What is the water picture in the country? India has almost 18% of the global population but only 4% of freshwater resources
Scattered ‘mango rains’ have brought some respite from scorching heat in certain places. Earlier, IMD’s forecast of above normal monsoon rains had given some hope of forthcoming acche din. Yet, a sizeable part of India is still smouldering under the grip of a drought. Bundelkhand and Marathwada are just samples, but in reality more than 250 of India’s 680-plus districts have experienced severe drought, where even drinking water has become a major problem. Wisdom lies in converting this water-crisis into an opportunity to change policies and programmes, so that masses don’t have to suffer again like this. This is feasible only if our policy-makers wake up and start caring for water on a high priority.
What is the water picture in the country? India has almost 18% of the global population but only 4% of freshwater resources. On per capita water availability, India can be classified as a water-stressed nation—water-stressed nations are those that have less than 1,700 cubic metres of water per capita, per year. In 2011, India’s average water availability hovered around 1,545 cubic metres, down from 1,816 cubic metres in 2001. In several places, it is already less than even 1,000 cubic metres, putting these places in the water-scarce category. In any case, the entire nation is predicted to become water-scarce by 2050. Therefore, it is time to wake up and face the coming reality with rationality.Irrigation accounts for nearly 78% of the water consumed in the country. With expanding urbanisation, the share of agriculture in water consumption will go down. Therefore, better water management will inevitably require a closer look at agriculture, with a view to use water resources more rationally.
The ultimate irrigation potential (UIP) in the country, at current levels of technology, is 139.9 million hectares (m ha). Of this, almost 54% comes from surface irrigation and 46% from groundwater resources. Surface irrigation comprises of major and medium irrigation schemes (42%) and minor irrigation schemes (12%). Overall irrigation potential can go up from 139.9 mha today to 170 m ha if we tap the potential of inter-linking of rivers. Our gross cropped area (GCA) hovers around 195 m ha. This needs to be seen in context of prime minister’s clarion call, for ‘har khet ko pani’ and ‘per drop, more crop’ under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana.
Much of the government expenditure on irrigation goes for major and medium irrigation schemes. Civil engineers, contractors, and political masters love this for its grand scale. But the bane of this sector is that there are too many projects compared to the resources allocated for them, and with thin-spreading of spending, these projects linger on for decades in a half-completed stage, making them an exorbitantly expensive proposition. Large leakages make it even worse.
The other bane is the widening gap between irrigation potential created (IPC) and potential utilised (IPU). While overall IPC so far is around 113 m ha, only about 91 m ha has been utilised. This gives only 47% irrigation cover to GCA. Sometimes, many experts mistakenly take it as a low-hanging fruit as if water is lying somewhere and waiting for last-mile delivery, to the farms. This is illusionary as much of this water is already utilised. Anyone who gets access to water first, goes for water-intensive crops like sugarcane, paddy, bananas, etc, as water is highly subsidised. As a result, not much water is left for tail-enders. No wonder IPU falls much short of IPC.
In groundwater, the problem is over-exploitation and falling water tables. More than 80% of administrative units in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi are overexploited, and the water-table is depleting by one feet each year. This is eating away resources of future generations. And one of the key factors behind this is highly subsidised power supplied to rural areas.
So, where do we go from here? How do we streamline water policies? The subsidy on power and canal waters together amounts to almost R1 lakh crore. Political economy of pricing is such that raising their prices to recover full costs seems very difficult, if not impossible. Public policy innovations are the need of the hour.
One innovation could be installing meters to measure power consumption, and also canal waters, and then incentivising farmers to save on consumption by rewarding them with the monetary value of say 75% of the savings at a price equivalent to what it would cost to supply from fresh investments. China is carrying out such pilots, and our estimates suggest that about 30% savings in water and power is feasible.
Another innovation could be to ration power and water supplies on per ha basis, and let farmers choose cropping patterns based on that allocation. If any farmer wants more of these beyond their rationed quantity, they will have to pay the full cost.
Still another innovation will be to replace inefficient pump sets by more energy-efficient ones at government cost. Estimates suggest that almost 30% power can be saved. But to save water, we need to promote drip and sprinklers aggressively, especially for sugarcane and banana, saving 40-50% water. So far, less than 5% of India’s cropped area is under micro-irrigation, and potential is at least three to four times more. Similarly, flooding of rice fields needs to be replaced by SRI (System of Rice Intensification) technique, which can save about 30% water.
Last but not the least, stop protecting water-intensive crops. Currently import duty on sugar is 40% and on rice 70-80%. In fact, India is a net exporter of ‘virtual water’ as 1 kg of rice requires 3,000-5,000 litres of water and 1 kg of sugar, about 2,000 litres, and both are being exported.
In brief, we need to shift from supply-side augmentation to demand-side management, and incentivising farmers to save water and making the import regime for water-guzzling crops liberal.
The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER