The quest for groundwater in post-colonial India

The story of how the exploration of aquifers under the earth's surface in India became an agricultural endeavour rather than geological.

November 08, 2017 08:25 pm | Updated 08:25 pm IST

Groundwater is ultimately a utility, not a commodity to quench the thirst for exploration for its own sake. | Ashoke Chakrabarty

Groundwater is ultimately a utility, not a commodity to quench the thirst for exploration for its own sake. | Ashoke Chakrabarty

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Though gigantic dams are central to the popular picture of water and modernity, small privately owned groundwater pumps account for two-thirds of Indian irrigation today. So important was groundwater's role in the Green Revolution that economists like Robert Repetto have called it a tubewell revolution. While the boom in private tubewell ownership took place in the mid-1960s, large-scale public tubewell irrigation was pioneered in the interwar period with the United Provinces State Tubewell Irrigation Scheme using power from the Upper Ganges Canal Rural Electrification Scheme. After the Second World War and Independence, India embarked on some of the largest tubewell constructions, causing great excitement in the Anglo-American tubewell industry.


There was much emphasis on groundwater research and exploration in the 1950s, to support massive public tubewell programmes. The Geological Survey of India had been substantially engaged in providing advice on groundwater supply for municipalities, irrigation, industries and military infrastructure such as airfields since at least 1920. This work increased substantially with the Second World War, at the end of which a separate Engineering Geology and Groundwater Section was set up to provide consultancy services to the many dam and tubewell projects that would come to characterise postwar economic development. The section was headed by an interesting character called John Bicknell Auden who was married to the nationalist WC Bonnerjee ’s granddaughter. The poet WH Auden’s brother, John, was a Cambridge-trained geologist who was the last European to join the GSI in 1926 and the last to leave in 1953. He used most of his European furloughs to explore the Himalayas and is most known for his work on Himalayan geology which involved him taking part in the famed Karakoram expedition immortalised in Eric Shipton’s Blank on the Map (1937).


Source: Wikipedia

John Bicknell Auden , the elder brother of poet W.H. Auden, was a keen student of the Vindhyan mountains while working with the Geological Survey of India. In 1945–51, while investigating all the major dam sites, hydroelectric projects, irrigation works and water supply schemes of India, he became an acclaimed expert on groundwater in the Kutch and Rajasthan region.

W.H. Auden's The Ascent of F6 was allegedly inspired from a conversation his brother had with him about his Himalayan explorations.

Such was the volume of dam work that the GSI fell short of technical manpower and requested help from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in the late 1940s, marking a shift from British to American expertise, something which was to repeat itself across scores of scientific disciplines and institutions during the postwar decades in India. This was enabled by President Truman’s Point Four Programme of 1948 and later by the Indo-US Technical Cooperation Agreement of 1952, both of which were part of an American strategy to use technical aid as a tool of Cold War diplomacy.

The first USGS personnel arrived in India under the programme in 1950, inaugurating a steady trickle over the next decade or so. In 1953, within a couple of years of the Americans’ arrival, the last formal link of the GSI to Britain was severed with the departure of the JB Auden. Then at the brink of becoming the director of the GSI, Auden opted to resign and pursue opportunities elsewhere in the developing world, including a long stint with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, later writing that he left partly as he felt that an Indian should head the GSI and partly fearful of “headaches” in recruitment and State representation in the post-colonial scenario. He remained a great lover of India (and was idolised in return by generations of Indian geologists) whose ashes where immersed in the Ganga upon his passing in 1991.

While Auden and others at the GSI were generalists, the USGS had developed formidable expertise in groundwater. As early as 1903, the new Hydrographic Branch of the USGS had been split into a Division of Hydrography (for stream gauging), a Division of Hydro-Economics, a Reclamation Service and a Division of Hydrology (for groundwater). In addition, a 1916 act authorised funds for discovering, developing and protecting desert water supplies. Western Congressmen also managed to appropriate large funds for a programme of exploratory drilling. In India, there was a great preference for American expertise in part due to their domestic experience with groundwater issues in a country with large arid tracts; when asked by the UK Trade Commissioner in New Delhi why the government was not purchasing more tubewell equipment from the British, a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture bluntly replied that there was no area in the UK which had tubewells.

In the course of these negotiations, British and American firms decided to collaborate rather than compete, and formed a consortium called Parson-Johnston-Brush International to collectively bid for the contracts. In 1950, the Government of India contracted this company to carry out a groundwater reconnaissance survey in Madras, U.P., Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal and Saurashtra. The contractors’ report recommended exploratory drilling, which was seconded by a committee of geologists; the Technical Cooperation Administration (the organisation set up to coordinate American aid to India) had also recommended the setting up of a nationwide survey of economical groundwater supplies for irrigation in India, while a detailed project was proposed by Auden in 1952. With the signing of the 12th Operational Agreement of Indo-U.S. Technical Cooperation in 1953, the All India Groundwater Exploration Project was born. It envisaged the drilling of 350 holes in 15 “soft rock” regions of the country to prospect for water. For the first time, organised groundwater investigations not in support of any particular project would be conducted in India. The project was to be described in later decades as the “forerunner of modern concept introduced in India in the search for ground water resources with a multi-disciplinary scientific approach”.


In 1954, an Exploratory Tubewells Organisation (ETO) was set up for the purpose within the Ministry of Food and Agriculture. A new Groundwater Exploration Section of the GSI was to provide technical support for siting the boreholes and for recording the strata encountered (during well logging ). The new section, which consisted of 24 geologists, a geophysicist, a well-logging technician, a geophysical assistant, six electrical-logging operators, an instrument operator, four surveyors, and three chemists, was distinct from the Engineering Geology and Groundwater Section which was to continue local investigations. The scale of the project can be ascertained by the fact that the GSI had only five officers working on groundwater when the Engineering Geology and Groundwater Section was set up in 1945.

A consultancy contract was awarded to the Los Angeles based Ralph M. Parson’s Company. “Project Elephant” as the company called it was a massive engineering and logistical enterprise. Fifteen heavy duty drilling rigs were procured from the U.S. The trucks to carry the rigs were received in complete disassemble to save on customs duty but the company contracted to assemble them was only experienced with light vehicles. Pumps were slow to arrive. Systematic maintenance protocols were hard to establish and there was much damage to the equipment from elementary causes such as lubrication and failure to fill radiators. According to the contractor, the ETO was developed along the lines of a Public Works staff, which was inadequate for research projects requiring immediate on-the-spot decisions. Reference to headquarters hundreds of miles away resulted not only in lost time but also in the loss of uncased wells.

The company quickly developed differences with the GSI; for example, while the contractor held that the term “economic supplies of groundwater” necessitated discontinuance of drilling once supplies adequate for a well were encountered, the GSI called for the testing of the water-yielding capacity of the most important aquifer and the testing of all aquifers to determine their importance. Conflicting instructions were frequently issued; in the contractor’s words, many deep holes were drilled in search of information “not readily associated with the development of economical ground-water supplies”. The GSI’s use of unskilled manual labour for taking samples often led to inaccuracies and well logs were often taken on improperly washed holes. Nevertheless, considerable reserves were located in Gujarat, the Narmada Valley, Odisha, the Jaisalmer desert, U.P., Bihar, Punjab and West Bengal.


Of the 25 American staff working with the company in India, only two were hydrogeologists. Three were engineers, one was a stores officer while the rest were concerned with the practice of drilling (five drilling superintendents and 14 drillers). Amongst the project’s accomplishments, the contractor noted that many drillers had been trained who would be adept at exploration for water, oil or minerals. This, perhaps more than the scientific data obtained was the project’s true accomplishment.

Gurnam Singh, a Punjabi farmer’s son joined the ETO as a driller with some prior experience and served in various parts of India, gaining experience in drilling holes deeper than he had previously encountered. He resigned after twelve years, working briefly for the National Coal Development Corporation and as a driller at Bird and Co. in Calcutta where an ex-ETO engineer was manager. Quitting in 1970, he bought small drilling rig in a Calcutta scrap market and set up as a drilling contractor in Punjab in the wake of the Green Revolution. Gurnam Singh and Co. , run by his family today, has clients ranging from various industries and provincial government departments to the World Bank, as Gurnam Singh wrote in his memoirs as a Mercedes-driving millionaire.

With the completion of the American project in 1959, the groundwater work of the GSI suffered something of a setback as the Groundwater Exploration Section was wound up. Much follow-on research from the project continued, and it was realised that large-scale exploration was not an end in itself but a precursor to longer-term assessment of the new reserves. But while it did much in the 1960s the GSI’s approach was somewhat desultory, and it found itself unprepared to answer the increasingly specific and complex questions demanded by policymakers as the private tubewell boom began.

While the cadre of groundwater geologists had increased manifold, the numbers clearly weren’t enough; in 1970 BB Vohra, the Agriculture Secretary, estimated that at the present rate, the GSI’s 80 groundwater geologists would take 30-50 years to survey all of India. Vohra made the case for all groundwater work to be vested with the ETO which could serve as a single point of contact for credit agencies such as the World Bank which had begun to lend massively to India for groundwater development and demanded increasingly complex data to appraise projects.

Vohra saw the Agriculture Ministry as the right home for the new body for the “simple reason that agriculture is the greatest beneficiary of groundwater and therefore most interested in its development”, leaving unsaid the fact that perhaps being with the beneficiary department experts might lose their independence. The ETO became the Central Groundwater Board in 1970 and the Groundwater Wing of the GSI was merged with it in 1972, thus ending several decades of groundwater work in that institution.

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