Date of Release: June 5th, 2015

Published in: The Pioneer

The sub-normal monsoon forecast shows how much needs to be done to mitigate the effects of bad rains.

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 making all stakeholders — the Government, the Reserve Bank of India, industry, farmers and the average consumer — jittery.

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 need to talk more about what we can do, rather than merely hope for a good monsoon. In India, the net irrigated area still accounts for less than 50 per cent of the net area under cultivation, implying that more than half of our cultivated land is at the mercy of the monsoon.

The other major problem is that a significant share of the irrigation potential in the country remains unutilised. By the end of 2012, the unutilised share in the total irrigation potential exceeded 20 per cent. 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 utilisation of irrigation potential.

Another challenge is the poor efficiency of water usage in Indian agriculture. Irrigation accounts for more than 80 per cent of the total water used in the country, and the prevalent water use efficiency in irrigation is a mere 35 per cent. In other words, almost 65 per cent of irrigation water is wasted. Not only does this lead to wastage of a precious resource, it also contributes to low productivity.

The solutions to both these problems are largely known. Participatory irrigation management is now commonly acknowledged as one of the best ways to manage irrigation sources. In such an approach, the mobilisation of farmers through Water User Associations is encouraged to allow them a stake in the management of water, including charging a fee based on total consumption of water. This is to ensure that water use is equitable and also sustainable alongside.

Most States have laws to give effect to such bodies. However, there is considerable variation in the performance of WUAs across the country. In States like Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, a significant share of irrigation potential is covered by WUAs. In other States, this share is considerably lower. Even where WUAs exist, quite a few of them have absolutely no effect on the ground.  It is, therefore, imperative that WUAs are strengthened, if possible, through an incentive structure which encourages the associations 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 India, according to some estimates, less than 10 per cent of the total micro-irrigation potential in the country is presently utilised. Here again, States like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have been early starters, while others have some catching-up to do.  An important aspect of micro-irrigation schemes has been the fact that they benefit the small and marginal farmers, with land holdings smaller than two hectares.

The best example is Maharashtra, which subsidises 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the cost of micro-irrigation equipment for small and marginal farmers. Maharashtra has also mandated the use of drip irrigation for sugarcane cultivation. These initiatives are laudable, and will be complemented by the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sichai Yojana, which includes a component for micro-irrigation subsidies. In the long-run, as the Union 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.