Scarcity, Famine, and Democracy: Water Governance in Bihar

Authored by: Nikhil Varghese Mathew and Riya Singh Rathore
Edited by: Priyamvada, Neymat, and Sara

This is a companion piece on Srishti Singh’s larger work about Ahar Pynes as part of the Water Seekers’ Fellowship 2020. 


As the population grows, India’s water demand is estimated to  rise to 1.5 trillion m³ by 2030. At present, India’s ability to supply water remains at 740 billion m³ (2030 Water Resources Group n.d.) which implies that there will be a 50.6% gap in the demand and supply of water within the coming decade. Of this, Bihar’s gross water availability per capita is expected to fall as low as 1,170 m³ per annum in 2050 (Bhatt et al., 2011). With Bihar falling into the ‘severe’ category of areas expected to face the water gap (ibid), exploring the revival of community ownership over water bodies is extremely worthwhile as a means of water conservation. This paper discusses the growing view of water as an individualistic resource, away from the traditionally community understanding of it. The piece follows its economic, environmental, social, and health implications.


In Eastern India, the primary problem around water conservation is uncertainty around who bears its responsibility- the government or citizens. Since the 1960s, the green revolution inspired increasing privatisation of water and induced a shift away from community owned water. Today, water tables are depleting due to over extraction, a problem compounded by the switch from shared surface level water bodies to individualistic groundwater-dependent resources such as private tube-wells and private water tankers. For instance, since the early 1970s, the percentage of area irrigated by tube wells in Bihar rose from 17% to 48% (Koul et al., 2012) in a short span of 24 years. Today, Bihar exhibits a 85% dependence on groundwater (Bhatt et al., 2011). Following a similar claim, Bihar’s Water Resources Department (2014: 3), states that although groundwater constitutes the hydrological cycle and is a community resource, it is continuously perceived as individual property without any consideration to its sustainability leading to its inequitable exploitation in several areas.

This trend reflects throughout the country. Currently, groundwater still accounts for 94.5% of all the country’s minor irrigation schemes, out of which 96.7% of minor irrigation schemes and 98.7% of groundwater minor irrigation schemes remain under private ownership (Ministry of Water Resources 2017). As over-extraction decreases the region’s water table, it increases the financial pressures on those  people who predominantly depend on agriculture. With 76% of Bihar’s population still engaged in agricultural pursuits (Department of Agriculture n.d.), the rising costs are bound to be a serious concern for many in the years to come. 

To access the freshest groundwater, farmers deepen their existing wells by buying powerful pumps, resulting in even higher maintenance costs and an increase in flat electricity tariff. This contributes to the decline of both farmer earnings and the groundwater table (Verma 2019). Moreover, the introduction of private irrigation methods has contributed to high rates of pollution. A substantial 74% of East Indian plains depend on burning diesel for producing energy, while only 20% use electricity (Ministry of Water Resources 2017). This extraordinary dependence on private wells amidst the soaring price of fuel proves costly to both the farmers and the region’s environment. In light of this situation, it’s time to reconsider the benefits of community-based water resources. 


Bihar is a water-rich region, facing mounting water stress despite being home to an abundance of rivers such as Ganga and Kosi, plentiful rainfall, and fertile soil. However, just like neighbouring states in the region, such as Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal, water overuse has put undue water stress on the state. Crops such as rice, sugarcane, and wheat are water-intensive. This worsening shortage profoundly impacts environmental quality, soil conservation, agricultural production, health and welfare (KINSPARC 2009) along with exacerbating the social stressors of the region as outlined below. 

For instance, the efficacy and impact that traditional water bodies can have in protecting the region of south Bihar from famines, when used as a functioning irrigation system, may be better understood if one revisits how the Ahar-Pynes ensured south Bihar’s immunity to famines, while the rest of the country suffered tremendously during the 1866 Orissa Famine and the Great Famine of 1986-97. However, with the deterioration of the Ahar-Pynes, the region came under the throes of deprivation. Post-independence, south Bihar was no longer immune to droughts and famines with the region seeing intense droughts similar to those in other states.

Illustration by Srishti Singh


The economist Amartya Sen (1999b), notably argues for the importance of democracy and democratic institutions in the prevention of famines. Sen (1999b) states:

“Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence…they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press.”

South Bihar’s situation could be considered a peculiarity where a region that was considered famine-immune in the colonial era witnessed a dramatic flip in fortunes despite embracing constitutional democracy.

Colonial officials distributing famine relief to distressed people in a temporary aid camp
Drawing by Johnson, H. The Illustrated London News, 26 May 1877.

Sen (1999a) also notes that “a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have.” Sen’s assertion that  democracy can prevent famines is one that has been widely accepted. Francesco Burchi (2011) supported Sen’s claim. While studying famine mortality of democratic States, with respect to the role played by both informal and formal political institutions in preventing and tackling famines, he found that the data from econometric exercises conducted on a group of developing countries supports the idea that democracy prevents famine. 

The peculiarity of south Bihar did not emanate as a result of the residual and latent colonial attitudes within institutions that persisted through the post-independence years. In the case of this region, democratic practices taking substantive root in society would not help overcome the crisis,  as evidenced in the following extract from a 1993 reportage on the famine that had was strangling Bihar and Orissa: “Beset by famine and drought, large sections of Orissa and Bihar are beginning to mirror the stark images of hunger in Somalia and Sudan. In Orissa, more than 10 million people – the majority of which consist of indigenous populations – are reeling under a famine. In Adivasi-dominated south Bihar, as well, more than 1 million people have been suffering from the worst famine since 1967,” (Kumar and Mitra 1993). The famine is occurring despite nearly 70% of the state’s geographical area being fertile and cultivable, and with its climatic conditions being adjudged as being “very favourable” for agriculture (Water Resources Department 2005). The Second Bihar State Irrigation Commission (1994) notes that despite annual rainfall in the region of South Bihar averaging between 990 mm and 1480 mm, 37% of south Bihar’s total geographical area or (59% of its total cultivable area) is drought-prone.

The Reserve Bank of India’s (1984) Committee on the Agricultural Productivity of Eastern India noted that historical records provide a sharply contrasting picture of Eastern India compared to how it appears today. 

“One and a half centuries ago, it was a very prosperous and agriculturally advanced region in the country. Its impoverisation began during the British rule, but even at the time of independence, its agriculture maintained a lead over other regions in the country. During the triennium ending 1950-51, the Eastern Region had recorded highest foodgrains yield (Table 2.1). However, since then and especially after the introduction of the new High Yielding Variety (HYV) seed and fertiliser technology in the country, the region, with the exception of West Bengal, has steadily lost its relative position. The Northern Region crossed the food grains yield level of the Eastern Region by early 1960s and the Southern Region in 1970s. It appears ironical that programmes and policies during the planning era, which have induced an acceleration in the pace of agricultural development in other regions, could not make sufficient impact in the Eastern Region which was agriculturally so prosperous in earlier times.”

Bihar’s State Crime Records Bureau [SCRB](2020), in an October 2020 report focuses on the severity of social strife that water stress has brought in its wake. Official records indicate 352 incidents of water related disputes in Bihar in 2019. The total number of victims amounted to 585. Shockingly, water disputes served as the motive for murder in 44 cases, far exceeding the number of cases wherein political reasons, Naxalism, road rage, robbery, and even gang rivalry have served as the primary motive or pretext for murder. Of the total number of cases that the SCRB (2020) recorded as “offences against the state”, water disputes amounted to 480 cases. Again, this figure significantly exceeds the number of cases pertaining to unlawful assembly, communal/ religious or sectarian riots, political riots, offences against the state motivated by caste conflict, money disputes, or even cases of rioting while participating in andolans. 

The fact that the situation is worsening over the years is further evident in a comparative study of crime statistics from previous years. The total number of crimes recorded under the Indian Penal Code as being “Offences Against the State” due to water disputes were 288 in 2018, a staggering increase from 77 cases in 2017. As compared to 585 victims of water disputes in 2019, the number of cases in 2018 was 327. Moreover, 18 murders were committed in Bihar in 2018 that were motivated by water disputes (State Crime Records Bureau Bihar 2019; 2020). The coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People noted that “When water scarcity increases, conflicts go up and it can be inter-sectoral, community level and between urban and rural areas. We saw a very bad situation in some of these states in 2018” (Sharma 2020).


In addition to the environmental, financial, and social consequences of depleting water resources, privatisation of water profoundly impacts health. The Government of Bihar (2010) decrees that only an increase in community ownership can contribute to better water hygiene practices, leading to better health of Bihar’s populace. Encouraging the  conservation of shared water bodies would lead to increased awareness around the maintenance of community water resources.

Eastern India is in dire need of the reforms discussed thus far. A general depletion of the water table in the East has led to aquifers’ interference, leading to worrying levels of arsenic, fluoride, and iron contamination in groundwater (KINSPARC 2009) (Map 1, 2, 3). In 10 districts in Bihar, even uranium has been found in the groundwater (Manoj 2020). Furthermore, frequent discharge of sewage and industrial waste into shared water bodies puts the health and nutrition of many people at risk. 

Map 1: Levels of Arsenic (Source: TERI 2013: 107)

Map 2 & 3: Levels of Iron and Fluoride (ibid: 108)

A Ministry of Water Resources (n.d.) report shows that East India is replete with high arsenic levels in groundwater (Map 4).

MAP 4: Arsenic Concentration in East India

Source: Ministry of Water Resources (n.d.: 3)

Several studies show alarming levels of chemical contamination across East India’s Gangetic plains, leading to a growing number of people vulnerable to infection (KINSPARC 2009). West Bengal has the largest estimated population at risk for contamination with 26 million, followed by Bihar’s 9 million, Uttar Pradesh’s 3 million, and Assam’s 1.2 million (Manoj 2020). 

At this critical juncture, community ownership plays a crucial role in combating the glaring issues with water conservation and safety. As the Government of Bihar (2010) decrees, wider community ownership will inevitably lead to large-scale awareness amongst the communities about the importance of hygiene practices. This will not only contribute to improving water availability in the long term but will also help in enhancing water quality. 


At present, the role of communities in water conservation is ambiguous. Without clear allocation of responsibilities, citizens view conservation activities as the government’s job while the government views water as a resource dependent on local partnerships. The vagueness around which parties are responsible for the maintenance and governance of shared water bodies leads to neither group leading conservation measures. 

In the wake of this dilemma, the Government of Bihar has initiated discourse around adopting a community-focused approach to water conservation. The Government of Bihar’s (2010) State Water Policy document mentions a lack of ownership amongst the stakeholders and lack of community participation in critical issues for the state. The policy states that:

“The construction and management in the water resources sector is the responsibility of the Government but with the inadequate resources, it is imperative that stakeholders are involved in construction, maintenance, revenue collection, operation, and maintenance for sustainable results” (ibid: 2). 

The Government of Bihar (2010) has proposed a public-private partnership in the area of water management, initiating capacity building programs for community-based organisations such as Self Help Groups, Village Water and Sanitation Committees, and Panchayati Raj Institutions to encourage their participation while also incorporating water education in community awareness.

Providentially, in recent years, the government’s increasingly partial attitude to maintaining shared water systems has resulted in schemes such as Jal Shakti Abhiyan. The State is financing water conservation measures through MGNREGA, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj Departments schemes, and various forestry schemes (Jal Shakti Abhiyan n.d.). The aforementioned measures must evolve to incorporate locals into such projects. This will be the surest way of ushering in decentralised water governance.

Additionally, Bihar’s water policies have consistently shown dedication to employing collective community responsibility as a climate action tool, suggesting special micro-level impetuses for locals, a revival of traditional water harvesting structures and water bodies such as Ahar-Pynes, share management of aquifers, community involvement in preparing an action plan for dealing with the flood, famines, and so forth (Water Resources Department 2014).

Water, as a community resource, must be managed in a way that can evolve into the most equitable and sustainable system for all the stakeholders involved. As Sahoo (2020) articulates, the policies today must be amended to obtain a balance between formal government coordination and informal laws and regulations, constituting “an essential part of the context within which local negotiations take place”. For centuries, such systems have built local resilience to flooding, droughts, loss of soil moisture, and groundwater depletion, transforming the previously unsuitable South Bihar plains into the “rice bowl” of Eastern India(ibid).

The need of the hour is to develop a robust collective understanding of climate change and the importance of registering water as a shared asset. As Bhatt (2011) points out, rising water stress in Bihar will directly impact a myriad of problems such as slower groundwater recharge, groundwater contaminated with iron, arsenic, fluoride, and nitrate, a steady decrease in fish culture and makhana cultivation and the gradual disappearance of wetland ecology among others. Such anticipated impacts engulf the state’s basic agricultural, animal husbandry and fisheries, in addition to impacting the health and wellbeing of locals. Therefore, it is crucial to view water as a resource linked to every aspect of community life in Bihar and build a communal-governing administrative system that is sensitive to the state’s growing water stress. 


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