Not all cultivable land is under irrigation; water usage is inefficient
Only 45 per cent of the cultivable area in the country is irrigated,” says Siraj Hussain, former agriculture secretary. “Punjab is lucky to have 98 per cent irrigation but agricultural states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and Rajasthan have less than 30 per cent irrigation.” The 45 per cent irrigated area apart, the rest rely on the monsoon. Any failure of rains, and agricultural growth nosedives. The cumulative rainfall during the monsoon season of 2015-16, for instance, was deficient by 14 per cent, higher than the rainfall deficit of 12 per cent in the year before.
Within the overall irrigated land, nearly 60 per cent is from pumped groundwater. Using subsidised electricity, such groundwater is pumped at will, drawing up more annually than China and America combined. According to a recent European Commission report, India has 20 million boreholes. The water table is falling on an average by 0.3 metres and by as much as an alarming 4 metres in some places. The problem is not a lack of adequate water, but its reckless overuse. According to The Economist, “China, with a larger population, uses 28 per cent less fresh water than India.”
The Modi government, on July 1, 2015, launched the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), which is expected to cover 28.5 lakh hectare under irrigation. The aim was reflected in the slogans “har khet ko paani (water to every field)” and “per drop more crop” to improve water efficiency. The PMKSY linked three different departments of the government—agriculture, rural development and water resources—and identified 99 projects that were incomplete for almost two decades for early completion under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP).
However, as Gulati points out, “None of these projects has been completed till now and the majority of incomplete projects in Maharashtra face inordinate delays and serious allegations of corruption.”
According to irrigation expert Tushaar Shah, the government is spending the bulk of funds—Rs 50,000 crore under PMKSY and the Rs 20,000 crore escrow account with National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard)—on 93 incomplete large irrigation projects. The emphasis instead, he says, should be on a network of smaller canals, like in Madhya Pradesh, that deliver water directly to the farmer. The bureaucracy is obsessed, claims Shah, with large dams, reservoirs and large canals, contracts for which are usually awarded to political cronies. It is groundwater, in fact, that covers 65 to 70 per cent of irrigated area, yet the NDA government has allocated only 5 to 7 per cent of the irrigation funds to sources of groundwater.
On top of this, water efficiency continues to be extremely poor in India, with farmers using almost 2-3 times more water to produce one tonne of grain compared with Brazil, China and the US. The Economic Survey of 201516 concluded that India largely uses the technique of flood irrigation, where water is allowed to flow into the field and seep into the soil. This causes wastage of water as excess water seeps into the soil or evaporates.
HOW TO FIX IT
According to Gulati, if the government is to realise its dream of doubling farm incomes by 2022, it needs to treble the resources for irrigation in order to ensure water for every farm. “The minimum annual investment needed would be Rs 3 lakh crore for irrigation for the next five years,” he estimates. Experts at the recent Nabard deliberations also agreed that investing more in irrigation was critical to raising farmers’ incomes. The central allocation under the PMKSY was Rs 5,767 crore in the last budget, while states put together over Rs 1.04 lakh crore for irrigation in 2015-16.
The 2015-16 Economic Survey recommended that farmers shift from flood irrigation to micro irrigation systems such as drip or sprinkler. This will help conserve water besides saving on the costs of irrigation.
Access to groundwater is the most important stimulus to increase farm productivity, especially for marginal farmers. The government should provide 24 hour power supply to farmers and charge them a reasonable fee to encourage farmers to use their tubewells responsibly. “By giving power free to farmers in Punjab and Haryana, the government caused the deterioration of power supply,” says Shah. The British colonial government, which built the earliest network of canals, levied an irrigation service fee in the form of a water tax, collecting enough money to maintain canals. After Independence, the political authorities made irrigation service free, ending up with no money for the maintenance of these irrigation systems. The Indian government must revive a form of maintenance fee to make irrigation sustainable.
Harvest of hope (Left) Irrigation at the first agro-farm in Mysore, Karnataka; a seed supplier shares productivity techniques with a farmer in Telangana