India has only 4% of the earth’s water resources. Around 60% of its area under agriculture is rain-fed. And in the absence of rains, the sole alternative for irrigation is underground water. More than 21 million farmers tap underground water to sustain their livelihoods. In the alluvial plains of the Ganga the water level is falling by more than one metre per year. If the underground water is exploited at this pace, in 20 years, 15 states of our country may face acute underground water scarcity. A World Bank study says that about 250cu. km of water goes for irrigation each year but rains replenish only 40% of this. The groundwater table has fallen to 400 metres in some regions.
Gone are the days when Arjuna could quench the thirst of Dronacharya with a strike of his arrow.
The Green Revolution brought high-yielding varieties where crops depended on better irrigation. This put immense pressure on farmers to extract underground water, given the unpredictability of rains. Submersible motor pumps made the situation even worse. Rampant exploitation of water might lead us to the deadliest of famines and natural calamities in the years ahead. A large number of farmers would also end up having more reasons—crop failures—to commit suicide.
As electricity is free or highly subsidized in most of the states, water is pumped day and night. This wastage of water affects the farmers in two ways. First, it decreases the water table drastically and second, extra water is washed off to water bodies polluted by fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers thus fall victim to the subsidies designed to help them.
There are solutions. Micro-water harvesting techniques should be adopted—such as creating community water reservoirs or tanks that could collect rainwater, as seen in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.
Essentially, water is overused and wasted because it costs nothing. Government should charge a nominal rate for harnessing underground water with the help of meters and pumps. This will act as a disincentive for over exploitation of underground water.
A major reason for over-exploitation is that farmers are still largely dependent on conventional methods of irrigation that do not aim to conserve water. Attempts should be made to teach farmers about modern methods such as drip irrigation where water and fertilizer are applied directly near the root zone of the crop through pipes.
Another method, called sprinkler irrigation, helps spraying water evenly on crops through revolving nozzle-fitted emitters. The government should give subsidies to farmers who adopt these, rather than providing free electricity that acts as a deterrent to long-term growth of the agriculture sector.
There should be regular demonstrations of the working of modern irrigation methods, as there will be inertia among farmers to adopt new technologies. Since there is a steady rise in the pressure on natural resources, it is extremely vital to set up a proper joint management system, instilling a sense of responsibility and community-level solidarity for conserving water resources.
The services-led growth of the economy looks impressive at present, but it can’t be sustained for long. If agriculture is not given top priority now, and if the issues associated with it are not resolved, there will be a food crisis in our country. The reason is simple: a huge population is dependent on agriculture, which is growing at only 2.3% whereas the population is growing at 1.95%.
So, the pace of growth in population is not far behind agricultural growth. Besides, while the population has been growing at a stable pace for the last decade, agriculture is slowing down steadily. If the agriculture sector is ignored for another decade, there would be acute shortage of food and the only option left with government would be to import food. But buying food items in the large volumes that India would require will push up international prices excessively.
The burden of expenditure on buying food in the future will be much more, compared with investment needed in water-harvesting techniques at present.
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