The northern Indian state of Punjab is the country’s historic breadbasket, and 60-year-old Harnek Singh is one of the million farmers who work its soil. On a sunny February afternoon in Khunimajra, about 275 kilometers from New Delhi, he is busy repairing his tube well. The tube well is simple: a steel pipe bored into the ground and attached to a cheap electric pump. This rudimentary tool is the engine of Singh’s success as a farmer. But it and millions of others like it are quickly draining away India’s agricultural riches.
In dirt-covered shorts and an undershirt, Singh squats amid the thick foliage that feeds his 50-odd cattle, preparing his pump for the day’s most critical event. He’s about to get the 4 hours of free electricity that lets him extract water from a natural reservoir 82 meters underground. These days, that hardly suffices. He needs another 8 to 9 hours of power to finish watering his wheat and rice. So he’ll continue to run the pump with diesel generators, which cost him US $4.50 an hour in fuel—a crushing price, considering that his farm’s annual revenue is just $20 000. "Sometimes the [grid] electricity goes off after 2 or 3 hours, and I want to commit suicide," says Singh.
Even so, farmers are emptying Punjab’s aquifers at an alarming rate. Each year, as the groundwater table steadily retreats, they are forced to go half a meter deeper to pump water. Two abandoned wells on Singh’s farm offer proof of the changing conditions. If cultivation continues here as it has, the groundwater—the source of most of Punjab’s irrigation—could be exhausted in 20 years, say researchers at Punjab Agricultural University, in Ludhiana.
The situation is not unique to Punjab. Collectively, India’s farmers extract about 212 million megaliters of water each year to irrigate some 35 million hectares. That amount of water—enough to submerge London by more than 100 meters—is considerably more than what flows into the aquifers through rainfall and runoff, and plummeting water tables now plague other areas as well. Based on its aquifers’ natural rate of recharge, Punjab can sustainably support at most 1.8 million hectares of rice, according to the state’s director of agriculture, Balwinder Singh Sidhu. At present, it has 2.8 million hectares of rice. If the situation doesn’t change, a food crisis in India seems imminent.
A main culprit is grossly underpriced electricity. For decades, it’s allowed farmers to pump groundwater at very low cost. Now, not only is the water running out, but India’s electricity utilities lack the revenue to maintain their infrastructure and provide rural communities with adequate power.