Mumbai: Shifting the major chunk of rice production to India’s central and eastern states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, while encouraging wheat cultivation through sustainable irrigation in the rice-growing regions of Punjab and Haryana, could help India prevent an impending water crisis by 2030, according to a 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). Water demand by 2030 is projected to be twice the available supply, a WaterAid India report from March 2019 showed.

Inefficient cropping patterns have impacted groundwater reserves, that have provided for roughly 84% of the irrigated area added in the last four decades, said the NABARD and ICRIER study titled ‘Water Productivity Mapping of Major Indian Crops’. Rice and wheat, two of India’s most important food crops, are also the most water-intensive; producing a kilogram of rice requires an average of 2,800 litres of water, while a kilogram of wheat takes 1,654 litres, says WaterAid India’s ‘‘Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019’ report.

India’s top rice and wheat producers Punjab, Haryana in the north west--which contribute almost 15% of India’s entire rice production, according to the NABARD and ICRIER report--and western Uttar Pradesh in the Gangetic plain, are also among the world’s top water-risk zones for agricultural production, the others being northeastern China and southwestern USA, according to the WaterAid report.

While 42% of India’s land area is currently facing a drought, 88.11% of Punjab’s districts and 76.02% of Haryana’s are drought-resilient, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Hydrology. Extensive investments in irrigation and electricity infrastructure and government subsidies on water and power consumption have cloaked the fact that Punjab was once a desert.

“Punjab as we know it today is only 100-150 years old. It was a desert until the 1800s, inhabited by nomads,” Tushaar Shah, economist and public policy specialist, and former director of the Institute of Rural Management in Anand, Gujarat, told IndiaSpend. “Now people have private tubewells that use groundwater, which are recharged by canal water. Punjab and Haryana also have have 100% irrigation unlike Rajasthan (which has 0% drought resilient area), which is what makes them drought resilient,” he added.

From being a desert, Punjab is now exporting water. India uses enormous amounts of groundwater for agricultural exports and is thus effectively the third largest exporter of groundwater--12% of the global total--the WaterAid India report said.

However, with the current unsustainable use of groundwater, Punjab and Haryana could again become a desert in 25 years, a draft report of the Central Ground Water Board (North-Western region), has warned, as The Tribune reported on May 13, 2019.

In 2014-15, Indian farms consumed 10 trillion litres of water to produce 3.7 million tonnes of basmati rice for export, virtually exporting that amount of water. This is cause for concern in a country where 1 billion people live in conditions of water scarcity and 60% face high to extreme water stress, the report highlighted.

Grow wheat in the north-west and rice in the central and eastern states

NABARD & ICRIER’s study analysed how cropping patterns for 10 major crops, which occupy over 60% of India’s gross cropped area, can maximise crop productivity per unit of irrigation, in addition to land productivity that has traditionally been considered.

The study looked at water productivity through data on production, climate and water from India’s 640 districts (as per the 2011 Census; the districts were later sub-divided into 718). This has been analysed through three different metrics: physical water productivity (PWP), which is the crop output per unit of water consumed; irrigation water productivity (IWP), which is the crop output per unit of irrigation water used by the farmer; and economic water productivity (EWP), which is the value of the crop output per unit of water consumed by the crop, either through rainfall or irrigation. Each of these was compared with land productivity to determine if the existing cropping pattern was in line with naturally available water resources of various regions and if these were hydrologically sustainable.

While Punjab and Haryana report the highest land productivity for rice (4 tonnes per hectare), the IWP for these states is relatively low at 0.22 kg/m3, even though they have almost 100% irrigation coverage, which reflects inefficient irrigation water use, encouraged by Punjab’s free electricity policy that enables farmers to pump up groundwater through borewells.

Rainfed Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, in contrast, display higher levels of IWP at 0.68 kg/m3 and 0.75 kg/m3, even though they had substantially lesser irrigation coverage at 32% and 3%, respectively. Land productivity here is also lesser because of low irrigation levels, although the region is hydrologically suited for rice cultivation.

The underdeveloped procurement policy for paddy along with low power supplies to agriculture in these states means lower profitability from rice cultivation, according to the NABARD and ICRIER report. Groundwater costs are also much higher in this region and farmers would need to depend on diesel to pump water, which is two to three times the cost of power.

“The groundwater crisis in western India is almost entirely due to subsidies,” Shah explained. “In eastern India you will hardly find any blocks where depleted groundwater is not replaced because there are hardly any subsidies for power or irrigation and farmers are forced to be very economical in their use of water.” States like Chattisgarh and Jharkhand are now investing in measures like rainwater harvesting, desilting irrigation tanks, watershed planning and setting up farm ponds to replenish groundwater levels, he added.

When it comes to wheat, however, Punjab has the highest level of IWP of 1.22 kg/m3, followed by Haryana at 1.05 kg/m3 and is suitable for cultivation in the region. The dry regions of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat have low IWP (0.53 kg/m3 , 0.63 kg/m3 and 0.71 kg/m3, respectively) and wheat cultivation in these states would add to water stress.

Change in procurement policy and better MSPs

A strategic change in procurement policy could tackle inefficient cropping practices that use up excessive groundwater, the NABARD & ICRIER report suggested. Farmers in the north-western region were aware of depleting groundwater levels and were willing to shift to more water-efficient crops like maize or pulses, provided their market risk was covered through a state-assured procurement policy akin to the current ones for rice and wheat.

Assured procurement pushes farmers to continue cultivating water-intensive crops, even though the minimum support prices (MSP) on pulses were in fact higher in 2017. MSP for the common and Grade A varieties of paddy in 2017-18 was Rs 1,550 per quintal and Rs 1,590 per quintal, respectively. Among pulses crops, it was Rs 5,250 per quintal for arhar (pigeon pea), Rs 5,375 per quintal for moong (green gram) and Rs 5,200 per quintal for urad (black gram). In the eastern states, paddy prices often fall 10% to 25% below MSP, depriving farmers of profits comparable to their counterparts in Punjab-Haryana.

A shift to direct benefit transfer to farmers’ bank accounts to improve their purchasing power, instead of price-based subsidies on water and power which have resulted in overexploitation of groundwater, could also nudge farmers towards effective cropping patterns and sustainable irrigation practices. This will necessarily require timely, regular supply of water and electricity as prerequisites, the NABARD & ICRIER report concluded.

(Abraham is a Delhi-based writer and researcher. She has been an urban fellow at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, and an intern at IndiaSpend.)

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