The Maharashtra government has done well to come up with a draft groundwater policy to dissuade farmers from growing water-intensive crops like sugarcane—at least with the traditional method of flood-irrigation—in water-stressed areas of the state.
The Maharashtra government has done well to come up with a draft groundwater policy to dissuade farmers from growing water-intensive crops like sugarcane—at least with the traditional method of flood-irrigation—in water-stressed areas of the state; the draft policy has now been put up for comments. Given the water-stressed nature of the entire country, it is to be hoped that other states will follow suit. India’s per capita water availability is down to around 1,400 cubic meters per annum right now as compared to 5,177 in 1951, and it is projected to fall to 1,140 by 2050. In an ideal situation, the state should charge farmers for using ground water, and the charge should be higher in areas that have a water shortage, but in the absence of that, a policy that requires farmers to get permission from a Watershed Water Resources Committee (WWRC) is a good idea; what is important, of course, is the ability to ensure farmers don’t get away with the old water-intensive cropping. The draft rules, reported by The Indian Express, mandate that, in “notified” areas, cultivators give an undertaking that they are using micro-irrigation methods—once again, it is important that all water-stressed areas be “notified” correctly.
The reason why it is critical more states follow the Maharashtra plan is that, as Ashok Gulati and Gayathri Mohan of Icrier point out, India’s biggest problem is that of rampant water-waste in agriculture that consumes around 78% of India’s total freshwater resources. Just rice and sugarcane, they point out, consume more than 60% of the irrigation water in the country while occupying just around 24% of the total gross cropped area. In the case of sugarcane, they point out, the current method of flood-irrigation—as opposed to drip-irrigation—results in an application efficiency of just 65%, or a water loss of 35%; drip-irrigation, they point out, also reduces the consumption of other inputs like fertilisers. While sugarcane is grown on 4% of Maharastra’s land, it uses two-thirds of the water in the state; it gets worse since just 19% of Maharashtra’s land is irrigated as compared to 48% for all-India. When the Maharashtra government protested against IPL some years ago, as FE pointed out, the water used by all IPL matches equalled that used to produce just three tonnes of sugar while the state produced 8-9 million tonnes every year.
The water saved, Gulati-Mohan point out, through drip technology in one hectare of sugarcane area can bring an additional 2.29 ha area under conventional irrigation and double this area if drip irrigation is adopted in cotton; this means, they calculate, an additional output worth up to Rs 1.95 lakh. Also, while all traditional cost-benefit analyses focus on the per hectare crop yield in various states, it is critical to look at water-productivity in a water-scarce country; the Icrier study found that while Bihar needs just 799 litres to produce 1 kg of sugar, Maharashtra, a major cane-growing state, needs 2.7 times as much water.
A sensible water-usage policy, of course, needs to be reinforced by a sensible crop-pricing policy since, if the incentives for growing water-intensive crops are very high, farmers will find ways to bypass the system. Sugar pricing, however, is quite irrational and, as compared to the central government’s plan to fix support prices for most crops at 1.5 times the A2+FL costs, cane is priced at two times the cost. In Maharashtra, where most of the water is used up by sugarcane, farmers make Rs 4,954 per hectare per month (C2 costs) versus just Rs 737 for cotton and Rs 173 for wheat. While it is to be hoped the central government will work on fixing this distortion, Maharashtra has made a good beginning in trying to fix—assuming the policy is accepted and implemented well—what is under its control.