From plate to plough: Improving Indian agriculture’s water efficiency

Replace water, power and fertiliser subsidies with Direct per acre benefits to help Farmers adopt technology that improves Irrigation productivity

From plate to plough: Improving Indian agriculture’s water efficiency
Technologies exist that can produce the same output with almost half the irrigation water in these two crops.

By Ashok Gulati & Ritika Juneja

On World Water Day (March 22), PM Narendra Modi launched a campaign, ‘Catch the rain’, under the Centre’s flagship Jal Shakti Abhiyan. He emphasised that every penny being spent under MGNREGA must be used to conserve water. This is a laudable objective. But, what needs close attention is where do we stand on the water front, and how can we ensure that everyone has access to safe drinking water, while industry and agriculture also get sufficient water to produce what is demanded.

As per the Central Water Commission’s assessment of water availability using space inputs (2019), India receives mean annual precipitation of about 3,880 billion cubic metres (bcm) but it utilizes only 699 bcm (18%), the rest being lost to evaporation and other factors. The demand for water is likely to be 843 bcm in 2025 and 1,180 bcm by 2050. So, the targets are not beyond our reach if we remain focused and follow an appropriate strategy that not only ‘catches more rain’ but also manages demand of this precious resource better.

Yet, as per the UN’s report on Sustainable Development Goal-6 (SDG-6)—Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030—India achieved only 56.6% of the target by 2019, indicating the need to move much faster. Further, as per the Composite Water Management Index of Niti Aayog (2019), 75% households in India do not have access to drinking water on their premises, and India ranks 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index. India is identified as a water-stressed country with its per capita water availability declining from 5,178 cubic metre (m3)/year in 1951 to 1,544 m3 in 2011, which is likely to go down further to 1,140 m3 by 2050. This does not paint a very rosy picture on the water front.

How does one move forward? Agriculture uses about 78% of India’s freshwater resources. And, as India develops, the share of drinking water, industry, and other uses is likely to rise. Unless one learns to produce ‘more crop per drop’, the challenge can be daunting. For this, we need a paradigm-shift in our thinking and strategy to not just increase land productivity measured as tonnes per hectare (t/ha) but also maximise applied irrigation productivity measured as kilograms or Rs per cubic meter of water (kg/m3).

So far, with decades of large public and private investments in irrigation, only about half of India’s gross cropped area (198 million hectares) is irrigated. Groundwater contributes about 64%, canals 23%, tanks 2% and other sources 11% to this irrigation. This results primarily from the skewed incentive of free or highly subsidised power, particularly in the northwestern belt of India, the erstwhile seat of the Green Revolution. Over-exploitation of groundwater has made this region one amongst the three top water-risk hotspots, the others being northeastern China and southwestern US (California). Overall, about 1,592 blocks in 256 districts in India are either critical or overexploited.

If we have to use our water more wisely in agriculture, two crops—rice and sugarcane—deserve special attention. As per a NABARD-ICRIER study on water productivity mapping (, these two crops consume almost 60% of India’s irrigation water. The accompanying graphic shows applied irrigation water productivity against land productivity for rice and sugarcane in important states growing these crops. It is interesting to see while Punjab scores high on land productivity of rice, it is at the bottom with respect to applied irrigation water productivity. Similarly, in case of sugarcane, irrigation water productivity in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu is only a third that of Bihar and UP. Thus, there is a need to realign cropping patterns based on a per unit of applied irrigation water productivity.

Technologies exist that can produce the same output with almost half the irrigation water in these two crops. Jain Irrigation, for instance, has set up drip-irrigation pilots for paddy in Karnal (Haryana) and Tamil Nadu and for sugarcane in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The results of these pilots indicate while it takes 3,065 litres of water to produce 1 kg of paddy grain (yield level 7.75 t/ha) under the traditional flood irrigation, under drip, the requirement can be reduced to just 842 litres. The benefit-cost ratio of drip with ‘fertigation’ in case of sugarcane in Karnataka is observed to be 2.64. An extension to this is the ‘Family Drip System’ innovated by the largest drip irrigation company in the world, Netafim (Israel-based). Netafim has also launched its largest demonstration project in Asia at Ramthal, Karnataka. Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) can also save 25-30% of water compared to traditional flood irrigation. But, unfortunately, the harsh reality is that technological solutions cannot make much headway unless pricing policies of agri-inputs are put on the right track and farmers are incentivised for saving water.

The Punjab government, along with the World Bank and J-PAL, has launched certain pilots under its Paani Bachao Paise Kamao policy to encourage rational use of water among farmers. Under the initiative, water-meters are installed on the farmers’ pumps, and if they save water/power compared to what they have been using (taken as entitlement), they get paid for those savings, with direct transfers to their bank accounts.

It is time to switch from highly subsidised pricing of water, power, and even fertilisers, to direct income support on a per hectare basis and investment policies that help with newer technologies and innovations. Water and power need to be priced as per their economic value or at least to recover significant part of their costs to ensure sustainable agriculture.

Gulati is Infosys Chair professor for agriculture, and Juneja is a consultant, ICRIER

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