A fourth of land produces rice/sugarcane but uses 60% of water, flood irrigation means an extra water loss of 35%
Given 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, it is natural to conclude that India has a huge water shortage, especially since this is projected to fall to 1,140 by 2050. But while water conflicts, such as those between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, will certainly rise in the future, as Ashok Gulati and Gayathri Mohan of Icrier point out in their just-released report, 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. Imagine the impact of this since, at the same time, around half the land in the country is not irrigated and, on average, not having irrigation reduces the productivity by around half—providing free-of-cost water to certain crops, then, is clear discrimination against other crops/farmers.
Add to this the fact, as Gulati-Mohan point out in the case of sugar, 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. In Maharashtra, to put this in better perspective, sugarcane is grown on 4% of the state’s land but uses two-thirds of the water. It gets worse since just 19% of Maharashtra’s land is irrigated as compared to 48% for all-India. During the height of the anti-IPL movement in Maharashtra a few years ago when the state was in drought, 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.
So, Gulati-Mohan recommend shifting rice cultivation in water-scarce areas like Punjab to Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, etc, and sugarcane cultivation to the traditional sub-tropical regions like UP and Bihar instead of Maharashtra. They also recommend using drip irrigation—for instance, they say, the water saved 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, additional output worth up to Rs 1.95 lakh.
In a nutshell, a water-scarce country like India needs to move away from looking at land productivity to decide what crops to grow, but to look at water productivity. In the case of rice, Punjab has a land productivity of 3,921 kg/ha versus West Bengal’s 2,802 but when you look at economic water productivity, that of West Bengal is Rs 9.34 per cubic metre versus a mere Rs 3.81 for Punjab. This shift is not going to be easy, but it needs to be done to save India from getting totally parched.
If, for instance, states started pricing water correctly—and the electricity used for pumps to bring up the water from the sub-soil—that would change the incentive structure quite quickly and Punjab, for instance, may move towards cultivating maize that is more appropriate for it. Shifting farmers to new crops will also require a lot of marketing support—rice is procured by FCI but maize is not—so the government has to consider solutions like direct cash transfers, among others.