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India and the need to treat its parched farmlands

India and the need to treat its parched farmlands

By Moin Qazi

India supports 15% of the world’s population but possesses only 4% of the world’s water resources. World Bank data shows that only 35% of India’s agricultural land is irrigated (artificial application of water to land or soil), which implies that 65% of farming depends on rainfall. Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Despite constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters, a relatively small achievement when compared to Russia’s 6,103 cubic meters, Australia’s 4,733 cubic metres, and China’s 1,111 cubic meters. Even though India has been recognised as one of the world’s leading nations in science and technology, it still breaks into a sweat every time the south-west monsoon (the subcontinent’s tenuous lifeline which arrives anytime between June and September) is delayed.

The current scenario

While climate change has caused rains to be erratic, India receives more than the adequate amount of rainfall in most part of the country. Water harvesting and management, though required, remains only a fad. Areas that get flooded are the same areas that face droughts months later. Agriculture consumes 83% of India’s national freshwater resources. A staggering US $52.7 billion has been expended on ‘Major and Medium Irrigation’ (MMI) projects from the first Five-Year Plan (1951-56) to the eleventh one (2007-12), but irrigation has reached only 45% of India’s net sown area. Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90% of total water drawn but contributes only 15% to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89% of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (followed by the household sector that uses 9%, and the industrial sector which consumes 2% of the groundwater)

Scientists and activists have consistently warned India about the fact that relentless groundwater extraction will lead to a steep drop in water tables across the country. Some farmers in these parched states now need to dig 300 feet for water, compared to the five feet previously dug in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist. Farmers have taken to drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock – 700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down.

Taking a cue from Israel

Israel has been a role model for the world in matters of water management. Realising its dire predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation”, and decreased its dependence on Mother Nature for water. This was no easy feat to achieve, the country took 70 years to make this possible. Water conservation was backed by the holy grail of Israeli water innovation: drip irrigation. Israel has set a template for reusing wastewater for irrigation. It treats 80% of its domestic wastewater, which is recycled for agricultural use and constitutes nearly 50% of the total water used for agriculture. India is now actively seeking Israel’s mentorship for addressing is water woes.

Drip irrigation or micro irrigation’s high initial cost of investment is a deterrent to most small farmers in India but the government has subsidised it under its flagship irrigation programme, the ‘Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojana’ or ‘Prime Minister’s Farm Irrigation Scheme’ (PMKSY). Given the enormity of India’s water issues, encouraging single villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can seem to be a rather a feeble response to a national crisis, but when compared with controversial top-down, government-led efforts to build big dams and regulate the wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroots effort can prove to be both sensible and sustainable.

Lessons from the past

Ancient Indians understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, written around 300 BC, has a detailed description of how tanks and canals are to be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state, the king and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British changed all this, by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.

India won’t need as long as Israel, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But, New Delhi must summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies will take time, and there is no doubt that climatic stresses are mounting fast.


Moin Qazi, a former banker and an accomplished poet and writer, has extensively contributed articles to leading publications around the globe and authored several books.

Featured Image Source: NBC News

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