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Swimming upstream on water availability

Could there be a mechanism that can make agriculture in India more drought resistant and increase agricultural water use efficiency to produce ‘more crop per drop’, asks Prasenjit Chowdhury.

ht view Updated: Jul 17, 2014 23:27 IST

The prediction of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) that the southwest monsoon (June-September) accounting for 80% of India’s precipitation would be subpar this year — 95% of the average 100-year rainfall data (a range of 96%-100% is normal) — is already putting pressure on prices of fodder, animal feed, onions and potatoes. The agricultural sector depends heavily on the monsoon rains and contributes nearly 14% to GDP and employs nearly half of India's working population.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi advised that states should set up special courts for speedy trial of hoarders and black-marketers. An advance action plan, with districts, rather than states, at the helm has been put in place. In view of a miserly monsoon, the agriculture ministry has prepared a contingency plan for more than 500 districts. Sops like subsidised diesel and rescheduling of loans for the drought-hit are in the pipeline. While sufficient quantities of seed of late-sown varieties of various crops need to be delivered to states, seeds of rabi pulses to compensate for any loss in pulses production in the kharif season must be underway. Proposals for offloading food-stocks according to need, permitting imports of essential commodities, setting up a price stabilisation fund aimed at curbing speculation and unbundling Food Corporation of India (FCI) operations have been mooted. Important as the steps are, they are cosmetic.

Could there be a mechanism that can make agriculture in India more drought resistant and increase agricultural water use efficiency to produce ‘more crop per drop’?

Excessive use of groundwater and chemical fertilisers in over 50 million hectares of irrigation in India, which is about 20% of the total global irrigated land has caused considerable increase in soil salinity resulting in poor agricultural productivity.

Faced with unclear climate change patterns, it is about time for India to accept that the age of easy water availability is over, and that no food security is viable without water security. With that wired in, India must plunge headlong into scientific agricultural practices like availing of ‘space technology’ that provides an excellent means of logging water inventory across the country by which one can procure reliable information on snow melt run off, groundwater availability, water storage capacity and siltation and sedimentation in reservoirs, tanks, rivers and dams. It is also time to court various low-cost technological innovations to reduce the amount of water used for the production of rice and wheat, undertaken by the likes of the Center for International Projects Trust (CIPT), affiliated with the Columbia Water Center at the Earth Institute. Already it has been pilot-testing the use of GW-11 variety of wheat – touted to be drought resistant and capable of producing yields that are “comparable to the traditional variety of wheat” – with farmers in the Mehsana district of North Gujarat.

But there must be an end to our millenarian smugness about being surrounded by rivers that might partly explain why watersheds and rainwater harvesting have not been given more attention. Even though India receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic metres of rainfall every year, only 48% rainfall ends up in India’s rivers, of which, due to lack of storage and crumbling infrastructure, only 18% can be utilised.

Mismanagement of water resources, combined with our burgeoning populations, unplanned urban and industrial growth, is so trite a prognostication that nobody seems to pay much attention. A fertiliser-fuelled Green Revolution has run its course and took its toll on soil moisture. We are yet to reach a consensus on major water conservation issues such as river-linking and big dams versus small dams and their social and environmental costs.

Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal