Laxman Singh Rathore and his entire team in the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) need to be complimented for giving us sufficient warning, well in advance, about the likelihood of yet another year of deficit rainfall. Although it was not good news, the messenger kept its honesty and boldness in speaking the bitter truth. On April 22, in its initial forecasts of 2015 monsoon rains, the rains were forecast to be 93 per cent of the long period average (LPA, 1951-2000), which was revised to 88 per cent of LPA on June 2. In later press interviews, Rathore indicated that the final tally may be even lower.
Forecasting these figures has been even more daunting and challenging for the IMD since a private forecaster, Skymet, consistently came up with its predictions of normal rainfall (102 per cent of LPA earlier, and then revising to 98 per cent later). In reality, as on September 10, the rain deficit stood at 15 per cent below the LPA with little chance of a turnaround now. This should lead Skymet to introspect about its forecasts and how its optimistic forecast had made many policymakers complacent.
The situation is most precarious currently in Maharashtra, especially in Marathwada and Madhya Maharashtra, where the deficit figures have hovered between minus 40 to minus 50 per cent during the last 10 days or so. As such, many dams have gone almost dry, or way below the desired water levels. This has created almost an emergency situation of drinking water for humans as well as animals.
Lately, Maharashtra has been the epicentre of farmer suicides. More than 600 farmers have committed suicide. Frontloading and enhancing insurance compensation as soon as the monsoon is over, by September end, would go a long way in providing some relief. Restructuring agricultural credit could be another option.
But Maharashtra has to think in terms of a medium- to long-term strategy for agriculture. The following facts about Maharashtra’s agriculture explain why it is under severe stress during every drought. Despite having the largest number of dams in the country, less than 20 per cent of the state’s cropped area is under irrigation cover. Between 1992-93 and 2011-12, Maharashtra’s cumulative capital expenditure on major and medium irrigation schemes was Rs 81,359 crore (at historical prices). At 2014-15 constant prices, this works out to be Rs 1,37,917 crore. During the same period, the potential created under these schemes was only 2.1 million hectare (ha). This results in a capital cost of almost Rs 6.6 lakh per ha — more than double Gujarat’s (Rs 2.9 lakh per ha) and almost four times that of Uttar Pradesh (Rs 1.6 lakh per ha), for the same period.
Now consider this. Roughly 5 per cent of the cropped area in the state, which is under sugarcane cultivation, takes away more than 60 per cent of irrigation water of the state. This is because sugarcane receives 100 per cent irrigation and requires 25-30 irrigations as compared to, say, cotton, of which less than 3 per cent is irrigated, or tur and soyabean, of which less than 2 per cent is irrigated. It is noteworthy that all these crops require much less irrigation (just two to five irrigations). Water means prosperity in Maharashtra’s agriculture, and the implication of this skewed distribution of water is that almost 5 per cent of farmers take away 60 per cent of potential prosperity from water, leaving the remaining peasants high and dry.
It is time to rationalise policies — especially water distribution — relating to the sugar sector, or else, in the years to come, people will suffer even greater water stress. One way to do it is to ration the water supply from public irrigation schemes, so that a larger number of farmers receive irrigation. In a market system, one could have raised the irrigation water charges to align water use. But our political masters are always wary of raising the prices of water and power, which leads to unsustainable cropping patterns.The other way is to put a minimum of 50 per cent of sugarcane cultivation under drip irrigation over the next five to seven years and release the saved water (almost 40-50 per cent) for other crops and encourage crop diversification, including those that can give enough fodder for cattle. The money for the scaled up drip irrigation can come from the Centre, state, sugar factories and sugarcane farmers.
At a national level, one has to think of land use policy and also of developing cropping patterns that are sustainable and in line with natural resource endowments, as well as globally competitive. Given that the real cost of irrigation in Maharashtra is four times higher than in UP, one has to account for this in efficiency calculations. Maybe Maharashtra is more suitable for industrial clusters than agriculture — this, therefore, could be incorporated in land use policy.
It’s time for the state to bite the bullet and restructure its agriculture to put it on a sustainable path, bringing prosperity and resilience to a larger number of farmers.
The writer is Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at Icrier