From Plate to Plough — The big thirst

It’s not that Maharashtra has spent less on irrigation. The real problem is its high cost.

Written by Ashok Gulati | Updated: April 25, 2016 12:00:18 am
The water train chugging into Latur on its fourth run Friday evening. (Express Photo by Pradip Das) The water train chugging into Latur on its fourth run. (Express Photo by Pradip Das)

Latur in Maharashtra has become a symbol of acute water scarcity. Several “jal doots” (water trains) had to ferry water to thirsty Latur. The Maharashtra government also imposed Section 144 to maintain law and order near water bodies/ distribution points. The high court intervened in the case of IPL matches and asked these to be shifted out of the state to save about 60 lakh litres of water.

It’s not the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that trains had to ferry drinking water in water-stressed areas. Their frequency and coverage may increase, unless some major corrective actions are taken. Back-to-back drought has exposed the vulnerable water situation not just in Latur but in more than 250 districts (out of 678) in India. While the timid curse the nature, the bold and wise rise to the challenge, and convert a crisis into an opportunity for change that can benefit the masses. Nitin Gadkari, in his Express Adda programme on April 15, flagged the issue by pointing out that Maharashtra is hugely under-investing in developing its irrigation cover, just Rs 7,000 crore compared to Rs 25,000 crore in Telangana.

Maharashtra has only 18 per cent of its cropped area under irrigation cover compared to an all-India average of 47 per cent and states like Punjab with 97 per cent. No doubt, one needs to invest more in irrigation. If Maharashtra can think of a bullet train costing Rs 90,000 crore, why can’t it put similar priority in developing its water resources? The first thing needed is removing the elitist biases in public policymaking and resource allocation.

But let’s look at how much money Maharashtra has already put in public irrigation during the 10 years of 10th and 11th Plans (FY03-12), and what came of it. To make them comparable, we converted yearly expenditures to 2014-15 prices. The cumulative public expenditure for irrigation over these 10 years in Maharashtra works out to Rs 1,18,235 crore. During this period, the irrigation potential created (IPC) was 8.9 lakh ha and irrigation potential utilised (IPU) was just 5.9 lakh ha. This gives us the cost of IPU at Rs 20 lakh/ ha. Compare this with Gujarat, which spent only Rs 46,888 crore (at 2014-15 prices) over the same period and created irrigation potential of 22.5 lakh ha and utilised 17.3 lakh ha, with an IPU cost of only Rs 2.71 lakh/ ha. For MP, the similar cost works out to Rs 4.26 lakh/ ha over the same period.

So the real issue is not that Maharashtra spent less on irrigation. It’s why its costs are so high (Rs 20 lakh/ ha) compared to MP (Rs 4.26 lakh/ ha) and Gujarat (Rs 2.71 lakh/ ha). Is it really topography or the massive leakages in irrigation systems? Although one would tend to agree with Gadkari that more resources are needed in Maharashtra’s irrigation, without fixing leaks, pouring more money will not have the desired results. Maharashtra needs a white paper scrutinising its irrigation expenditures and irrigation potential, created and utilised, in comparison with similar states to find out why such huge investments haven’t yielded results.

Let’s now turn to the issue of sugarcane. Just one fact should expose the story. Sugarcane occupies about 4 per cent of gross cropped area in Maharashtra’s agriculture but takes away almost two-thirds of the state’s irrigation water. Such a huge inequity doesn’t exist in any other state. In a market economy, a progressively rising price of irrigation water, with increasing usage of water (and power), can solve this anomaly. But when water and power for agriculture are highly subsidised, it artificially creates excess demand, triggering a scramble for these scarce resources. No wonder, the more powerful win and take away the potential prosperity of others. The fact that cotton area in Maharashtra is just 3 per cent irrigated, while sugarcane is 100 per cent irrigated, and cotton needs just four-five irrigations while sugarcane is flooded with 25-30, tells the sordid story. In Gujarat, cotton is 57 per cent irrigated. No surprise then that Gujarat’s yields are double that of Maharashtra.

What can be done on the demand management side? The government has already decided that in the next five years, no new sugar factories can come up in Marathwada. It’s a welcome step, but what about the 20 sugar factories that came up in the last three years? When water is scarce, the only way to manage its demand is either by raising its price progressively with use, or by rationing quantity. Can the government move in that direction, giving everyone water on the same per ha basis and letting them trade thereafter? Short of that is making drip irrigation almost compulsory for sugarcane in Maharashtra. Can the government ask sugar factories to ensure at least 75 per cent of sugarcane area is brought under drip in the next three years, else they lose the right to operate? Drip will save almost 40-50 per cent water. Historically, eastern UP and Bihar were sugarcane centres, which are naturally endowed with a lot of water. But the licensing priority to cooperatives brought sugar to a belt that doesn’t have ample water. So the water conflicts are obvious.

Finally, what about the HC’s decision on IPL matches? One kilogram of sugar uses more than 2,000 litres of water. Only three tonnes of sugar, costing about Rs 1 lakh, could have supplied the equivalent water for IPL matches that were supposed to generate Rs 100 crore in revenue. How much emotion, hype, drama and rationality there is in these policies and pronouncements, readers can judge for themselves.

The writer is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at Icrier, Delhi

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