Save water: We need a lot of blue to stay green

Agriculture has been the largest user of groundwater

Niraj Kumar & Sagarika Mishra

The covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the country’s economy has been colossal. Nevertheless, Indian agriculture to date has resisted the onslaught. Though in the FY 2020-21, India’s GDP contracted by 7.7 percent, including negative growth in industry and services agriculture delivered a positive increase of 3.4 percent during the same period. Agriculture’s share in GDP has increased to 19.9 percent in FY 2020-21 from 17.8% in FY 2019-20. Agriculture has established itself to be the most dependable economic activity during the testing times and continues to be a potent means to keep our economy impelling even during the post-pandemic days. Nonetheless, today it needs to be backed by complementary policies, quality inputs, and agile markets to continue as the most dependable economic sector. Unfortunately, groundwater, the most crucial input, is becoming scarce and, in turn, affecting agriculture alarmingly.

According to a study, by 2025, agricultural productivity is likely to fall by 68 percent in more than one-third of India’s districts that are currently under water stress. Parts of India have seen the colossal withdrawal of groundwater, which, unfortunately, can’t be replenished by nature. According to a study, around 25% of groundwater depletion has occurred in the last 20 years. In some areas, it is likely to take 30 to 50 years to achieve groundwater normalcy if we start working today and continue without losing steam.

By the year 2030, in India, water demand is expected to be more than double of what would be available. Agriculture has been the largest user of groundwater. Out of 61.5 million hectares of the irrigated area, over 64% of the area is groundwater irrigated, consuming about 90 percent of total groundwater extracted. India has 17.7 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 11.9 percent of the world’s agricultural production, and uses 24 percent of groundwater extracted globally.

Waiving off or subsidizing farmers’ electricity bills may seem a politically correct decision but not a sustainable decision at all. It is not only economically quixotic but environmentally untenable also. It has resulted in unsustainable pumping and unscientific irrigation. The matter of fact is that groundwater pumping is not the cheapest, and it falls heavily on farmers’ pockets. For example, the cost of one 200 feet deep borewell ranges between Rs. 25,000 to Rs.70,000, and if the water table falls further down, the irrigation cost escalates. In most cases, farmers need second drilling.

The potential of rainwater for Indian agriculture makes a compelling case for rainwater harvesting. Central Water Commission statistics reveal that 92% of the total rainfall of 4000 billion cubic meters in India goes waste. This is, despite the fact that if appropriately managed, one hectare of land with just 100 mm of rain (deserts of Western Rajasthan get average rainfall of more than 300 mm) can harvest 1,000 cubic meters of water. Sensitizing farmers toward watershed management, prudent use of water, and encouraging the adoption of scientific and micro-irrigation technologies, agricultural practices like crop rotation, cover crops, and mulching may considerably reduce groundwater demand.

In India, 46 percent of the total cropped area is used for cultivating two water-gulping crops, namely, rice and wheat. On average, about 5000 and 1500 liters of water is consumed to produce just one kg of rice and wheat, respectively. The central government’s decision to incentivize less water-consuming crops by offering competitive prices is a step in the right direction. For instance, between 2010 and 2020, minimum support prices (MSP) of crops like Sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), and finger millet (ragi), with high nutritional value but needing less water, have been increased 2.98, 2.44, and 3.41 times respectively. In comparison, during the same period, the MSPs of paddy and wheat increased by 1.87 and 1.76 times, respectively.

Unfortunately, the area sown under coarse nutri-cereals in rabi season fell by 7.9 percent in 2020-21 from the previous year, but the respective areas under rice and wheat went up. This indicates that higher MSP alone will not work. The crop diversification scheme, planned with multiple incentives and extension support to the farmers and implemented by the central government and many states, is a pressing priority and should be implemented with full earnest.

We can’t think of increasing production or doubling farmers’ income when farmers’ fields are under water stress. Researches have shown that we can increase crop production by 15 to 25 percent by ensuring proper irrigation. By 2030, we will need 343 MT (current year’s estimated production is 303 MT) of food grain to feed our increasing population. Agriculture is becoming a non-remunerative and unsustainable livelihood option, and more and more farmers are willing to switch over to some other alternatives. Drying aquifers is one of the primary reasons for the same.

Water is fundamental to human survival on the earth, but this precious resource is under threat. Ignoring it would magnify agrarian distress, which may turn into a perpetual irreversible crisis. We can’t wait for a doomsday scenario where the water diamond paradox would cease to exist. We need to manage, conserve, and preserve each drop of water. It takes a lot of blue to stay green. The task may seem humongous, but we don’t have many options left.

(Niraj Kumar and Sagarika Mishra are faculty members of Rural Management at XIM University, Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are personal.)

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