Narendra Modi government exploring new ways to curb farm water use
The Narendra Modi government is set to unveil a series of measures to reduce water consumption in India’s agriculture sector, which uses a disproportionately high amount of 89% of the country’s entire groundwater, officials familiar with the plan said on Sunday.
The new steps will try to ensure more sustainable methods of cultivation, as large parts of the country routinely face water crises amid alarming levels of ground water depletion. The proposals under consideration include making drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane, one of the two biggest water-guzzling crops, along with paddy.
Uttar Pradesh (which has the largest area under cane), Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat are the largest sugarcane growing states. In states where sugarcane is grown, it consumes between 60-70% of the available water.
According to estimates by the government, Indian sugarcane plantations consume less water than the global average, but they are less efficient than South Africa and Thailand. “On average, India gets around 5.2 kg of sugarcane with one cubic metre of water. This is better than the global average of 4.80 kg/m3. But South Africa produces up to 7.8 kg with the same quantity of water and Thailand gets between 5.8 and 6.5 kg/m3 of water,” said an official.
Drip irrigation is a method of micro-irrigation that releases small amounts of water at regular intervals at the roots of any crop. It is used extensively across the world for sugarcane plantations.
The government is likely to also formulate policies to shift a major chunk of rice cultivation out of Punjab and Haryana to rain-surplus regions of the country. This will ensure that groundwater will not come under excessive pressure in large parts of the northern India. Recently, Union minister for Jal Shakti, Gajendra Shekhawat had said, “Our studies say that to grow one kilogramme of paddy, we consume 5,600 litres of water whereas China produces the same amount of paddy with just 330-400 litres of water.”
Policies will be formulated to encourage farmers in water-scarce states, including Haryana and Punjab, to move to other crops, such horticulture. The government is also looking at how farmers can be motivated to shift to solar-powered farms to cut down on electricity consumption.
The water ministry has proposed to a panel set up by Prime Minister Modi to review agriculture and rural development sectors moving to a production system of alternative crops, depending on agro-climatic zones, better irrigation system and financial incentives to farmers for optimal water usage.
“We have to re-look at our water consumption, especially when there is a severe water crisis in many parts of the country,” Shekhawat said, pointing out that of the 178.7 million rural households in the country, only 32.7 million or 18% got drinking water from tap connections.
The government also plans to bring fallow land, especially in rain-surplus eastern and northeastern parts of the country, into cultivation of water-intensive crops to make good any loss of area in other parts.
In grain-bowl states of Punjab and Haryana, a practice of paddy-wheat cycle (paddy during summers, wheat during winters) has driven aquifers to a historic low. Haryana has announced cash incentives and freebies for farmers who trade paddy cultivation for maize. Fifteen thousand farmers in the state has signed up for the programme this summer.
“If the government wants to be successful, it will have to rework its procurement policy and minimum support prices (MSP), which are mainly responsible for skewed water consumption. MSPs have to be sufficiently attractive for non-paddy crops,” said R Mani of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.
Modi has called for a mass movement on water conservation along the lines of Swachh Bharat, flagging concerns over depleting water levels in the country.
In his first Mann ki Baat after his government retained power in the national polls this summer, Modi urged upon all citizens to create awareness on water conservation, share knowledge of “traditional methods” to conserve water and highlight success stories on conservation.
According to the Economic Survey 2018-19, by 2050, “India will be in the global hot spot for ‘water insecurity’.”
India is the second-largest producer of rice after China. The two Asian giants contribute to nearly half of the world’s total rice production. The Economic Survey pointed out that around 89% of groundwater extracted is used for irrigation and crops such as paddy. Sugarcane consumes more than 60% of surface irrigation water.
The survey said, “Focus should shift from land productivity to ‘irrigation water productivity’. Therefore devising policies to incentivise farmers to improve water use should become a national priority. Thrust should be on micro-irrigation that can improve water use efficiency.”
Shekhawat added that rationalisation of water can only be done with the help of the states. “In Punjab farmers get free power to use pumps to extract groundwater. The state government has started a scheme whereby farmers are given cash incentives if they consume less electricity in agricultural fields. Lower use of pumps means less extraction of groundwater. In Maharashtra, farmers are encouraged to use drip irrigation for sugar-cane cultivation. It is also a proven fact that sugar-cane fed by drip irrigation has better sugar yield. So, we need the help of all states to address the issue of over-exploitation of water,” the minister said.
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