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From Plate to Plough: Drop by careful drop

Convert crisis into opportunity: Shift from supply side augmentation to demand side management.

Written by Ashok Gulati |
Updated: May 9, 2016 12:00:06 am
rain, monsoon, water scarcity in india, indian agriculture, drought, drought in india, IMD, waterless in marathwada, marathwada, mango rains, Bundelkhand, indian monsson, monsoon 2016, indian express Bundelkhand and Marathwada are just samples, but in reality more than 250 of India’s 680 plus odd districts have experienced severe drought, where even drinking water became a major problem. Illustration by: C R Sasikumar

Scattered “mango rains” have brought a little respite from scorching heat in certain places. Earlier, IMD’s forecast of above normal monsoon rains had given some hope for forthcoming acche din. Yet, a sizeable part of India is still smouldering under the grip of a drought. Bundelkhand and Marathwada are just samples, but in reality more than 250 of India’s 680 plus odd districts have experienced severe drought, where even drinking water became a major problem. Wisdom lies in converting this water crisis into an opportunity to change policies and programs, so that masses don’t have to suffer again like this. This is feasible only if our policy makers wake up and start caring for water on a high priority.

What is the water picture in the country? India has almost 18 percent of global population but only 4 percent of fresh water resources. On per capita water availability basis, India falls in the category of “water stressed” nations, defined as those with less than 1700 cubic metre water per capita, per year. In 2011, its average water availability hovered around 1545 cubic metre, down from 1816 cubic metres in 2001. But at several places it is already less than even 1000 cubic metres, making them “water scarce.” In any case, the whole nation is expected to be “water scarce” by 2050. So, it is high time to wake up and face the coming reality with rationality.

Almost 78 percent of India’s water is being used for irrigation. With expanding urbanisation, the share of agriculture in water consumption will have to go down. Therefore, better water management will, inevitably, require a closer look at agriculture with a view to using water resources more rationally.

The ultimate irrigation potential (UIP) in the country, at current levels of technology, is 139.9 million hectares (m ha). Of this, almost 54 per cent comes from surface irrigation and 46 percent from groundwater resources. Surface irrigation comprises of major and medium irrigation schemes (42 per cent) and minor surface irrigation schemes (12 per cent). Overall irrigation potential can go up from 139.9 m ha today to 170 m ha, if we tap the potential of inter-linking of rivers. Our gross cropped area (GCA) hovers around 195 m ha. This needs to seen in context of the Prime Minister’s clarion call for “har khet ko pani,” and “per drop, more crop” under PM’s Krishi Sinchayee Yojana.

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Much of government expenditure on irrigation goes for major and medium irrigation schemes. Civil engineers, contractors, and political masters love this for its grand scale. But the bane of this sector is that there are too many projects compared to resources allocated for them, and with thin spreading of expenditures, they linger on for decades, making them an exorbitantly expensive proposition. Large leakages make it even worse.

The other bane is the widening gap between irrigation potential created (IPC) and potential utilised (IPU). While overall IPC so far is around 113 m ha, only about 91 m ha has been utilised. This gives only 47 per cent irrigation cover to GCA. Sometimes, many experts mistakenly take it as a low hanging fruit as if water is lying somewhere and waiting for the last mile field delivery. This is illusionary as much of this water is already utilised. Anyone who gets access to water first, goes for water intensive crops like sugarcane, paddy, bananas, etc. as water is highly subsidised. As a result, not much water is left for tail-enders. No wonder IPU falls much short of IPC.

In groundwater, the problem is over-exploitation and falling water tables. More than 80 per cent of administrative units in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi are overexploited, and water table is depleting by one feet each year. This is eating away resources of future generations. And one of the key factors behind this is the highly subsidised power supplied to rural areas.

So where do we go from here to streamline water policies? The subsidy on power and canal waters together amounts to almost Rs 100,000 crore. Political economy of pricing is such that raising their prices to recover full costs seems very difficult, if not impossible. One needs innovations in public policy.

One innovation could be installing meters to measure power consumption, and also canal waters, and then incentivising farmers to save their consumption by rewarding them with monetary value of say 75 per cent of the savings at a price equivalent to what it would cost to supply from fresh investments. China is doing some such pilots, and our estimates suggest that about 30 per cent savings in water and power is feasible.

Another innovation could be to ration power and water supplies on per ha basis, and let farmers choose cropping patterns based on that allocation. If any farmer wants more of these beyond their rationed quantity, they will have to pay full cost pricing.

Still another innovation will be to replace inefficient pump sets by more energy efficient ones at government cost. Estimates suggest that almost 30 per cent power can be saved. But to save water, we need to promote drip and sprinklers aggressively, especially for sugarcane and banana, saving 40-50 per cent water. So far less than 5 percent of India’s cropped area is under micro-irrigation, and potential is at least three to four times more. Similarly, flooding of rice fields needs to be replaced by SRI (System of Rice Intensification) technique, which can save about 30 per cent water.

Last but not least, stop protecting these water intensive crops. Currently import duty on sugar is 40 per cent and on rice 70-80 percent. In fact, India is a net exporter of “virtual water” as 1 kg of rice requires 3000 to 5000 litres of water and 1 kg of sugar about 2000 litres of water, and both are being exported.

In brief, we need to shift from supply side augmentation to demand side management, and incentivising peasantry to save water by rewarding them, and making imports of water guzzler crops liberal.

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

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