Just before dusk on the central plain of northern Punjab state, Naresh Kumar, 22, crouches under a huge drill and sprinkles mustard oil, turmeric, raw sugar and various confections inside a 10-inch circle traced in rich soil.
Hands clasped and head bowed, he offers a short prayer to a Sufi saint and asks for a bountiful supply of groundwater. He then cranks up a wheezing diesel engine, lines up the drill over the offerings and releases a lever that brings an iron cylinder crashing into the earth.
"Business is growing each year," said Kumar. "But we've placed about as many tube wells as we can in this area."
On either side of Kumar's drill, the calm beauty of emerald rice patties belies a quiet catastrophe brewing hundreds of feet beneath the surface. As the water table in Punjab drops dangerously low, farmers across the state are investing - and often going into debt - to bore deeper wells with more powerful pumps.
Experts say the depletion of groundwater is a major threat to food security and economic stability in India, China, the United States, Mexico, Spain and North Africa. In China, the agricultural use of groundwater has skyrocketed, causing water tables to drop in many places by a rate of 5 feet a year.
"The breadbasket of China - north of the Yellow River - has millions of people dependent on groundwater," said David Molden, deputy director general at the International Water Management Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Water depletion is "sitting there like a time bomb."
At 19,000 square miles, Punjab state is just 1.5 percent of India's total territory, but its annual output of rice and wheat produces half of the grain distributed by the state to more than 400 million impoverished Indians, according to Gurdev Hira, an expert on soil and water quality at Punjab Agriculture University in Ludhiana.
And even though booming economic growth in recent years has placed India in the international limelight, more than 60 percent of the economy is directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture and 2 out of 3 Indians live in rural areas, experts say.
"We have depleted the groundwater to such an extent that it is devastating the country," said Hira.
The problem is exacerbated because Indian farmers' electricity bills are either free or heavily subsidized. As a result, many run their pumps with abandon, further depleting water tables. Hira estimates that the energy used in subsidizing rice production costs Punjab state $381 million a year.
Hira and other experts say that if left unchecked, the current system will bleed state budgets, parch aquifers and eventually run small farmers out of business.
"All these issues are interconnected: water, electricity and agriculture," said Saurabh Kumar, who heads the government's Bureau of Energy Efficiency in New Delhi.
Most analysts estimate that India spends $8 billion to $9 billion annually subsidizing farmers' electric water pumps.
That's half the amount spent on health care and twice what the state spends on education, according to government statistics. In a country with child malnutrition rates worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa, some experts are questioning the wisdom of the current system.
"These subsidies hit very hard at health, education and other government programs, and they are being taken by a few select farmers," said Bharat Sharma, with the International Water Management Institute in New Delhi.
"It's one classic example of bad economic policies having very serious environmental consequences," added Shreekant Gupta, a professor of economics at Delhi University.
Unlike many academics and policy wonks who say the answer to India's groundwater problems and energy woes is to charge farmers the true cost of electricity, Kumar says that would only spark riots.
As a result, he is set to begin a $7.5 billion pilot program nationwide that will create more efficient groundwater pumps with meters and prepaid electricity credits, allowing farmers to draw roughly the same amount of water they use now. But if they pump less, they can pocket the savings. If they pump more, they pay more. Utility companies will also upgrade transmission and distribution lines to improve service.
Meanwhile, Kumar and other farmers continue to dig 375-foot wells and pump out remaining groundwater.
"People will always be able to arrange money from somewhere to deepen his aquifer," Kumar said. "But if you hit the end of the aquifer, it's the end for everybody."
E-mail Daniel Pepper at email@example.com.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle