Farmers need irrigation more than poll freebies

Even as debt waivers and farmer-centric doles are announced to tide over farmers' indebtedness, the level of investment in irrigation remains poor

Even as debt waivers and farmer-centric doles are announced to tide over farmers’ indebtedness, the level of investment in irrigation remains poor

Ahead of Lok Sabha elections, the spotlight has turned on the troubles faced by the farmer. But, even as debt waivers are announced to tide over one farm crisis—that of indebtedness—another crisis—of water scarcity—looms large. Over the past three months, five large states— Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka—have declared drought in parts of their states, and more such announcements could occur in the months ahead.

Less than half (48.8%) of India’s farm lands are irrigated. The rest are perennially dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. The economic survey last year estimated that climate change could reduce annual agricultural incomes by 15-18% on average, and up to 20-25% for unirrigated areas over the long run .

Since 2014, investment in irrigation by state governments as well as the Union government has grown, driven by greater spending on irrigation projects in seven drought-hit states: Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan.

All these states have suffered from droughts in at least three of the past five years and have therefore, a comparatively higher expenditure on irrigation as well as higher number of projects under implementation .

However, even with the recent increased investment, the share of irrigation in overall public sector capex spending is lower than what it was two decades ago. Comparing spending on irrigation with other farm spending shows irrigation does not rank very high amongst the Union government’s priorities.

While irrigation is a state subject, the centre supports state irrigation projects through the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY).

However, this year’s (2018-19) budget for the flagship irrigation scheme stands at 94.3 billion, much lower than the budgeted estimates for fertilizer and food subsidies of 700 billion and 1.7 trillion, respectively. Several studies have shown how India’s spending on food and fertilizer subsidies are crowding out much-needed investments in irrigation .

The spending on irrigation also pales in comparison with more populist policy options. A nationwide farm loan waiver is expected to cost as much as 4 trillion, while an income transfer in the vein of Telangana’s popular Rythu Bandhu Scheme (RBS) is expected to have a cost implication of about 15 trillion over the next five years.

To be sure, spending on large irrigation projects may not always be very effective given high levels of wastage and inefficient usage of water in such projects. A more sustainable solution could be micro irrigation—smaller irrigation projects that serve an area of less than 2,000 hectares and use water conserving techniques such as drip irrigation. According to the NITI Aayog, micro-irrigation techniques such as drip irrigation can enhance efficiency and therefore farm productivity by over 150%.

Micro-irrigation projects will not just help water reach more farmers but also tackle India’s water efficiency problem. As a previous Plain Facts column had highlighted, India is extremely inefficient in consuming water. Globally, it has the largest footprint in terms of blue water (surface and groundwater) consumption (chart 4).

The PMKSY is trying to address this by providing micro-irrigation to farmers. Since 2015, three million hectares of arable land have come under micro-irrigation projects. However, micro-irrigation coverage as a share of total irrigated land remains below 10% nationwide.

In the major agrarian states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, this share is less than 1%.

As India’s groundwater runs out and the threat of climate change increases, farm incomes are likely to become even more volatile than they are now unless there is a radical overhaul of water management practices.

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