Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 2,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water.

In the current environment, it is near impossible to look at any sector or scenario without applying the COVID lens. The scale of the problem as well as lessons from nations already ravaged by the disease is making sure that nearly all available public and private resources (financial, technical, human) are being ploughed into devising ways for mitigating the spread and minimizing its economic and human impact. While this is much needed, it has reasonably yet unfortunately diverted attention from equally critical emergencies that are looming large. Water stress amongst them is a foremost such catastrophe.

While the imminence, intensity and rapid spread of COVID-19 justifiably makes it a priority, water stress and its consequences albeit not as conspicuous, are equally disastrous. Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about 2,00,000 people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. And this is anticipated to worsen with demand projected to be twice the supply by year 2030 (NITI Aayog).

Looking at the usage data it’s fairly evident that the lion’s share of water is being drawn by agriculture. While the usage of water for domestic and industrial use stands at 5 and 6 percent respectively, its agriculture that demands a whopping 90 percent of the overall water share. India in fact is the largest user of groundwater for irrigation in the world. Inherent inefficiencies in the agriculture sector with respect to long period of policy draught on water, energy subsidies to farms, crop procurement patterns and water usage behaviour at farmer level cumulatively contribute towards the high demand for water and also present a complex problem landscape.

But in the last few years, there have been right noises emerging from the policy sphere acknowledging the urgency of the problem. Establishment of Jal Shakti Ministry, Jal Shakti Abhiyan (Water conservation), focus on micro irrigation (Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sichayi Yojna) among others point towards subject of water usage especially from the lens of agriculture taking a centrestage within the policy discourse.

Despite the right buzz, there seems to be an absence of a unified approach (inter-state, centre-state, inter-ministerial) in addressing the issue. For instance, studies suggest that canal irrigation is a highly wasteful method. It draws four times more water from the rivers than what is actually delivered at the farms and in best cases utilization efficiency is less than 30 percent. Despite the inefficiency, governments have traditionally allocated high funding to canal irrigation projects even in water stressed regions (as latest as 2016 budget).

Having said that, schemes such as PMKSY and setting up of Micro Irrigation Fund under NABARD are promoting shifting of irrigation to more precise and efficient piped and drip irrigation supply. States such as Maharashtra in fact made use of drip irrigation mandatory for cultivation of sugar cane and are providing subsidies as high as 80 percent to the farmers of Vidharba and Marathwada to install the system. But Maharashtra is amongst the better performing states with respect to micro irrigation penetration which is not saying much as India stands at a mere 5.5 percent of micro irrigation penetration.

Compared to Israel, where micro irrigation penetration is at an overwhelming 90 percent, India has a considerable distance to cover (2016 data). What is more concerning is that a mere 1 percent net sown area in severely water stressed states such as Punjab is covered under the system. Some blame for the low coverage maybe placed at the door of scheme modalities itself. The area limit for subsidy eligibility is 5 hectares. Large and medium farmers (owning farm land more than 4 hectares) though only about 15 percent of total farmers, own about 55 percent of the land. Therefore the upper area limit for subsidy eligibility does not incentivise the majority landholders in terms of land size to adopt the technology.

Even in the case of small and marginal farmers, high cost of the technology and maintenance despite subsidy support, need for power and assured water source are key inhibitors. Top up subsidies by states after establishment of Micro Irrigation Fund are expected to help resolve some of the issues to an extent. Overall, there is a need to perhaps reorient and target bigger land owners for technology adoption to ensure a noteworthy decline in water drawn from the ground.

The energy –water nexus in agriculture also adds to the complexity of the issue. Free/inexpensive power inevitably leads to non-judicious use of groundwater. Promotion of solar pumps on farmlands (PM KUSUM) while on one hand may save energy and lower electricity bills, may in fact further exacerbate the state of groundwater.

In terms of procurement trends as well, assured procurement encourage farmers to grow water guzzling crops such a paddy, sugarcane. And the procurement is also skewed towards water stressed states. For instance, for Kharif Market Season 2018-19, of the total 443.99 Lakh Metric Tonne rice procured nationally, 25 percent of it was from Punjab. Haryana Government in this regard has started ‘Jal Hi Jeevan Mission’ where in farmers are incentivized to convert from paddy to maize combined with assured procurement; a practice which could perhaps be adopted at an all India level.

Water a public good or a service?

The policy planning and implementation level contradictions need be ironed out for India to effectively address its water crisis. This is also essential to ensure that water is no longer viewed as a public good by the user wherein ownership of land title is perceived as the right to draw groundwater at will.

The COVID scenario presents an unprecedented opportunity in this regard. In the recent days, it is clear that governments, center and states are using the present circumstances as an opening to ‘clean house’ by getting rid of legacy bottlenecks in farm value chains such as the APMC chokehold. It is perhaps now also time to look at water in agriculture as a unified problem with complex interlinkages in need for sweeping reforms such as we have witnessed in other key sectors.


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