“This earth is higher than all the heavens,” said Swami Vivekananda. In a different context, this quote can be an inspiration for planners and policymakers in Indian agriculture, as India braces itself for a sub-normal monsoon for the second year in a row. Coming on the heels of unseasonal rains which damaged the rabi crop in several parts of the country, the prospect of a below par monsoon is keeping almost all stakeholders – governments, RBI, industry, farmers and the average consumer – jittery.
However, as important as the monsoons are, we need to be prepared to live with more frequent sub-normal monsoons in the years to come. For that, we perhaps need to talk more about what we can do, rather than merely praying to the heavens. In India, the net irrigated area still accounts for less than 50% of the net area under cultivation, implying that more than half of our cultivated land is at the mercy of the monsoon. There is clearly a need to increase the total irrigation potential in India. The other major problem is that a significant share of the irrigation potential in the country remains unutilized. By the end of 2012, the unutilized share in the total irrigation potential exceeded 20%. This is primarily because of poor maintenance of irrigation sources, leading to problems such as siltation of canals and low water discharge. In many cases, diversion of cultivable land for other uses has also led to poor utilization of irrigation potential.
Another challenge is the poor efficiency of water usage in Indian agriculture. Irrigation accounts for more than 80% of total water used in the country, and the prevalent water use efficiency in irrigation is a mere 35%. In other words, almost 65% of irrigation water is effectively wasted. This wastage of a precious resource like water contributes to low productivity in agriculture.
The solutions to both these problems are also largely known. “Participatory Irrigation Management” is now commonly acknowledged as one of the best ways to manage irrigation sources better. In such an approach, the mobilization of farmers in the form of “Water User Associations” (WUAs) is encouraged with the intention of allowing them a stake in the management of water, including charging a fee based on total consumption of water. This is meant to ensure that water use is equitable and sustainable in a given command area. Most states in India have enacted laws to give effect to such bodies. However, there is considerable variation in the performance of such WUAs across the country. In states like Andhra Pradesh (43%), Chhattisgarh (78.8%) and Karnataka (30%), a significant share of irrigation potential is covered by such WUAs. In other states however, this share is considerably lower. Even where such WUAs exist, quite a few of them have absolutely no effect on the ground. It is therefore imperative that such WUAs are strengthened, if possible, through a suitable incentive structure which encourages them to collect user charges for water.
The other major reason behind the wastage of water – especially groundwater – has been the almost unlimited access to free power (whenever available) to farmers. This has encouraged rampant extraction of groundwater, leading to lowering of the water-table in many parts of the country. The government’s feeder segregation proposal under the “Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana” could potentially address this problem, like it did to some extent in Gujarat. In this initiative, a separate feeder line provides power to the fields for irrigation purposes for only a limited duration during the day.
Lastly, one of the most scientific ways to improve productivity while reducing water consumption is micro-irrigation. In our country, according to some estimates, less than 10% of the total micro-irrigation potential in the country is presently utilized. Here again, states like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have been the early starters, while other states have some catching-up to do. An important aspect of micro-irrigation schemes and projects in various states has been the fact that they largely benefit the small and marginal farmers, with land holdings smaller than 2 hectares in size.
The best example has been that of Maharashtra, which subsidizes 50-60% of the cost of micro-irrigation equipment for small and marginal farmers. In addition, Maharashtra has also mandated the use of drip irrigation for sugarcane cultivation in the state. These initiatives are laudable, and will hopefully be complemented by the Centre’s Pradhanmantri Krishi Sichai Yojana (PMKSY), which includes a component for micro-irrigation subsidies. In the long-run, as the Central government, seeks to move away from price supports to other forms of subsidies (to align with WTO standards), there is a good case for increasing input support to farmers for micro-irrigation, given its obvious benefits.
The latest revision of the monsoon forecast by our Met Department is certainly a cause for concern. Yet, it is also a reminder of how much we need to do to mitigate the effects of poor monsoons in the years to come. There is simply no time to waste.
This article was originally posted in The Pioneer.