Monday, March 23, 2020

Water Conservation and Agricultural Policies

Image source: Forbes India
Anandhakrishnan S

The agriculture sector in our nation has always enjoyed the privilege of being a vital part of our economic structure and with almost 160 million hectare of land under cultivation, the sector employs the majority of our population. Though the GDP contribution of agriculture is only 14 per cent, with the sheer number of people it employs and its importance in maintaining food security and controlling inflation rate, the sector holds a significant position while formulating the policies concerning our nation. While talking about the different elements which control the sector, the availability of water holds primary position in influencing the outcome and impact concerning agriculture. It has been estimated that, of the total water used in our nation, more than 80 per cent goes into agricultural activities. Almost 65 per cent of the total water is drawn from the ground and we are dependent on rainfall and other sources such as rivers for the rest. The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) estimates that almost 1071 blocks in our nation are experiencing a critical decline in groundwater level. Erratic climate conditions along with deficient rainfall are setting the path for water shortage in the near future, thus raising a red flag against our agricultural productivity requirements.

Rice, wheat, cotton, sugarcane and dairy products are the major agricultural produce of our country. All of the mentioned crops are water-intensive crops and cover a huge portion of the total land under cultivation. So, even a slight change in the availability of water will affect the production of these crops. Replacing such crops with less water-intensive and more nutrient-rich varieties such as millet was one of the main objectives when our government declared 2018 as the year of millet. The degree of effect of that programme is yet to be seen. Also, increasing the support for these water-intensive crops on one hand, mainly through minimum support price and subsidy for cultivation, and expecting the farmers to deviate from these crops on the other hand might not present a tangible outcome. Provision of subsidised electricity and fuel for extracting groundwater in a way keeps the farmers away from adopting efficient use of water in agriculture fields.

This situation demands an intervention into the use of water in our agricultural sector, especially irrigation. This has to be read along with the fact that the cereal yield of our nation is 2900 kg/ha, which is considerably low compared to international standards. Thus, it is important to have efficient irrigation mechanisms to ensure maximum output with minimum use of water. With this aim in mind, the government has launched many programmes such as Pradhan Mantri Sinchayi Yojana, Participatory Irrigation Programme, Micro Irrigation Programme, etc. Though many of these programmes offer huge subsidies for the farmers to adopt modern micro irrigation techniques, the area coverage brought under these schemes is significantly low. Though initiatives such as regulating the irrigation process in an area through “Water Users Groups”—managed by farmers—had the potential to change the scenario, the method of implementation—which relied upon the trickle-down theory and policies directed from the top administration to the grassroots—created many obstacles. Building consensus and designing of programmes from the ground level should be given importance as this is one of the effective ways to accommodate the ethnographic and demographic diversity which shapes the impact of such programmes.

The policies and practices in the agricultural sector should be mapped in a systematic way rather than in isolation. Creating provision for the farmers to extract water from the ground in a cost effective way, such as providing support to install solar water pumps (as stated in the Union Budget 2020), should be balanced with incentive mechanisms to ensure judicial and productive use of water. The claim over water resources resulting in many confrontations between different states in our nation makes it equally important to establish a detailed control mechanism which can regulate groundwater and other water sources between various stakeholders. With the fact that many cities in our nation are facing severe water crisis, it is time we deviate from the concept of water as a common good to water as an important commodity, the use of which should be monitored, controlled and priced.

Anandhakrishnan S is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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