Time to make the water switch
Context: On World Water day (March 22) Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Catch the Rain” campaign under the government’s flagship programme, Jal Shakti Abhiyan. He emphasised the importance of using every penny spent under MGNREGA to conserve water.
- Central Water Commission’s Reassessment:
- India receives a mean annual precipitation of about 3,880 billion cubic meters (BCM) but utilises only 699 BCM (18 percent) of this; the rest is lost to evaporation and other factors.
- The demand for water is likely to be 843 BCM in 2025 and 1,180 BCM by 2050.
- UN Report:
- As per the UN’s report on Sustainable Development Goal-6 (SDG-6) on “Clean water and sanitation for all by 2030”, India achieved only 56.6 per cent of the target by 2019. This indicates that we need to move much faster in order to meet this SDG goal.
- Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index (2019):
- 75 per cent households in India do not have access to drinking water on their premises and India ranks 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index.
- India is identified as a water stressed country with its per capita water availability declining from 5,178 cubic metre (m3)/year in 1951 to 1,544 m3 in 2011.
Focus on Agriculture:
- Agriculture uses about 78 percent of freshwater resources. And as the country develops, the share of drinking water, industry, and other uses is likely to rise. Unless one learns to give effect to the credo of “per drop more crop” in agriculture, the challenge can be daunting.
- We need a paradigm shift in our thinking and a strategy to not just increase land productivity measured as tonnes per hectare (t/ha), but also maximise applied irrigation productivity measured as kilogrammes, or Rs, per cubic metre of water (kg/m3).
- So far, with decades of large public and private investments in irrigation, only about half of India’s gross cropped area is irrigated.
Groundwater contributes about 64 per cent, canals 23 per cent, tanks 2 per cent and other sources 11 per cent to irrigation. This results primarily from the skewed incentive policy of free or highly subsidised power, particularly in the country’s north-west, the site of the erstwhile Green Revolution.
Realignment of crops:
- As per a NABARD-ICRIER study on Water Productivity Mapping, rice and wheat crops alone consume almost 60 per cent of India’s irrigation water.
- It is interesting to note that while Punjab scores high on land productivity of rice, it is at the bottom with respect to applied irrigation water productivity.
- Similarly, in the case of sugarcane, irrigation water productivity in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu is only 1/3rd of that in Bihar and UP. There is, thus, a need to realign cropping patterns based on per unit of applied irrigation water productivity.
The Punjab government, along with the World Bank and J-PAL, has started some pilots with an innovative policy of “Paani Bachao Paise Kamao” to encourage rational use of water among farmers. Under the initiative, meters are installed on farmers’ pumps, and if they save water/power compared to what they have been using (taken as entitlements) they get paid for those savings.
Overall, it seems it is time to switch from the highly subsidised price policy of water/power (and even fertilisers) to direct income support on a per hectare basis, and investment policies that help with newer technologies and innovations. Water and power need to be priced as per their economic value or at least to recover a significant part of their costs to ensure sustainable agriculture.