The focus of the government has to be on expanding micro-irrigation coverage
India is home to 17.5% of the world’s population, but only 4% of its fresh water resources. Agriculture consumes some 78% of the country’s fresh-water supply. With increasing urbanisation and industrialisation, India will not only have to augment supply, but also use the same more efficiently.
Budget 2017 allocates R7,377 crore towards the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), a 42% jump over the revised estimates for the current fiscal. Further, finance minister Arun Jaitley has made a smart move in providing R20,000 crore as corpus for the Long Term Irrigation Fund, on top of R20,000 crore in FY17, to bring 7.6 million hectares of land under irrigation by fast-tracking the completion of 99 prioritised projects in the four years between 2016 and 2020. The corpus is to be created by Nabard through borrowings from the market; this will keep the government’s own fiscal deficit in control! Jaitley has created a dedicated Micro-Irrigation Fund with an initial corpus of R5,000 crore, again through Nabard on similar lines.
Within the allocation for PMKSY in this budget, R3,400 crore or 46% has been set aside for the ‘per drop more crop’ component—an increase of more than 70% over the FY17 allocation of R1,990 crore. In real terms, the budget allocation for micro-irrigation in FY18 works out to be 22% higher than the revised estimates of FY11, and nearly 57% more than that for FY16, as is shown in the accompanying graph.
Micro-irrigation has gradually expanded in the country and stands at around 8.73 million hectares in FY17. But, this is just 13% of the total coverage potential of 69.5 million hectares. Micro-irrigation systems deliver water savings of up to 40% over conventional flood irrigation methods, along with appreciable crop productivity increases, thanks to the application of water at the right place (root zone) and right time. Piped water facility connecting dams and micro-irrigation system in fields can help reduce water losses; they can ensure roughly 70% conveyance-efficiency and 90% overall water-use efficiency. There can be no better step towards bringing about sustainable water use in agriculture.
A case in point is the impact of drip irrigation on sugarcane and cotton cultivation in the water-stressed Marathwada region. In FY15, Marathwada accounted for over a fifth of the sugarcane area in Maharashtra. Since this crop consumes about 2,000 litres of water for every kg of sugar produced, many experts have questioned whether it should be grown at all in areas such as Marathwada. But the fact is that Marathwada has prospered because of sugarcane, with the mills creating several thousand jobs both upstream and downstream. Farmers, too, are unlikely to go back to growing jowar or bajra. It suggests that adopting better water management through micro-irrigation may be what is really required.
Jain Irrigation Systems Limited, the world’s second-largest irrigation solutions company, has demonstrated that drip irrigation systems in sugarcane cultivation can save around 66% irrigation water as well as raise crop yields by a third. Water saved through drip irrigation in one hectare sugarcane area can bring some five hectares under cotton. Increased sugarcane yields from drip irrigation, coupled with higher returns from irrigated cotton crop, will thus help augment farmers’ incomes and, at the same time, promote sustainable agriculture.
At an estimated cost of R75,000 per hectare for installation of drip systems, R7,722 crore will be needed to bring Maharashtra’s entire sugarcane area under drip. But in FY16, the state’s budget allocation for micro-irrigation was a mere R176.75 crore. It basically shows how our priorities in irrigation are rather perverted. Nabard is raising R20,000 crore from the market for completion of major and medium schemes having a water-use efficiency of
35-40%, but only R5,000 crore for micro-irrigation where effciency is 85-90%! Why not float micro-irrigation bonds for R20,000 crore or more?
The future revolution in agriculture is going to come from precision farming. Micro-irrigation can be the stepping stone towards achieving the goal of making Indian farming sustainable, profitable and productive. Can we expect Jaitley and, of course, prime minister Narendra Modi to take bolder steps in this direction?
Ashok Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, and Mohan is consultant, ICRIER