Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said the environment and development ought not to be a zero-sum game. However, for most part, this remains merely aspirational.
Take for instance, the Prime Minster’s grave concerns on depleting groundwater levels. “We need to focus attention on water conservation and water efficiency with the sort of zeal that drives energy conservation and efficiency in the use of energy,” he said.
Energy efficiency and conservation measures that have been implemented thus far required little or no political motivation. For example, the market worked its way to complying with regulations that demanded energy efficiency labelling on products. Consumers thus know there are gains to be made.
Such trade-offs are, however, not visible in the farm sector with regard to water conservation. And the problem finds its origins in the power sector. In some states such as Punjab, farms get free electricity, while in some others, this is based on the capacity of the electric pump that lifts water to the surface.
As a result, farmers have little incentive to conserve groundwater. There is no doubt that practices such as drip irrigation vastly reduce water consumption. However, in this case, the capital costs are high and deter investments. In some states where subsidies are being provided, they are either inadequate or lost to corruption.
Perversely enough, the driver for water conservation is actually power shortages in the farm sector. Farmers resort to using diesel pumps in a manner that water consumption is optimized since they have to pay for the fuel.
To be sure, diesel is subsidized for this reason but here, perhaps, lies the way forward, especially since the government has moved in some way towards freeing up the price of the fuel. Political resistance to tinkering with agricultural power tariffs is understandable since those who depend on farms represent a significant vote bank. However, it is evident that farmers are willing to pay for electricity provided supply is reliable, since this reduces diesel bills. No doubt this requires technical upgradation of infrastructure as well larger supplies. But that alone is not enough.
It would also require politicians across parties to educate farmers and change their mindset. Farmers currently regard electricity as an entitlement to be provided for free by the state.
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