Beyond surface solutions
First, the bad news. Indias resources from land to forests and water are under severe threat. With a phenomenal growth in population, the pressure has only intensified.
Take water, for instance. Its per capita availability has plummeted from 5,000 cubic meters per annum in 1955 to less than 2,000 cubic metres today. Any discourse on this issue however, is irrelevant unless put in the context of agriculture, the largest consumer of this resource. This sector can in fact be described as a giant when compared to the others in the fray. According to the Union Ministry of Water Resources, more than 85 per cent of the countrys "utilisable" water resources which includes groundwater and surface or river flow is allocated to the agriculture sector. Yet, 67 per cent of Indias total cultivated area remains rainfed, or outside the purview of the "official" irrigation network. More than 40 per cent of Indias farmers still depend on the vagaries of monsoon to sustain their livelihoods.
The situation is particularly alarming because demand from other quarters domestic and industrial is rising at an unprecedented pace. It is obvious that the countrys water-use pattern, initiated by stunningly short-sighted management systems, has gone completely awry.
The most glaring flaw is apparent in the cropping practice promoted by the government. Its agricultural policy as well as its public distribution system blindly push water-intensive crops like rice, even in regions where water resources are already under extreme stress. As a result, in the past decade alone, there has been a 50 per cent drop in the cultivated area of water-friendly crops like sorghum, millet and maize.
The policy-makers blinkered vision does not end there. Over the decades, it has continued to promote surface or flood irrigation, a method that presupposes an abundant water supply. Such a condition does not exist in the subcontinent any longer. Besides, the costs are spiralling out of control. The expenditure on irrigation facilities has jumped from Rs 1,526 per hectare in the First Five Year Plan to over Rs 150, 000 per hectare in the Ninth Five Year Plan, and is steadily on the rise.
The message is clear. It is time to think of alternative irrigation techniques, which use water resources better. Obviously this will have to be combined with diversification of crops and equity in water distribution.
One such water minimising technology is drip irrigation. Why drip? Its precise and controlled application of water checks wastage, and prevents soil salinisation and waterlogging, which are a major bane of the conventional system. But it is expensive. The management of this technology is difficult and farmers find the implementation costs of drip schemes expensive. But now the crisis is leading to new innovations; cheaper and indigenous drip is becoming available.
Some interesting issues unfold as one delves deeper into drip. Indian policy has not been blind to its benefits. Since the early 1970s the government has sought to promote this method albeit half-heartedly through subsidy schemes and incentives. But, intriguingly, it never caught on. Not because the technology failed, but because of the flawed approach of our planners. As in every other sector, they blindly followed the West, without bothering to modify or adapt to suit it to local needs. Especially that of the small and marginal landholders, who comprise 78 per cent of Indias farming community.
But as CSE researchers explored the hinterland of Maharashtra and Gujarat, they came across local, indigenous avatars of drip. Farmers owning miniscule portions of land are already practicing drip by devising fascinatingly simple, yet innovative, modifications.
Drip irrigation has the potential to enhance food productivity while preventing overexploitation of precious resources like soil and water. But are our policy makers and scientists prepared to learn practical lessons from grassroots practitioners our farmers?