent deepening of wells to chase the water table.” It adds, “The confined aquifers on which the regions agriculture is crucially dependent have a low rate of natural recharge and have been mined by local farmers for several decades. To cope with falling water tables, farmers have mostly resorted to deepening wells and the use of more powerful pumps. Farmers recall current wells to be 220 feet deeper than they were a decade ago, and pumps to be more powerful by 20 HP.”
They add, “Increased energy use can, in theory, partially compensate for the deepening water table, but eventually, hydrological constraints will set in, such as lower porosity at deeper strata. Survey results for several irrigation indicators suggest this process is already underway in this region. The time required to irrigate a parcel of a given size (during the wheat crop) was reported by farmers to have increased from 3.5 to 5.8 hours over the last decade and the time they have to wait between their turn to use the well has increased from 12 to 16 days over the decade. The decreased availability of water seems to have forced farmers to reduce the area under cultivation in the rainless winter and summer seasons, when irrigation is critical for cultivation, by about 7% and 17% respectively.”
It is against this backdrop that migration trends were sought to be ascertained. Say the scholars, “About 16% of households reported having at least one migrant son as well as at least one migrant brother (uncle), suggesting the rate of migration has not changed substantially across the generations. However, the stated reason for migration did differ substantially across the generations. While the primary stated reason for both generations of migrants was a more attractive employment opportunity in the city, the rate was higher for the older generations, and water scarcity was significantly more frequently stated as the main reason for migration for the younger generation (by 7%).”
Pointing out that “this is consistent with the gradual worsening of the water situation”, the scholars say, “The older generation of migrants tended to migrate some 10 years earlier than the current generation. However, there seem to be a relatively robust correlation between well depth and the land- owning caste to employment shifts by the younger generation (sons): households with wells that are a hundred feet deeper seem to be 19%-25% more likely to have a migrant son. Starting with the older generation (brothers of the household head), we find a robust and strong association between the presence of relatives in the city and the probability of migration – an increase of 32%. We find no evidence of a correlation between migration rates of the older generation and the depth of wells.”

Migration intensity

The scholars underline, “We find that an increase of 100 feet in the depth of wells is associated with about 2.5% increase in the probability of a household having at least one migrant son. Greater total household land holding increases the probability of migration, but the amount of land per son (a measure of land pressure within the household) is negatively associated with migration. Having relatives in the city or having an uncle who has migrated to the city are both positively and strongly associated with greater probability of migration. Households belonging to the dominant Patel caste are more likely to migrate.”
During the survey, the scholars found the presence of a particularly impermeable layer of dark clay in some locations. This dark clay layer occurs at depths ranging from 500-1000 feet, suggesting that the only possible impact on local agricultural conditions is related to water depths and well yields. In particular, it is plausible that prior to the irrigation boom and before wells reached these depths, local farmers were not aware of the presence of the dark clay layer and it had no impact on their agricultural practices. “Results indicate that where a dark clay layer is present in the strata, wells tend to be 95-188 feet deeper, depending on the specification; the time required to irrigate a plot of given size cultivated with wheat in the winter season increases by some 0.5-0.8 hours; the time farmers wait between consecutive \turns to use their well increases by 1-2 days; and pumps tend to be more powerful by some 9-15 HP.
Despite these adjustments, agriculture seems to suffer some consequences: The cropping intensity tends to be lower by about 0.3 crops per year, the scholars say, adding, one could see the impact of the clay layer on the migration process. The likelihood a household having at least one migrant son rises by some 9%-15%. In such cases, “the primary modes of adaptation pursued by socially advantaged (dominant castes) farmers in an increasingly water-scarce region of India are migration to cities and employment shifts away of agriculture. The sort of environmental stress here is a gradual process, not a short-term shock. The fact that young farmers are choosing to migrate rather than to adapt agricultural practices may be an indication that such adaptation strategies are not readily available to them.”

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