Water management key to sustainable agriculture growth in India

About 78% of the fresh water is consumed by agriculture.

water, water management. water crisis, public, private partnership model
Private companies can play a critical role in building robust water infrastructure at the grass-roots level. PPP model can be a game changer.

By RG Agarwal

India is facing a water crisis, attributed to its burgeoning population, lack of adequate planning, increased corporatisation, and industrial and human waste. According to a study by the National Geophysical Research Institute, the largest depletion of groundwater in the world is happening in north India, with Delhi as the epicentre. According to estimates, water scarcity can lead to loss of up to 6% of GDP by 2030. Experts say groundwater is being pumped out 70% faster than was earlier estimated. Efforts to conserve water have been negligible, as the country lacks both in advocacy and implementation.

This water crisis poses a serious challenge to agriculture, with unmonitored water wastage causing a huge loss to farmers who face increased production cost and poverty in drought-prone areas. India ranks second in the world in farm output, and agriculture contributes 17% of the nation’s GDP. Still, irrigation systems in most states are centuries old. There is over-dependence on the monsoon. The irrigation infrastructure—canals, groundwater, well-based systems, tanks and rainwater harvesting—has seen substantial expansion over the years, but is clearly not enough.

About 78% of the fresh water is consumed by agriculture. The inequity in irrigation water allocation among crops, with more than 60% being diverted for the cultivation of two water-guzzling crops (sugar cane and paddy), adds to the distress. These two crops are being cultivated widely in some of the most water-stressed regions of the country. These must be shifted to regions that have a higher water table. Instead, cultivation of less water-consuming crops like maize, pulses and oilseeds should be encouraged in water-stressed regions.

Most states provide subsidised or free electricity to help farmers pump out water for irrigation. This has led to declining groundwater tables. It is estimated that Indian farmers use 2-4 times more water to produce a unit of a major food crop than in China or Brazil. With the fall in water table, there is an increase in the cost of pumping, salination, heavy metals, etc, raising questions about the cost of crop production and the quality of the produce. Such systems must be reviewed.

Clearly, we need to adopt water-saving technologies such as sprinkler and drip irrigation systems. States must also work on water conservation on a priority basis, govern local irrigation systems, encourage its efficient use, and promote conservation through building dams, reservoirs, etc. Lessons can be learned from Israel, where the penetration level of micro-irrigation technology is 99%, as compared to India, where it is 13%.

Some states are taking action. The NITI Aayog has reported that Rajasthan has strengthened its water-management practices. States such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have also shown improvement. However, 60% of the remaining states (15 out of 24) have been classified as low performers in terms of water conservation.

Private companies can play a critical role in building robust water infrastructure at the grass-roots level. PPP model can be a game changer. The good news is the government is developing integrated micro-irrigation networks through PPPs to integrate common infrastructure that provides water from canals to the farm gate with on-farm micro-irrigation infrastructure. But the call of the time is more involvement of private companies, devising their own means to develop solutions for water conservation in rural/agriculture belts.

Sustainable water management has huge role to play in doubling farmers’ incomes, a goal set by the government. It will contribute to improving crop yield and enhancing crop quality, and crop quality can fetch higher returns to farmers. The reform must begin now, and it should start by first changing our mindset. Water-related issues have often taken an ugly shape in the past. It is critical that we make the best use of the available technologies and resources to increase water-use efficiency. Conserving water is the only way to secure our future.

The author is chairman, Dhanuka Agritech Ltd

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