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Sustaining farm sector growth amid fall in water availability

Kunal Bose 

Had late winter rains not damaged some standing crops in northern states, India would have had record foodgrain production of 263 million tonnes (mt) in 2013-14. Whatever the loss of rabi crops, the good southwest allowed India to record the targeted growth of four per cent in production. However, a good season should not distract us from the reality of the farm sector's vulnerability to major shocks when the plays truant. Spells of drought kept agricultural growth at 3.6 per cent annually during the 11th Plan (2006-12).

But four per cent growth is no holy grail for septuagenarian evangelist Bhavarlal Jain. Slowly but surely, Jain is seeing converts among politicians, bureaucrats and bankers, who are starting to think as "weather is to become increasingly unpredictable due to global warming, the challenge for Indian farmers will be to produce more with less and less water and energy". Jain says India has the potential to grow its at a "much higher rate than the official four per cent, provided our farmers, especially those owning small parcels of land, are adequately empowered with technology, including innovative ways of irrigating crops with measured quantities of water, which is impossible under the conventional flood irrigation system and capital".

Jain's prescription is to be seen in the context of the country's population, set to grow from the current 1.2 billion to 1.5 billion by 2040. This will require the country to step up food production enormously from farmland that shrank two per cent in the past two decades. During this period, annual food production growth was only two per cent. In his last two Budgets, Finance Minister P Chidambaram spoke about the need for a second green revolution, particularly in eastern states, and the development of new, high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. Also that India had to be ready to accommodate the changing dietary habits of large sections of the urban population in favour of poultry products, meat and fruit.

The government's commitment to provide perennial food security is commendable. However, what baffles food experts and agronomists is the intent is not backed by a strategy that takes into account the continuously declining per capita availability of water, now below 1,000 cubic metres, the rapidly falling groundwater because of overextraction by farmers committed to flood irrigation and the need for total retooling of the farm extension programme. Through field demonstrations, farmers have to be convinced the use of appropriate technologies will improve productivity.

The ground reality is a matter of concern. "We account for 17 per cent of the world's population but have only four per cent of global water resources. Still, we remain the world's largest user of freshwater. Groundwater alone meets 65 per cent of the country's total water demand," says Atul B Jain, joint managing director of Jain Irrigation.

Unbridled exploitation of groundwater is because it is an open-access resource. Over-reliance on the water-wasting and soil-damaging flood irrigation led to India extracting 251 billion cubic metres (bcm) of groundwater in 2010, compared with 112 bcm by the US. In 1980, India used 90 bcm of groundwater. This shows the rapid depletion of this resource has not, in any way, put a restraint on its exploitation. The volume of water used in flood irrigation for growing any crop is a lot higher than that under the micro irrigation system (MIS), be it drip or sprinkler. For instance, growing sugarcane with flood irrigation requires 25,400 cubic metres of water per hectare, against 12,019 cubic metres for MIS. In case of the rabi rice crop, MIS will reduce water application by as much as two-thirds compared to flood irrigation.

Pumping of water for irrigating land requires the use of energy, electricity or diesel. The farm sector, which accounts for 83 per cent of India's fresh water use, records about 30 per cent share of India's electricity consumption. Extraction of groundwater contributes about five per cent to the country's total carbon emission. Under the widely practiced conventional irrigation system, growing fields are flooded periodically, leaving the soil and plant roots in a deep pool of water.

A Harvard Business School paper says flood irrigation is a highly wasteful practice, as much of the water leaches beyond the crop root zone and allows growth of weeds, affecting plant health. Moreover, standing pool of water causes salinisation of soil, eventually to toxic levels for plants. "A principal reason for low farm productivity in our country is because flood irrigation leaves crops in perennial shock in alternating periods of excess water and dryness in fields," says Jain. Under flood irrigation, efficiency of water use is about 40 per cent, against 90 per cent for drip irrigation and 75 per cent for sprinkler irrigation.

For promoting MIS, the government is providing subsidy of up to 80 per cent of the cost of adopting MIS. An official study says savings on subsidy on fertilisers, electricity and diesel resulting from the use of MIS are substantially more than any subvention for adopting MIS. Moreover, progressive transition from flood irrigation to drip and sprinkler irrigation will release large amounts of water and energy for domestic and industrial use.