Mumbai: NITI Aayog’s recent report, “Composite Water Management Index”, underscores the looming threat of India’s water crisis. Its current proportions are severe—about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to water—and are set to become far more so. There are many dimensions to the problem. One of the most important is agriculture, given that it consumes about 83% of India’s freshwater resources.
The roots of the problem, ironically enough, may lie in the Green Revolution. By 1961, India’s agricultural yield problem was severe enough to threaten famine. Norman Borlaug ensured food security with the revolution. But this also included skewed incentive structures—heavily subsidized electricity, water and fertilizers for farmers—which have played a significant role in the misalignment of crop patterns in the country.
Consider the production of water-thirsty crops like paddy and sugar cane in the Punjab-Haryana belt and Maharashtra, respectively. There is a serious mismatch between the cropping pattern of these crops and water resource availability in the states growing them.
The NABARD-ICRIER report makes an argument for moving such high water-reliant crops to other, relatively water-abundant areas. Shifting the major chunk of rice production to India’s central and eastern states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, while encouraging wheat cultivation through sustainable irrigation in the rice-growing regions of Punjab and Haryana, could help India prevent an impending water crisis by 2030.
Readjusting cropping patterns is a job only half done, however. Investing in readjusting irrigation patterns is equally important for fulfilling the “more crop per drop” objective.
Rice and wheat, two of India’s most important food crops, are also the most water-intensive; producing a kilogram of rice requires an average of 2,800 litres of water, while a kilogram of wheat takes 1,654 litres.
In 2014-15, Indian farms consumed 10 trillion litres of water to produce 3.7 million tonnes of basmati rice for export, virtually exporting that amount of water. This is cause for concern in a country where 1 billion people live in conditions of water scarcity and 60% face high to extreme water stress, the report highlighted.
While Punjab and Haryana report the highest land productivity for rice (4 tonnes per hectare), the IWP for these states is relatively low at 0.22 kg/m3, even though they have almost 100% irrigation coverage, which reflects inefficient irrigation water use, encouraged by Punjab’s free electricity policy that enables farmers to pump up groundwater through borewells.
Rainfed Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, in contrast, display higher levels of IWP at 0.68 kg/m3 and 0.75 kg/m3, even though they had substantially lesser irrigation coverage at 32% and 3%, respectively. Land productivity here is also lesser because of low irrigation levels, although the region is hydrologically suited for rice cultivation. The underdeveloped procurement policy for paddy along with low power supplies to agriculture in these states means lower profitability from rice cultivation, according to the NABARD and ICRIER report. Groundwater costs are also much higher in this region and farmers would need to depend on diesel to pump water, which is two to three times the cost of power.
A strategic change in procurement policy could tackle inefficient cropping practices that use up excessive groundwater, the NABARD & ICRIER report suggested.
A shift to direct benefit transfer to farmers’ bank accounts to improve their purchasing power, instead of price-based subsidies on water and power which have resulted in overexploitation of groundwater, could also nudge farmers towards effective cropping patterns and sustainable irrigation practices.
The tasks of making agriculture remunerative, as well as water-friendly, eventually coincide. Doubling farm income by 2022 is a tall order. But if the current government and its successor are to hew to the spirit of that promise at the least, research and development in multi-resistant, water-efficient and high-yielding crops along with investment in alternative modes of irrigation are musts.