Column: Maharashtra’s monsoon woes

The state must ration irrigation water and reduce area under sugarcane cultivation.

Dr Laxman Singh Rathore and his entire team at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) needs to be complimented for giving us sufficient warning, well in advance, about the likelihood of yet another year of rainfall deficit. Although it was not good news, the messenger was hones and bold in speaking the bitter truth. Initially, on April 22, IMD had forecast that the 2015 monsoon rainfall would be 93% of the long-period average (LPA, 1951-2000), and then revised it to 88% of the LPA on June 2. It stuck to this figure in its August 3 forecast, and in later press interactions, Dr Rathore indicated that the final monsoon rainfall figure may be even a notch lower than 88%.

Forecasting, for IMD, has been challenging this year as Skymet, a private forecaster whose estimates the past two years have been closer to the actual rainfall than IMD’s, consistently predicted normal rainfall (102% of LPA at first, revised to 98% later). In reality, as on September 10, the rainfall stood at 15% below LPA, and it does not seem that rains in the remaining days of the monsoon season can fill the vacuum and turn 2015 into a normal rainfall year. This should lead Skymet to introspect as to what went wrong, and why, in their forecasts. They need to realise that their optimistic forecast had sent many policy makers into complacency.

Currently, the situation is the most precarious in Maharashtra, especially in Marathwada and Madhya Maharashtra, where the deficit has hovered between 40-50% in the last 10 days or so. Many dams are almost dry, or way below the desired water levels. This has created a near-emergency situation when it comes to drinking water for humans as well as animals. There are reports that in many blocks, people are getting drinking water supply once a week or even once in two weeks, in certain pockets. The system is under tremendous pressure and very soon may have to resort to transporting water from other areas through tankers and trains. Cattle camps, with drinking water and fodder, need to be urgently resurrected. It is now about fire-fighting the drought.

Lately, Maharashtra has been the epicentre of the farmer-suicides shock. Reports are coming that already more than 600 farmers have committed suicides. Few policy measures, if implemented quickly, can help contain this situation and prevent it from going out of hand. Front-loading and enhancing insurance compensation as soon as monsoon is over (by September-end) would go a long way in granting breathing space. Restructuring agri-credit to be paid over, say, two years, and/or even waiving interest on that (no loan waiver, though) will help infuse some confidence in the peasantry.

But Maharashtra has to think in terms of a medium- to long-term strategy for agriculture. Few facts about Maharashtra’s agriculture speak volumes about the dilemma the state faces frequently on droughts. Less than 20% of its cropped area is under irrigation cover, despite the state having the largest number of dams in the country. During the last 20 years—from FY93 to FY12—Maharashtra’s cumulative capital expenditure on major and medium irrigation schemes alone was R81,359 crore at historical prices. At 2014-15 constant prices, this works out to R137,917 crore. During this period, the potential created under these irrigation schemes was only 2.1 million hectares, which gives a capital cost of almost R6.6 lakh/hectare—more than double of what Gujarat has (R2.9 lakh/hectare), and almost 4 times of what UP has (R1.6 lakh/hectare) for the same period. Of course, there are issues of adjusting lags between expenditures incurred and potential created; yet, the situation is not likely to change as far as the very high costs of public irrigation in Maharashtra are concerned.

Now, consider this: Roughly 5% of the cropped area of Maharashtra, which is under sugarcane, consumes more than 60% of irrigation water in the state. This is because sugarcane is 100% irrigated and requires 25-30 irrigations, vis-a-vis say cotton which is less than 3% irrigated, or tur and soyabean (less than 2% irrigated). Water means prosperity in Maharashtra’s agriculture and the implication of this skewed distribution of water is that almost 5% of farmers take away 60% of the potential prosperity, leaving the remaining high and dry. Maharashtra needs to limit and make its sugarcane cultivation sustainable. One way to do it is to ration irrigation water supplies from public irrigation schemes and give less quantity per hectare, but to a larger number of farmers. In a market system, instead of rationing water supplies, one can raise irrigation water charges substantially and make them progressive with the quantity of water used. But the political class is always wary of raising prices of water and power, which leads to irrational and unsustainable cropping patterns (like sugarcane in Maharashtra and rice in Punjab). The other way is to put a minimum of 50% of the state’s sugarcane cultivation under drip irrigation in the next 5-7 years, and release the saved water (almost 40-50%) for other crops, and encourage crop diversification, including those that yield fodder for cattle. This can help make Maharashtra’s agriculture somewhat more sustainable than now. This can be a medium- to long-term solution, and the money for the scaled-up drip irrigation can come partly from the Centre and partly from the states with some contribution from sugar factories and sugarcane farmers.

At the national level, one has to think of land-use policy and also of developing cropping patterns that are sustainable and in line with natural resource endowments, and globally competitive. Given that the real cost of irrigation in Maharashtra is 4 times higher than in UP, one has to account for this in efficiency calculations. May be Maharashtra is more suitable for industrial clusters than agriculture, and therefore this may be incorporated in land use policy.

The time has come for Maharashtra to bite the bullet and restructure its agriculture to put it on a sustainable path, bringing prosperity and resilience to larger number of farmers.

The writer is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER

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