Govt efforts alone may not bring down water-waste fast enough to avoid looming crisis, the PPP route should be explored
Enough warnings have been sounded on the impending global water crisis, which the climate crisis will only deepen, to expect that India, a high water-stress country, would have taken notice. Yet, going by how the government hasn’t moved on reforming policy for the agriculture sector—90% of all freshwater withdrawal in the country is used by agriculture alone, with groundwater contributing 62% of all irrigation water in the country—India seems to be failing to heed these warnings. Given that the FCI-MSP procurement mess hasn’t really been tackled—food subsidies are estimated at Rs 3.58 crore after factoring in FCI borrowings, and on February 1, FCI’s actual stock exceeded the buffer stock requirement by 36.4 million tonnes—India’s water crisis will only get worse. Such policy myopia will have both serious near-term and long-term repercussions; already, a third of the global population facing water scarcity for at least a month every year lives in India and China.
Groundwater extraction is so severe that the country’s water table is falling at the rate of 0.3 m per year. A recent Ficci-PwC report shows that water level in at least half the wells in India is already plummeting. Bad agricultural policies—both at the central and the state level—have meant that just four crops (rice, wheat, cotton, and sugarcane), accounting for just 46% of the country’s gross cropped area, take up 65% of the gross irrigated area, and consume 70% of all the water used in agriculture. Thanks to public procurement focusing on just two/three states, paddy is grown on all of Punjab’s irrigated area despite the state’s irrigation water productivity (IWP) of just 19 kg/lakh litre for the crop, while in Assam and Odisha, the crop accounts for just 11% and 35% of the gross irrigated area, respectively, despite IWPs of 51 kg/lakh litre and 30 kg/lakh litre. No wonder, India draws 45% of its 1,446 billion cubic metres (bcm) of internal renewable freshwater while China draws just 21% of its 2,813 bcm, and Brazil, which has the largest acreage of water-guzzler sugarcane, draws just 1% of its 5,661 bcm. India’s agri-trade growth has also meant that it exports four times as much embedded water as it imports while China exports just a tenth of what it imports.
To be sure, the government has made efforts to reduce water-waste in agriculture—the Centre and Nabard have created a Rs 5,000 crore fund to promote micro-irrigation under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, which aims, among other things, to promote adoption of precise irrigation technologies that could lead to nearly 40-70% water savings. Just 11.58 lakh hectares were covered under micro-irrigation in 2018-19, against a net sown area of 14.1 crore hectares, and the total area under micro-irrigation currently stands at just 1.02 crore hectares. This makes a strong case for roping in the private sector to supplement government efforts, especially in irrigation infrastructure creation and management, if India is to reduce agricultural wastage of water. The PwC report talks of, among others, the El Guerdane project in Morocco that involves a 300-km irrigation network built by the private partner in a PPP endeavour to distribute water to farmers in Guerdane; while the private partner was selected on the basis of the lowest water tariff quoted, this worked out to be lower than the costs farmers used to incur on groundwater-fed irrigation. In Bihar’s Vaishali district, a local small-farmers association is implementing a pay-as-you-go model, with support from an international development agency, which has brought in responsible water usage. Such innovative models need to be considered seriously by the Centre and the states to explore PPP solutions with the right incentive model—perhaps even viability gap funding—if India is to meaningfully curb agricultural wastage of water.