Repurposing Public Policies for Sustainable Water Management in Indian Agriculture



The importance of sustainable management of water in a changing climate cannot be over-emphasized.  Depleting water resources, besides land degradation and desertification; loss of biodiversity; and negative impacts of weather variabilities on crop production are direct manifestations of climate change in the agriculture production system.  In such a critical scenario, conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, including water, warrants priority action in the policy agenda.

A few startling facts reflecting Indian farm water use trends that beg attention are:

First, in Maharashtra, as per expert observations, a water intensive crop like sugarcane occupies only four percent of the cropped area but uses almost two-thirds (60 %) of irrigation water.

Second, is India’s export of ‘virtual water’ that accompanies export of food and livestock.  Producing a kilogram of rice requires about 3,500 liters of water.  India exports a substantial quantity of rice (basmati and other types) and thus, the ‘water’ that goes out of India’s boundaries needs to be accounted.  A study based on data from 2006 to 2016 revealed that India exported an average ‘26,000 million liters of water’ annually.

Third, a recently released World Economic Forum (WEF) report (January 2020)  ‘Incentivizing Food Systems Transformation’, talks about over exploitation of groundwater due to subsidies on electricity to farmers in the state of Punjab. The report states, “The state’s rice production alone requires more than three times the amount of water Punjab receives in rainfall”.

The extent of unsustainable use of groundwater calls for the attention of policymakers, businesses, civil society, researchers, and above all, the farming communities. Based on available evidences and existing policy preferences by central and state governments, the following strategies are suggested.

Promoting water-use-efficiency:

‘More crop-per drop’ has been the mantra of current public policies around irrigation water. Water used for Indian agriculture accounts for 78% of total fresh water resources and therefore, efficiency savings are always advocated for additional food production for an increasing population.  Promotion of micro-irrigation practices through government programs has been localized in a few States–7.7 million hectares of micro-irrigation, 95 % of which is in 10 states. Micro-irrigation should proliferate to larger crop areas; its potential extent of use in India is estimated at 69.5 million hectares. We need to move from supply-based to demand-driven system to reach the huge micro-irrigation potential.

A number of new production techniques and specific agronomic practices have also been suggested.  System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD), direct seeded rice, conservation agriculture, furrow irrigation, etc. are practices often advocated for efficient use of irrigation water for crops like paddy without yield disadvantages.

Adoption of sustainable water management technologies:

Crop specific irrigation management practices should be aimed at improving or restoring natural ecosystems.  In many high value crops, precision irrigation models and controls like variable-rate drip irrigation and other micro-irrigation systems are gaining wide acceptance including in India.  Smart irrigation systems with increased usage of information and communication technology (ICT) and remote sensing have been in use in advanced economies like USA, Japan and Israel.  Uses of PVC water-conveyor pipes and underground pipeline systems in canal irrigation commands have also been proved to enhance water use efficiency. Growing adoption of laser land levelers in parts of North India, despite high cost and sophistication, is indeed good news. In specific instances, improving effectiveness of traditional irrigation systems has been suggested to maintain local ecological equilibrium. Farmers need to be sensitized about sustainable irrigation water management and the resulting economic and environmental benefits.

Re-orienting Policy incentives:

Subsidy-based approach to irrigate farm lands has led to negative environmental consequences in India.   Punjab is a case in point, where over exploitation of groundwater due to subsidized electricity (it’s free) has led to an alarming situation.  Studies indicate that groundwater is depleting at a rate of 0.3 to one meter annually.  As per a NASA study, the annual withdrawal of groundwater from North-West India is 13 to 17 Km3 without aquifer replenishment. Could it not be fixed? Definitively yes!  But, it needs political will and a suitable offer of an alternative portfolio to tillers to maintain or raise the present levels of farm income. Diversification with crops likes nutri-cereals (sorghum and millets), maize, soybean, fruits and vegetables, etc. have been suggested to obviate the problem.  Adoption, however, will depend on suitable policy framework with market linkage, creation of supportive infrastructure and public investments.

The World Bank supported ongoing project titled ‘Paani Bacho, Paise Kamao’ (save water, earn money) could throw practical insights into future public policies to address a very alarming situation.  Farmers want water for irrigation and not free electricity.  Designing a framework in which payment is made for efficient water use through Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) of resources by farmers’ groups may prove to be a better governance model, as demonstrated in some parts of India. Pricing of irrigation water on volumetric basis has also been successfully pilot-tested. In some urban and peri-urban areas, treated sewerage is being used to irrigate farm lands.  However, scaling-up these measures would depend on a defined policy framework and associated structural issues.

Watershed management approach:

In-situ soil and moisture conservation with the involvement of communities can best be addressed through the watershed management approach.  Integrating both on-farm and non-farm activities in watershed areas leads to sustainable livelihood options for communities, mainly the disadvantaged.  The impacts of the interventions demonstrated successfully by institutes like ICRISAT have shown recharging of groundwater that has enabled farmers to grow more crops per year and enhancement of productivity of diverse crops.  In the tribal pockets of Odisha, it was seen how a holistic approach of watershed management transformed lives of rural poor, besides meeting the core objective of sustainable natural resources management. Social, economic and even political empowerment, mostly of rural women, was achieved through effective implementation of watershed schemes in backward pockets of the state. Convergence of schematic interventions through National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), Neeranchal, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), etc. for groundwater recharging, revival of traditional water bodies and creation of water harvesting structures would go a long way in water conservation.

Use of solar pumps:

Increased usage of solar pumps has been recommended by policymakers while addressing the challenges arising from ‘water-energy-food’ nexus. Government of India’s KUSUM (Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthan Mahaabhiyan) is paving the way for installation of standalone off-grid solar pumps for drawing water from surface or underground. The Union Budget that was presented early in February before the Indian Parliament has proposed installation of two million solar pumps and 1.5 million solarized grid connects to enhance farmers’ incomes.  However, while promoting solar based irrigation systems in agriculture sector, we must monitor groundwater extraction to ensure its sustainability.

Investments in research and innovation:

Prescriptions for better and sustainable irrigation water management have to be evidence-based.  Research on irrigation practices and technologies, drainage water management, tools for sustainable agroecosystem management, breeding drought-tolerant high-yielding crops, etc. should therefore be the focus of agricultural research systems.  Unfortunately, the water management aspects of crops are still under-invested and deserve enhanced research outlay.

The water productivity of major crops in India has recently been mapped by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) that calls for urgent attention to shift areas covered by water-guzzling crops like rice, sugarcane, etc. to other remunerative options.  With increasing weather variabilities, climate change would continue to pose risk to water availability for agriculture.  The political economy has to take cognizance of this and repurpose both irrigation and power policies that should incentivize farmers to save water.  Focus on sustainable water usage under climate change could be a long-term solution to the challenges of inadequate food and water supplies.

Dr Arabinda Kumar Padhee
Director, Country Relations and Business Affairs – New Delhi,

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