By Dr Moin Qazi
When it comes to agriculture in India, the monsoon is on every farmer’s lips. However, when the skies refuse to comply, the water crisis that results has a crippling effect on the sector which contributes majorly to the country’s economy.
What leads to India’s water crisis?
India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. For starters, India is highly dependent on a few major river systems for its water supply, especially the Ganges and its tributaries. Moreover, India uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States. There are two major reasons for this.
First, power subsidies for agriculture have played a major role in the decline of water levels in India. Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most lucrative price support is for sugarcane, wheat and rice. This has created highly skewed incentive structures in favour of these water-intensive crops. As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. Additionally, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds.
Have priorities gone awry?
Some classic examples of skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that have 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. In Maharashtra, farmers who once grew millet, sorghum and other cereals have turned to sugarcane, which, though highly profitable, is a very water-consuming crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, the two parched states where groundwater has sunk even further.
Poor agricultural and water management policies have greatly hampered Marathwada, the drought-prone belt of Maharashtra. Though it constitutes 31 percent crop area of the state, it uses only 14 percent of the state’s surface water. Western Maharashtra, on the other hand, has 36 percent crop area of the state but uses 47 percent of the water.
Also, 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 percent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is 76 percent. Consequently, the per capita income in Marathwada is 40 percent lower than the rest of the state.
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. This is significantly more when compared to just 4 million litres that are required for chickpea or gramme, commonly grown in India, over its four-month cycle.
A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, with rice taking the place of sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, up from 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in the neighbouring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all the 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.
“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 long-term view and stop the wastage of water.”
The author has a PhD in Economics and English.
Featured Image Credit: Visual Hunt
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