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India’s farm sector accounts for 90% of total water drawn, but contributes only 15% to the country’s GDP

By Moin Qazi*
India has long undervalued one of its most precious resources – water. The country’s chronic mismanagement of water is staring at it now. The country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the monsoon is delayed. Despite these alarming signals we continue to abuse and use water so profligately.
Complex and capricious, the South Asian monsoon – widely regarded as the most powerful seasonal climate system on Earth, impacting nearly half the world’s population – has never been easy to predict. With global warming skewing weather patterns, it’s not just the scientists who are confounded. Farmers, whose families for generations have used the Panchangam, the almanac that elaborates the movement of the Hindu constellations and helps in understanding when the rains are due and thus when to plant their crops, lament that their system no longer works reliably.
The NITI Aayog’s recent report on the composite water management index has said that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat. “At present, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water,” it said, adding that the crisis is only going to get worse. These water-stressed users rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable.
The think tank ranked all states across nine broad sectors with 28 different indicators covering various aspects of ground water, drinking water restoration of water bodies, irrigation, farm practices policy and governance.
India supports 15 per cent of the world’s population but has only 4 per cent of the world’s water resources. World Bank data show that only 35 per cent of India’s agricultural land is irrigated. This means that a huge slab, 65 per cent, of farming depends totally on rain. It is India’s bad luck that while it has plenty of land, there is scant water to cultivate it. There are stories of areas where people have waited for successive years for rain that never arrived. In several regions, the once green pastures have been scorched to dust as rainless years left the land bone dry.
Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Even after constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters — compared to 6,103 cubic m per capita in Russia, 4,733 in Australia, 1,964 in the United States, and 1,111 in China.
India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. For one thing, it is highly dependent on a few major river systems, especially the Ganges and its tributaries, for its water supply. India also uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States combined.
As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. In addition, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds.
Israel has been a role model for the world in matters of water management and India is now actively seeking Israel’s mentorship for addressing its water woes. Water conservation was backed by the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: drip irrigation.
Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 per cent of total water drawn, but contributes only around 15 per cent to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89 per cent of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 per cent, with industrial use accounting for 2 per cent of groundwater use).
Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset India’s water balance are the farming practices in some of its provincial states, particularly Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana.
The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum and other cereals have turned to sugarcane in Maharashtra, which fetches more money but is a very thirsty crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, two parched states where the groundwater has sunk even further.
Maharashtra is the epicentre of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is in a miserable state. Decades of poor agricultural and water management policies have pushed Marathwada to the brink. It constitutes 31 per cent crop area of the state but it uses only 14 per cent of the state’s surface water. Western Maharashtra, on the other hand, has 36 per cent crop area of the state, but uses 47 per cent of the water.
Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis irrigation potential in the state. Of the potential land that could be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 per cent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is at 76 per cent. The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 per cent lower than the rest of Maharashtra.
Farmers drawn to the region by government incentives have begun cultivating sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that is ill-suited to Marathwada’s semi-arid climate. Sugarcane consumes about 22.5 million litres of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just 4 million litres over four months for chickpeas, commonly grown in India and called gram locally.
Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine. Yet the land area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 167,000 hectares in 1970-71 to 1,022,000 ha in 2011-12. Maharashtra is India’s second biggest producer of this water-intensive crop, despite being one of the country’s drier states. Sugarcane now uses about 70 per cent of Marathwada’s irrigation water despite accounting for 4 percent of cultivated land.
The sugar mill buildup in Marathwada was initially pushed by politicians in the region trying to replicate the prosperity of mills in other areas of Maharashtra state and was focused on areas with plentiful water. But later politicians opened mills everywhere, even in areas where drinking water is not available.
Sugarcane is a popular crop because farmers sell cane directly to sugar mills, avoiding the need for middlemen who take a cut of the profits. Sugarcane’s sturdiness also attracts farmers; mature cane withstands heavy rainfall or dry spells and is also less vulnerable to pests and diseases compared to other crops.
A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, but with rice taking the place of sugarcane. Rice covers 62 per cent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, up from 10 per cent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighbouring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all crops, India still produces more rice, wheat and sugar than it consumes.
It is quite natural for farmers to plant rice and cane when both power and water are almost free. In fact, government policies encourage them to do so. The government buys sugar, wheat and rice at remunerative prices, which assures economic justice to these farmers.
The water crisis in Maharashtra has been aggravated by the shift from growing crops of millet, sorghum and other cereals that need much less water to sugarcane, which is a water guzzler.
Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favour of less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government currently asks farmers to shift to less water consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.
A recent European Commission report counted more than 20 million boreholes in India, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s. The water table is falling on average by 0.3 meters and by as much as 4 meters in some places. Some farmers in these parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 meters) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 meters) in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist.
They have been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock — 700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down. Lately, though, many farmers drill wells and find nothing at all. In some severely affected areas, bore wells as deep as 500 meters (1,640 feet) have all gone dry. The underground water level has dropped so much that there is no water at all.
“I think there’s really no way out. There’s no water, so there’s no harvest, so there’s no income. And I think that’s the fate of every farmer,” said Vithal Mhaski, a farmer whose family has gone into debt drilling wells that turned out to be dry. “It’s time we took a longer view and stop the wastage of water with sugarcane.”
Realizing its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and introduced revolutionary innovations to make itself all but independent from Mother Nature. Israel has set a template for reusing wastewater for irrigation. It treats 80 per cent of its domestic wastewater, which is recycled for agricultural use and constitutes nearly 50 per cent of the total water used for agriculture. Israel gets just 300 mm average rainfall every year. In contrast, India has an annual average rainfall of 600 mm.
Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can replicate Israeli practices. It needs to summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and experimenting new ideas will all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast. The time to act is now.
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*Author of “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”

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