What causes water scarcity in India?

What causes water scarcity in India?

Hogenakkal Falls, on the Kaveri River

Through a political economy lens of analysis, this research paper examines how, over a period of time, myriad factors have together resulted in conditions of seasonal water scarcity in the village of Srikona.

It sheds light on how the lived realities of villagers in terms of socio-economic conditions and lifestyle, especially with regard to water use, have changed from before 2007 to 2020, owing to phenomena such as climate change, government schemes, the acquisition of adjacent land and the villagers’ once primary source of water, a lake, to establish a military station, and net in-immigration. Associated themes of climate justice, water rights, inequality, ecological impact, socio-political dissatisfaction, and occupational shifts related to greater financial insecurity are also explored in context.

Additionally, the implications of recent pertinent developments including the Citizenship Amendment Act and a national water-security scheme are considered, along with future consequences. Finally, the conclusion includes suggestions derived after the multi-dimensional analysis of the situation, these being effective representation of stakeholders, targeted regulation of consumption, and revision of policy. The purpose of this case study is to add to the understanding of how political, economic, and social forces at various scales influence aspects of water management, and carry relevant implications in terms of ecological impact, climate justice, water rights, and socio-economic inequality.


Northeast India is a resource-rich region subjected to overexploitation and, due to geographical and geologic factors, is especially prone to climate-induced and water-related disasters. These processes can pose a threat to the social fabric of the region by exacerbating the “inherent politico-economic instabilities” (Das 2017, 80). The state of Assam harbors the Brahmaputra and Barak river valley systems. Poor water management here has led to severe water shortages in the state.

A major cause is groundwater depletion due to mismanagement and the pressure from a growing population. India as a whole, in fact, faces a water crisis that places over half the population at serious risk (Composite Water Management Index 2018). In this context, Assam is one of the lowest-performing states when it comes to the quality of water management (ibid., 18). The fashion in which domestic and agricultural water needs are fulfilled in the state is diverse, as are the water resources these different methodologies are based on.

In this paper, I aim to narrow the scope of examining water management practices to the village of Srikona through a political economy lens.

Wherein I’ll describe at varying scales of analysis how political, social, and economic factors interact to result in current conditions of seasonal water scarcity for the villagers. In cases like this, shifting to employing a political economy approach to analysis does well to reveal how multidimensional the forces at play are.

Referring to official and legal documents as well as interviews I conducted with locals, political representatives, and government functionaries, I explain the changes in lived realities of villagers from 2007 to 2020, with 2012 being especially significant, when a military station was established in the region. After evaluating this developmental history in relation to, among other factors, national and state policies, demographic shifts, and climate-change-induced trends of unpredictable and decreasing

rainfall, I take note of ecological and occupational implications and consider possible impacts of more recent developments such as a water-security scheme and India’s Citizenship Amendment Bill, before concluding with suggestions of effective representation of stakeholders, regulation of consumption, and revision of policy. 

What causes water scarcity in India?

Srikona village is situated in Cachar, one of the three districts encompassed by the Barak river valley in South Assam. A gateway from northern Assam to the states of Mizoram and Tripura, the district is of special strategic importance with regards to improving connectivity in the northeast, which has historically been relatively alienated from India’s economic resurgence (Das 2017, 81).

Amplified by high population growth (20.17%, according to the 2001-2011 census), human activities have led to significant biodiversity loss and pressure on resources (Government of Assam 2018). In Srikona, the source of domestic water has been changing over the past two decades. A major shift has been government land acquisition for the development of the headquarters of the eastern division of Indian Army’s Inspector General of Assam Rifles (IGAR) forces. 

Developmental History and related Political Economy 

Srikona was a small rural settlement in a thickly forested region, engaging a majority of villagers in agriculture labor at tea gardens, supported by a lake and smaller water bodies that were a commons for the community. Since then the village has significantly grown due to net in-migration1.

In 2007, the government installed pipelines, a treatment plant, and related storage infrastructure in the village and tap water drawn from the lake became available in homes. This, as well as the related development of the establishment of a grassroots Water Users Committee2, was a direct result of the implementation of Assam’s State Water Policy in 2007, which laid emphasis on participatory management (Government of Assam 2007). 

Until 2012, the landscape in the region around the lake and village featured primarily three features: 

  • The area was predominantly encompassed by a thick evergreen rainforest cover.
  • A sizable portion of the remaining land was used as a tea plantation since the colonial period. Nearly 80 percent of villagers worked here as laborers. 
  • A peninsula mostly surrounded by the lake was used as a public park. 

In 2012, the lake and 220 acres of land around it were acquired to be developed, after clear-cutting forests and displacing those in smaller settlements with what some of the interviewees considered inadequate compensation3, as the military headquarters of the Eastern Division of the Assam rifles, the world’s oldest paramilitary force, officered today by the Indian Army (IA).

Furthermore, the lake became the source for the army cantonment.

And the village was restricted from using the lake as its water supply source; the source for the settlement had now become the Ghagra, a tributary of the Barak river. This was part of a larger “multi-village” scheme that distributed water from the Ghagra to a total of eleven villages. Today, there exists a condition of seasonal water scarcity for most villagers, giving rise to public dissatisfaction, political tension, and inequality, all further exacerbated by climate change. I shall explain how this came to be by examining how the establishment of the army station in Srikona was both a cause behind wide-ranging socio-economic and political changes and a result of them. 

Historically, insurgency in the Northeast has cost lives, development, and harmony (Shri Radha Binod Koijam 2010). Its socio-economic impact is often cited as one of the reasons why the region has not enjoyed the same surge of development as the rest of the country. As the primary paramilitary force in the region, Assam Rifles aims to help maintain security and check insurgent activities. Since 2008, there has been a spike in violent activities in the Northeast (South Asia Terrorism platform 2008-2011).

What causes water scarcity in India?

Perhaps prompted by this, it was decided to establish at Srikona, where the force was first raised, a separate division as IGAR East, in addition to the preexisting North and South divisions, in order to more effectively and firmly entrench the presence and function of Assam Rifles as a paramilitary force. This measure, along with others, decreased insurgency incidents significantly (The Economic Times 2020) and has been accompanied by a considerable increase in economic growth in the northeast over the past decade, increasing its share in the nation’s GDP (The Economic Times 2020). At Srikona, however, the narrative isn’t as simple. 

From 2007 through 2020, securing a drinking water connection required money, about 1000 INR as security and 3000-4000 INR as a whole, in addition to a long process involving filling a request form that must clear an initial screening by the Water Users’ Committee before being appraised for feasibility and finally approved by the Department of Public Health Engineering.

Until 2012, villagers without a connection could still access the lake freely.

With army regulation 2012 onwards, this was no longer the case, and using the lake-water became much harder4. Alternate mechanisms like rainwater harvesting facilities were more likely to be afforded by the well-off who could already pay for a water connection. Moreover, with the growing village on variable levels of elevation. As a result, certain segments became more likely to become disadvantaged from increasingly frequent flooding that damages nearly all districts of Assam.

Hence, the inequality widened. Scarcity became more acute as the new source, the Ghagra, considerably decreased in volume during the dry winter season, and at times the well became unreliable too due to decreasing groundwater levels. Moreover, frequent and unpredictable power cuts also resulted in erratic water supply, sometimes spelling a shortage of drinking water in a connected household for 4 days or more, given the alternate-day supply schedule. 

The collective will of the villagers to cope with the unreliability of water supply resulted in negotiations with army officials that amounted to an agreement which allowed the villagers to request and access the lake water through a pump, when they faced supply-shortages from their primary source, at the army’s discretion and for an annual remuneration. The situation relatively eased for a few years, with the users committee using lakewater when needed. However, the remuneration was not being paid.

Moreover, the village did not have a wealthy, philanthropic patron, so the cost had to borne by the villagers collectively.

Effectively commodifying water further! When requested by the committee to be party to this payment procedure, nearly all villagers were reluctant to pay for what they considered “a basic necessity” in addition to the preexisting price of a water connection5.

Since promises made to the army administration to not let villagers bathe or wash clothes in the lake were not followed through with, the locals were denied physical access to the lake in late 2019. In early 2020, administration at IGAR East decided to restrict the lakewater access to the village for tap-water as well, the following being the reasoning provided on inquiry6

What causes water scarcity in India?

Water Users’ Committee members cannot be allowed to enter military premises to operate water pumps due to precautionary mechanisms against the covid-19 pandemic. b. This year (2020) the water level of the lake has receded more than it ever has since the military settlement in 2012. This was a cause for alarm in administrative circles. c. Unlike the villagers, the lake is the only source of water for the 350-400 army personnel and their families living in the cantonment. Any abnormal fall in the water level must be dealt with urgently. In fact, a relevant letter was addressed to the ministry of home affairs7, wherein the army administration requested water supply for the cantonment from a source other than the lake too. 

The yearly remuneration mentioned in the water sharing agreement was not becoming paid.

A failure on the village’s part to uphold those terms gave the army administration another reason to revoke access to the lake in a time of scarcity. 

“The lake was bigger than it is today;” “It used to rain a lot more when I was younger;” “It has become hotter over the past 15-20 years.” Statements like these from interviews of villagers indicating a trend of decreasing rainfall and increasing temperatures over time, occasionally accompanied by an attribution of these in part to the deforestation since the cantonment was established, concur with climate-related findings recognized in the Assam State

Action Plan on Climate Change (ASAPCC) as well as those revealed in other studies (Rajeevan and Kothawale 2017). In the same vein, the increasing unreliability of the well some villagers used corresponds with data showing a significant loss in usable groundwater in Assam, the greatest among all states (Mongabay 2019). Falling lake water-levels can be explained by the trend of decreasing rainfall paired with an increasing population relying on it. Villagers pointed out abnormally late rainfall this year, which could have partly been the reason behind (b), making it another way of climate change resulting in water scarcity and political tensions. 

Together, decreasing groundwater and average rainfall levels, increasing temperature, unreliable and costly tap-water supply, and no resolution in sight do explain why every villager I talked to spoke about water resources, both in terms of quantity and quality, as a problem in their household and community.

Undoubtedly, the climate change induced forces that drive the problem here are also related to the aspect of climate justice, as the villagers contribute negligibly to the phenomenon but bear a disproportionate brunt of its consequences. Moreover, the violation of water rights is also a prominent theme in this scenario. 

With regards to infrastructural development and accessibility, there seem to be favorable prospects. With the national Har Ghar Nal ka Jal (tap water in every house) scheme being piloted in Assam under the Jal Jeevan (Water-life) Mission, the beneficiary share is a mere 150 INR and can be paid in cash, kind, or labor, and without any complicated application process8. While this may help address inequality in terms of water scarcity to an extent, one can expect implications regarding the pressure put on existing water resources, regardless of where the latest

National Water Policy stands on conservation.

I believe this to hold especially true if the pressure of a growing population continues to persist due to migratory trends described by the villagers. “The population of this settlement has skyrocketed in the past 10-15 years,” said a fisherman, taking special note of the influx of numerous immigrants from Bangladesh. While a census has not been conducted for nearly a decade, the data present through 2011 supports this trend fuelled by the economic and political motivations of immigrants (Nath and Nath 2011). The vote-bank politics here has drawn much politico-economic analysis after the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). These larger demographic trends with politico-economic implications have had notable local significance in the region with respect to pressure on water and power resources, population density, and consequent living conditions. 

Occupational and Ecological Changes 

With the establishment of the cantonment, the majority of villagers lost their jobs as tea plantation laborers in 2012. The most common occupation then became, and remains to this day casual labor in construction sites of the cantonment. With estimates for recent projects in the station demonstrating a requirement of 76000 workdays needed from laborers, the availability of casual employment in this form is for many an economic incentive to migrate to Srikona village9.

This is a departure from the agricultural focus of Cachar district as a whole (District Census Handbook: Cachar 2011, 62). Contrary to employment as a tea plantation laborer for a given tenure, construction laborers enjoy far less economic security, as they work on a day-to-day basis10. This does, however, provide flexibility for those with multiple sources of revenue. With a growing rural population, there has also been a rise in the number of service providers, small businesses, and shops to cater to their needs. When considering the changes in occupational patterns in relation to the lake, however, perhaps the most noteworthy is the case of pisciculture. 

Before 2012, while most villagers were employed primarily as plantation workers, some of them also used to fish in the lake, more often for sustenance than for selling in the market.

With the privatization of fishing rights by the army (the lease being annually secured by the highest bidder since 2017), pisciculture became more of an environmentally exploitative economic activity, wherein it is the sole source of revenue for the fishermen. This case, I believe, is an effective example of incurring ecological damage through practices that are, in a way, economically unsustainable.

Moreover, the fishermen I interviewed mentioned a decrease in the annual revenue from fishing, attributing it partly to the low-quality of fish-seeds available in the market. They also recalled how the fish caught used to be much bigger a few years ago.

Larger fish now become rarer. Presumably due to overfishing. And are thrown out if caught as bycatch, perhaps for the sake of preservation of the species. Meanwhile, the fishermen are dependent on fish seeds they buy from the market and rear in the lake. This year (2020) Assam became declared self-sufficient in food production. While the connotation of economic growth. That news carries may not become at odds with the lived experiences of the fishermen I interviewed. If they gain access to better quality fish-seeds. It is important to evaluate, or at least be mindful of, the environmental cost of all the production processes that lead to ecological imbalance.


Given the complexity of the problem, any potential proposals to address the situation ought to be multidimensional in nature. In particular, I propose considering the following three aspects in the formulation of a solution. 

Firstly, there exists considerable cohesiveness among stakeholders and functionaries in decision making. If villagers were effectively represented during the negotiations with the army administration, the water-sharing agreement arrived at would have been more compatible with the villagers’ financial capabilities. If the PHE department was on the same page as villagers, who recently requested the military administration to continue sharing the lake’ water, an official would not exclaim that “the lake is now of least importance to the villagers.”The Colonel of Administration at the army station changes every 1-2 years, leading to further uncertainty. Establishing mechanisms for avoiding such miscommunication is imperative to achieving stable and truly participatory management. 

Secondly, with the population in the cantonment, which is not bound by a per-capita limit to water-use, supported by the lake expected to rise in the coming years, it will become especially important to incorporate conservation strategies in both lifestyles as well as new infrastructure and perhaps even consider a limit, or some mechanism of accountability in conserving water.

Lastly, in the next review of Assam’s State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC), as well as the State’s water management strategy, the government would do well to refer to existing literature critiquing previous versions (eg. Ray 2017).

What causes water scarcity in India? Written by Aditya Singh

This is my first research paper, and I completed it in the summer of 2020 as its sole author. I had the pleasure of being mentored by Prof Paul Wolff Mitchell (University of Pennsylvania) in this exploration. Later, I (virtually) presented this environmental case-study at the International Conference on Social Science Humanities and Business Management (ICSSHBM) organized by the Asian Society for Academic Research (ASAR) in New Delhi on August 31, 2020.

Political Economy of Water Management, Climate Justice, and Water Rights in Srikona, Assam: A Case Study 

Bibliography for What causes water scarcity in India?

Das, Satabdi. 2017. “Sustainable Resource Management in North East India: A Socio-Economic and Political Perspective” in Natural Resources Management for Sustainable Development and Rural Livelihoods Vol-1

“District Profile | Cachar District | Government Of Assam, India.” n.d. Accessed August 7, 2020. https://cachar.gov.in/portlets/district-profile. 

Government of Assam. 2007. State Water Policy of Assam. Guwahati: Assam Science Technology and Environment Council 

 Niti Aayog. June, 2018. Composite Water Management Index. 

“The Impact of Insurgency Activities in Northeast India on Socio-Economic Development and Its Solution Thereof.” 2010. Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES) (blog). February 13, 2010. 

https://www.c-nes.org/539/the-impact-of-insurgency-activities-in-northeast-india-on-so cio-economic-development-and-its-solution-thereof/

What causes water scarcity in India?

Nath, Hiranya K., and Suresh Kr Nath. 2011. “Illegal Migration into Assam: Magnitude, Causes, and Economic Consequences.” SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1750383. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1750383

“Usable Groundwater Depleting in East India despite Increasing Rainfall, Finds Study.” 2019. Mongabay-India. March 27, 2019. 

https://india.mongabay.com/2019/03/usable-groundwater-depleting-in-assam-despite-in creasing-rainfall-finds-a-study/

Kothawale, D R, and M Rajeevan. 2017. “Monthly, Seasonal and Annual Rainfall Time Series for All-India, Homogeneous Regions and Meteorological Subdivisions: 1871-2016,” 169. 

Census of India 2011, Assam. District Census Handbook Cachar 

 Directorate of Census Operations, Assam. Series 19. Part XII A. 62 

“70 percent decline in insurgency incidents in Northeast: Government.” The Economic Times, March 04, 2020. July 28, 2020. 

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/70-per-cent-decline-in-insurgency incidents-in-northeast-government/articleshow/74477320.cms

“Northeast emerging as biggest contributor to nation’s GDP: Amit Shah.” The Economic Times, June 18, 2018. Accessed on July 28, 2020. 

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/northeast-emerging-as biggest-contributor-to-nations-gdp-amit-shah/articleshow/64633096.cms “Timeline Terrorist Activities, Assam (Insurgency NE).” n.d. Accessed August 8, 2020. https://www.satp.org/terrorist-activity/india-insurgencynortheast-assam-Mar-2011.

Ray, Shiladitya. Exploring Sub-national State-led Responses to Climate Change: A Critical Case Study of the Assam State Action Plan on Climate Change. Hyderabad: Tata Institute of Social Sciences, 2017. 

Endnotes : What causes water scarcity in India?

1, 5 Elected Village Head, interviewed by author, Srikona, July 26, 2020 8 Public Health Engineering official, interviewed by author, Srikona, July 26, 2020 1, 9, 10 Deepak (cattle rearer who moved to Srikona in 2002), interviewed by author, Srikona, July 26, 2020 

2, 3, 4 Chandan Das (President of Water Users Committee), interviewed by author, Srikona, July 26, 2020 

6. Yajuvender Singh (Colonel of Administration, IGAR East), interviewed by author, Srikona, July 26, 2020 

7. Letter to MOHA requesting water supply for the cantonment from a source other than the lake too.

Sustainable Investing

What causes water scarcity in India?