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Purulia annual water crisis: Is the Government doing enough to tackle it?

Despite the government’s measures to facilitate drought-hit Purulia, the westernmost district of West Bengal, it faces regular droughts.

By Ground report
New Update
Water Crisis

Despite the government’s measures to facilitate drought-hit Purulia, the westernmost district of West Bengal, it faces regular droughts. The decline in annual rainfall has aggravated the situation amidst rising temperatures due to climate change. An analysis found that the rainfall from June to September is insufficient to support the growth and yield of Kharif paddy, the district's principal crop, every 4-5 years. With growing hot weather, in Purulia district, the summer temperatures can reach up to 50ºC, while winter temperatures can plummet to 3.8ºC. Groundwater is depleting due to the rocky terrain, and just 1% of the land is irrigated, with shallow wells frequently drying up.  

In 2013, the state government, with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) launched several projects to provide water to the district. In 2021, talking about the projects, Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee said,

“It was to be over in two years but there has been a delay from Japan. If the project had finished in a year, 8 lakh people would get water connection by March 2022.” 

According to the Public Health Engineering Department of West Bengal, only 30.96% of the households in Purulia district have functional household tap connections. They were established under the state government’s Jal Swapna scheme. Hence, others have to depend on other water resources for their needs.  About 70% of surface water resources in India are polluted, and groundwater is contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, nitrate, iron, salinity, heavy metals etc.  Therefore, accessing water from other sources isn’t the most reliable choice. 

Water in well in Purulia
Water in well in Purulia | Photo: Anil Gulati

Drastically Affected Agriculture

Paddy (mainly Kharif) is the predominant crop in all 20 blocks of the district and is heavily rain-fed. Apart from paddy, wheat, maize, groundnut, grams and horticulture crops like mango, ber, jackfruit, guava, papaya, lime, etc. are grown in the district. The district suffers from inadequate irrigation, land fragmentation, drought-induced crop failures, and acute water shortages during summers, compelling migration for livelihood. 

Crop production faces a major challenge as annual average rainfall has drastically fallen from 1617 mm to 980 mm between 1990 to 2018. The region is drought-prone, with uneven and irregular rainfall (60% of total rainfall falls within 14 rainy days). 

To support the farmers, the Government aims to adopt Micro irrigation (Sprinkler or drip irrigation) through Bangla Krishi Sech Yojonamay till 2025. This practice conserves water and increases crop coverage area to better crop yield. Under the Jalatirtha scheme in the drought-prone Purulia region, the government aims to conserve surface and rainwater through the construction of check Dams, water harvesting structures and surface flow minor irrigation schemes. The construction of 500 check dams in the district was announced by the irrigation department in 2014-15. Among the almost 14,000 projects, more than 900 – structures like watersheds and check dams – have come up under Jalatirtha till 2019, including 427 in Purulia.

A document by NABARD (2022) suggested action points for the farmers in the district. Farmers should be encouraged to shift to low water consumption but more remunerative crops. Recycle water including wastewater and arrest the receding groundwater level, conservation techniques such as zero tillage, furrow irrigated bed planting, and direct-seeded paddy should be practised. 

In 2017-18, in a community-based effort, Rarhbhum Farmers Federation, a Community-based association five years of implementation, developed 50 units of water banks. With an average size of 2.5 hectares, these water banks helped in the sustenance of climate-adaptive farming practices in 1000-hectare drought-prone areas. 

There are several other schemes in place to supply water in the region. However, these initiatives have not solved the problem of water scarcity in Purulia. As per a recent report in Forbes India, things have not changed much for the district. District with almost 80% rural population struggles for water in march of 2024. 

Girl washing hand in Purulia
Girl washing hand in Purulia | Photo: Anil Gulati

The burden on day-to-day Life

The district has a sub-tropical climate. Hilly-rocky terrains coupled with high evaporation and low precipitation have made the district drought-prone. 

With an infant mortality rate of 38.34 per 1000 live births, a maternal mortality rate of 176.38, and a female literacy rate of just 30.50%, research published in 2022 shows a gender-based burden for access to clean water in the Purulia district. Majorly, the women face the brunt of the lack of water in India. Women spend an estimated 150 million work days every year fetching and carrying water, equivalent to a national loss of income of Rs 10 billion or $160 million. Climate change and water scarcity compel young people to relocate in search of better prospects.

Charting a Path Forward

A study by Amit Bera and Shubhamita Das (Department of Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology) suggests community-based efforts with government support to work collectively over possible solutions. Rainwater harvesting should be promoted. Artificial recharge structures, such as percolation tanks, can be built in suitable hydrogeological regions to recharge groundwater. Surface water (that flows in rivers) can be conserved by check dam construction. Dry-drilled wells can also be used for artificial recharge following cleaning. These approaches would help alleviate, relatively, the suffering of village residents during a water shortage or drought. 

But, this study would already be available to the top politicians, and bureaucrats in the regions. Then, the question which should be asked here is: with rising temperatures and immense food insecurity when will the realities of the most marganlised change in this country?

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