Given how states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat are planning to add 2-3 lakh hectares (ha) annually to their acreage under micro-irrigation, it is easy to believe that India is headed in the direction prime minister Narendra Modi reiterated in his Mann ki Baat radio talk in the context of the huge drought after a back-to-back monsoon failure. Apart from the fact that the numbers are tiny compared to either India’s gross cropped area of 195 million ha or gross irrigated area of 92 million ha, India will need to completely retool both its farm policy as well as its approach to dams if it is to save every drop of water.
The furore over holding IPL matches in Maharashtra made public the state’s poor agriculture policies that allowed 60% of its irrigated water to be used by a sugarcane crop that accounts for just 3% of the total cropped area. But it’s not just Maharashtra where, for instance, sugar uses up more than double the water it does in Uttar Pradesh; rice in Punjab uses 5,389 litres of water per kg of crop as compared to 2,713 litres in West Bengal, and there are many more such examples. But as long as the government assures farmers that crops will be procured by FCI as in the case of wheat and rice in states like Punjab, or that mills will have to buy all the cane grown by farmers as happens in Maharashtra and other states, there is no incentive to shift cultivation to states that use less water. Using drip irrigation will certainly reduce the amount of water used, but until water is priced correctly—and procurement takes place in eastern states as well—the progress of drip irrigation depends on how fast the government can push it. It is also important to keep in mind, as a Kotak Institutional Equities report points out, India gets around 2,600 billion cubic metres (bcm) of rain and snow-melt in even a bad year while it needs around 1,100 bcm to meet all requirements. The problem lies in the fact that India’s capacity to store water is a mere 253 bcm. The only way to rectify this is to increase the number of dams India builds—while the number of dams built peaked in 1971-1980 (1,294 dams), this fell to 1,255 in 1981-90, 625 in 1991-2000 and a mere 330 since 2001. Building check dams is one way to ensure the monsoon waters don’t drain off, but it will be important to address the issues that have resulted in such a dramatic slowing in the number of big dams being built.