Indian agriculture is governed by an impossible trinity or “trilemma” that requires it to meet three simultaneous objectives — global competitiveness, social inclusiveness and environmental sustainability — each often at odds with the other two. Official policy has largely tilted towards supporting the first two goals, with token, if not grudging, acknowledgement of the importance of the third one. Thus, while there are watershed management projects aimed at moisture conservation and improvement of soil health, the budgetary provisions towards these lag far behind expenditures on subsidies for fertilisers, power, water or seeds.
Almost 65 per cent of India’s arable land area of around 140 million hectares is classified as rainfed. Farming operations in such lands are mostly characterised by low productivity, high risk and poor adoption of modern technology/agronomic practices. Yet, they are home to some 61 per cent of our farmers, and account for 88 per cent of the country’s grossed cropped area under pulses, 69 per cent under oilseeds and 42 per cent under paddy (Agriculture Census 2011).
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Production of pulses, in particular, is concentrated in the rainfed tracts of central, southern and western India, where the soils are thin with little organic matter to retain moisture for extended periods. These areas are also characterised by undulating terrains, low hill ranges bearing forests, narrow valleys, plateaus with hard sub-strata and – most important — the absence of snow-fed rivers that make them unsuitable for extensive canal-based irrigation. Even in regions blessed with plentiful rainfall, the precipitation is typically delivered in barely 40 days during the southwest monsoon season, causing heavy run-offs, soil erosion and poor groundwater recharge. The same region, then, also tend to experience acute water scarcity in the summer months.
The Centre and the Planning Commission, had back in the 1960s realised that it wasn’t possible to support agriculture growth in the rainfed regions by replicating the input-intensive strategy adopted in the better-endowed Green Revolution belt of north-western India or even the larger Indo-Gangetic plains. Thus, a series of initiatives were launched to take a natural resource management (NRM) based approach for promoting farm growth in rainfed areas. Schemes such as the Drought Prone Areas Programme and the Desert Development Programme were implemented in select watersheds to demonstrate the benefits of a holistic and integrated NRM-based approach.
Following the twin drought of 1986 and 1987 — similar to the ones in the last two years — the Centre intensified its efforts at agricultural improvement in rainfed regions through the National Watershed Development Project for Rainfed Areas, which was directly funded by the agriculture ministry. In parallel, the ministries of rural development and environment & forests launched their own watershed development schemes. The NABARD, too, set up a special Watershed Development Fund in 1990, to support projects in 100 key districts. Many of these projects even received liberal funding from bilateral donors and multilateral lenders. Everyone seemed convinced of the NRM-based approach for rainfed areas.
The watershed management schemes had a simple objective: to capture rainfall and runoff on and near the farmer’s field, thereby extending the period of water availability. This would lower the risks in agriculture, while also creating opportunities for crop diversification. Critical to the success of the schemes was people’s participation through watershed committees and self-help groups, facilitated through collaboration between local communities, civil society organisations and government agencies. NGOs were involved extensively during the 1980s and 1990s in planning and implementation of watershed projects in many states.
Several studies, whether by official and multilateral agencies or academic institutions, gave a broad thumbs-up to the NRM/watershed-based projects undertaken in rainfed areas. While the performance on technical parameters —number of farm ponds and check dams built, groundwater recharge levels achieved, etc — was noteworthy, the real success story of watershed management was captured in the rising production of pulses and oilseeds through the first decade of the new millennium. That was no less the cumulative result of the investments made over the previous two decades.
Sadly, from around 2004-05 onwards, watershed management got pushed to the back row of the overall agricultural development strategy. The UPA government that came to power decided to integrate all the various watershed schemes under a single umbrella programme. But more significant was the bureaucratic turf war that erupted between the agriculture and rural development ministries, over who had a better claim on the subject. It lasted for more than a year, at the end of which the rural development ministry carried away the prize. A miffed agriculture ministry promptly turned its back on watershed management. That “watershed” moment, in my view, is the root cause of the present crisis in production of pulses and oilseeds, both of which are largely grown in rainfed regions.
The current government at the Centre has ostensibly brought all watershed management programmes under the ambit of the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY). But the PMKSY itself has sub-schemes controlled by the rural development, agriculture and water resources ministries, each with their own management structures and separate budgets. This is unworkable; the mistake again is to divorce watershed development from agriculture.
The PMO and Niti Aayog must take a view on what is the central goal of improving soil moisture availability. It cannot be anything but achieving higher farm production, productivity and food security, especially in rainfed regions. In the specific case of pulses — where a committee has been set up under chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian to recommend ways for boosting domestic cultivation — price and technology-led incentives cannot work in isolation. A practical solution needs to be worked out to target agricultural development efforts, in tandem with watershed management interventions. Only this can bring about sustainable gains in pulses and even oilseeds production.