India is home to 17.5 per cent of the world’s population, but has only 4 per cent of the fresh water resources. Agriculture consumes some 78 per cent of the fresh water supply. With increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, India will not only have to augment, but also use its water supplies efficiently.
In Budget 2017-18, a sum of Rs 7,377 crore has been allocated to the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, a 42 per cent jump over the revised estimates for FY17. Also, finance minister Arun Jaitley provided Rs 20,000 crore for a Long Term Irrigation Fund to bring 7.6 million hectares (mh) under irrigation, by fast-tracking the completion of 99 prioritised projects in four years. The corpus, to be created by NABARD via market borrowings, will keep the government’s fiscal deficit in control. Also, a dedicated Micro Irrigation Fund with an initial corpus of Rs 5,000 crore has been created, again through NABARD.
Even within the direct budgetary allocation for PMKSY, Rs 3,400 crore or 46 per cent has been set aside for the ‘per drop more crop’ micro-irrigation component, an increase of 71 per cent over 2016-17. In real terms, after adjusting for WPI, the Budget allocation for micro-irrigation in 2017-18 works out about 22 per cent higher than the revised estimates of 2010-11.
Micro-irrigation has expanded to 8.73 mh area in 2016-17. But this is just 13 per cent of the total coverage potential of 69.5 mh. These systems deliver water savings of up to 40 per cent over conventional flood irrigation, along with appreciable crop productivity increases. The latter is due to the application of the right quantity of water at the right place (root zone). Besides, piped water facility connecting dams and micro-irrigation systems can substantially reduce water losses from canals to fields; they can ensure roughly 70 per cent conveyance efficiency and 90 per cent overall water use efficiency. This could be a major step at promoting sustainable water use in agriculture.
A case in point is the impact of drip irrigation on sugarcane and cotton cultivation in Marathwada. In 2014-15, the region accounted for over a fifth of the sugarcane area of Maharashtra. Since it consumes about 2,000 litres of water for every kg of sugar produced, experts have questioned whether the crop should be grown at all in such areas. But Marathwada has prospered because of sugar mills there creating several thousands of jobs both upstream and downstream. Sugarcane farmers, too, are unlikely to go back to growing jowar or bajra. It suggests that adopting better water management through micro-irrigation is what may be really required.
Water saved through drip irrigation in a one-hectare sugarcane area can bring some five hectares under cotton.
At an average Rs 75,000 per hectare cost for installing drip systems, Rs 7,722 crore would be required to bring Maharashtra’s sugarcane area under micro-irrigation. But in FY16, the state’s budget allocation for micro-irrigation was a mere Rs 176.75 crore. It shows how our priorities are rather perverted. NABARD is raising Rs 20,000 crore from the market for completion of major and medium schemes having a water use efficiency of 35-40 percent, but only Rs 5,000 crore for micro-irrigation in which this is 85-90 percent. Why not float micro-irrigation bonds for Rs 20,000 crore or more?
The future revolution in agriculture will come from precision farming. Micro-irrigation can, indeed, be the stepping stone for achieving the goal of making farming sustainable, profitable and productive. If only our policymakers fully recognise this.