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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  We must break ‘lock-ins’ of water usage in agriculture
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We must break ‘lock-ins’ of water usage in agriculture

Just as much of today’s world is locked into fossil-fuel dependence, Indian farmers are in a trap of water-guzzling crop production that is not environmentally sustainable.

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Photo: Mint

The annual United Nations climate conference underway in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, has entire days devoted to two crucial sectors that directly impact the lives of millions in India: agriculture and water. At a time of stagnant incomes and groundwater depletion, we must enable farmers to make choices that improve their earnings while helping them reduce their demand for water.

So-called ‘lock-ins’ are among the factors that prevent progress on this front. When prefixed with ‘carbon’, these refer to systems geared for the continuing intensive use of fossil fuels. Just as breaking carbon lock-ins is key to addressing climate change, there are lock-ins surrounding the use of water in agriculture that must be tackled.

India’s current system is geared towards growing high water-using and energy-intensive crops. The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) estimates that over 60% of irrigation in India is done through groundwater. As of 2015, there were about 20 million pump sets using energy in India, which means that the agricultural sector accounts for about 20-22% of total electricity consumption.

Most of this is used to grow water-intensive crops like paddy; almost a quarter of India’s net cultivable area is under rice cultivation. It is predominantly grown in the Punjab-Haryana belt, using groundwater irrigation. In the rich alluvial aquifers that underpin India’s northern plains, water is dwindling and slow to replenish. It requires significant amounts of energy to pump because many farmers in these two states use deep bore-wells with greater pump capacities. When it is clearly bad for the sustainability of the environment, why do farmers continue cultivating paddy? The reason is simple: there is less risk associated with such crops, given their large-scale procurement by the government at minimum support prices (MSPs).

In such a scenario, farmers end up getting ‘locked in’ to keep growing crops that require a lot of water and energy. They see this not just as a way to maximize profit, but also as the best way to minimize risk. Studies have shown that farmers are most averse to price and production related risks.

When generations of farmers follow certain patterns of behaviour in terms of crop choices or cultivation practices, it is hard for them to break out of it. Lock-ins dictate how farmers choose their crops, irrigate their fields and use energy. Specific ways of doing things are so hard-set that the actors involved often resist change. Moreover, amending one element in the system can yield little benefit because of connections with others.

There are many reasons for lock-ins that are carbon and water intensive. First, there is path dependency in agriculture. Physical infrastructure in terms of cold storage, granaries and markets have all been set up to support current crop choices. New crops would require new supply chains that may be expensive to set up. Second, conventional agricultural methods have developed over centuries based on specific skills and expertise. Shifting to new methods of farming would need additional investments in capacity. Third, consumption patterns are based on crops that are currently grown. For instance, rice and wheat continue to dominate Indian kitchens. These cultural preferences have developed over decades. Adapting them will take time, even if there are nutritional benefits in switching to other foodgrains such as millets.

Finally, the Indian farm sector displays siloed ways of thinking and working. For instance, if we need to understand the impact of a specific intervention like solar irrigation on farmers, we need to assess changes in their energy consumption, their income and water use. This means that different government ministries and departments need to work in conjunction at the policy design stage to solve complex challenges that span sectors. Piecemeal approaches to break lock-ins have not worked.

To break the paddy-wheat cultivation pattern in Haryana, the state government introduced maize in its MSP system. For the first three years of its introduction, large tracts of land (almost 100,000 hectares) were converted for maize cultivation. The government procured this maize through Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) for the first three years. However, since there was insufficient demand, distribution rates were poor. Eventually, farmers stopped growing maize since procurement did not match production. Clearly, the entire system has to be set up for change, from production to consumption.

There is also a positive example of a state government focused creating an ecosystem for farms to transition to a low water-using crop like millet. The Odisha Millet Mission’s case underlines the extent of changes necessary to make large sustainable transitions.

What the Odisha government did differently was that it not only offered an MSP for millets, it also ensured complete procurement of this crop and ensured its distribution. It encouraged consumption of millets at local levels by introducing millets as a part of the Public Distribution System (PDS), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and even the Midday Meal Scheme at schools. This ensured that demand and supply matched.

No single solution can enable sustainable transitions in agriculture. We need a systemic approach that involves policy revisions, technologies, incentives and behavioural modifications. It is critical to move away from siloed ways of working to steer the country’s agricultural sector towards a low-carbon and low water-using future.

Anjali Neelakantan leads research and development at the Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation at ATREE, Bengaluru.

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Published: 10 Nov 2022, 10:47 PM IST
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