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In Water Lies the Lay of the Land

Ajay Dandekar / THE ECONOMIC TIMES No Comments Share:
Farmers plant paddy saplings in a paddy field at Chilla village, some 160 km away from Kolkata, India, on Aug. 4, 2018. (Xinhua/Tumpa Mondal)

Today, India’s agriculture is undergoing a crisis that, if not addressed, could result in a catastrophe. What is the problem ailing Indian agriculture? Is it limited to dryland farming, or can it also be located in the ‘Green Revolution’ states? Is the phenomenon of farmers’ suicides a manifestation of the deeper malaise in India’s agriculture? First, one must contextualise the issues.

The average farm size is reduced to almost 1.13 hectares, and almost 80% of farming households consist of marginal and small farmers. To top it all, low capital formation, starved of credit and investments, depressed prices and fragmented holdings are turning agrarian fields into a lunar landscape.

These problems are compounded by a new reality that is now dawning on policymakers and have further complicated an already complex situation. India is fast running out of water. In fact, it was living off on borrowed time all these years. Today, the issue of water — or the lack of it — and the very survival of the agrarian system is linked in an inseparable way.

Normally, when we think of water, we usually do so in terms of drinking water. The larger question, however, is about the use of water and its availability in the critical sector of food and its primary production. As has been pointed out by the Mihir Shah Committee in its report, India is on the verge of exhausting its groundwater due to over-exploitation of aquifers. Unless we fundamentally rethink our policy of managing surface and groundwater, along with the rejuvenation of our rivers, we are now looking at the point of no return.

The key to the issue, as the Mihir Shah’s report points out, is in sustainable and effective water management. This, in turn, would depend on how effectively water will be used in the agrarian system, and for such a use, what the cropping pattern should be.

The debate on a sustainable cropping pattern that dovetails with the realistic availability of water is not anew debate. It has been argued elsewhere that India now can’t afford the luxury of an unsustainable cropping pattern, which is in direct conflict with its agro-climatic zones.

India simply doesn’t have the luxury of sowing water-intensive crops in water-scarce areas, and regions that are being irrigated by stored water in dams. Such a practice is, in the longer run, counterproductive.

Farming, as mandated by the nature of agro-climatic zones, would also mean that an effective price mechanism and market support structure will have to be erected; dependence on rice and wheat in our public distribution system (PDS) will have to end; and procurement will have to be local for PDS, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), and midday meal programmes. Only such procurement will sustain the change in the cropping system in the medium run, stabilising the farming system.

India has a complex web of agro-climatic zones. Each zone has its subclimate and precipitation level. This complexity has to be taken on board when a cropping pattern is planned, with the cultivators as its primary stakeholders and adequate support system in prices guaranteed.

In the longer timeframe, agro-based processing industries will have to come up in its diversity, which will create enough employment opportunities for the throwback that is going to come back on land, due to the global lack of demand for manufactured goods.

The time has now come for the ‘Green Revolution’, riding on a water-intensive crop regime that drove the ‘growth paradigm’ in agriculture, to give way to a sustainable and durable agrarian system that will ensure generational food security for the country. The alternative scenario is simply too scary to contemplate.


The writer is director, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh. First published in THE ECONOMIC TIMES


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