Three important issues in the recent past have brought agriculture at the centre of public policy debates in India. The first is the Land Acquisition Bill, where both the government and the Opposition claim to be furthering the interests of farmers. The second were the unseasonal rains earlier in the year, which caused significant damage to the rabi crop in several parts of the country. The third and latest development has been the monsoon forecast by the Indian Met Department, predicting a below-normal monsoon due to an El-Nino building up in the Central and Eastern Pacific.

The farmers’ land and the heavens above are undeniably crucial to the interests of our farmers. Yet, there is so much that can be done to mitigate the problems of land and water scarcity in agriculture, and this perhaps needs to be talked about more often, even as we continue to pray for a good monsoon this year.

Any increase in productivity with lower water consumption is possible only through better irrigation techniques, among which micro-irrigation is the most widely accepted. Apart from other water conservation techniques like rice intensification, rainwater harvesting and segregation of power feeders, micro-irrigation is a proven, attractive method of water conservation in farmlands.  In addition, micro- irrigation can increase productivity of a range of crops, especially horticultural crops such as fruits, vegetables and flowers.

According to some estimates, the total micro-irrigation potential in the country is approximately 42 million hectares (including both drip and sprinkler irrigation technology). However, till 2010, only 9.2% of this potential had been realized. Yet, there has been considerable difference across states in utilizing this potential. Quite naturally, drought-prone states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and some parts of Karnataka had taken the lead in the adoption of micro-irrigation techniques. However, some states like Bihar and UP have lagged behind considerably.

irrigation

Source: Water Policy Research Highlight, IWMI Tata Water Policy Program

While some of the laggard states have begun to realize the importance of micro-irrigation, the gap between states still remains large. This situation needs to be urgently addressed, especially as changing climates might lead to larger parts of the country being affected by severe droughts.

An important aspect of micro-irrigation schemes and projects in various states has been the fact that they largely benefit the small and marginal farmers, with land holdings smaller than 2 hectares in size. The best example has been that of Maharashtra, which subsidizes 50-60% of the cost of micro-irrigation equipment for small and marginal farmers. In addition, Maharashtra has also mandated the use of drip irrigation for sugarcane cultivation in the state. These initiatives are laudable, and will hopefully be complemented by the Centre’s Pradhanmantri Krishi Sichai Yojana (PMKSY), which includes a component for micro-irrigation subsidies. In the long-run, as the Central 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, given its obvious benefits.

However, two things need to be ensured going forward. Firstly, last-mile extension of micro-irrigation technologies has not been given its due importance so far. This leads to frequent breakdowns, damages and disruptions in the equipment, which dissuades farmers from adopting such technologies. The other constraint has been the prohibitively high input costs of such equipment. In states where subsidies are provided, this imposes a rather heavy fiscal burden on state governments. Therefore, newer and more cost-effective models are the need of the hour, for which both local innovation and international cooperation with countries like Israel (which has been a pioneer in such technologies) will be important.

In 2014-15, a recent NITI Aayog document suggests that the national targets for micro-irrigation have been exceeded. Against a target of 2.88 lakh hectares, a fresh 4.34 lakh hectares has been brought under micro-irrigation. Yet, with a national potential of about 420 lakh hectares, there is still substantial ground to cover.