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Jul 15, 1994 | From the print edition

-- RAJASTHAN Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and his cabinet are busy wooing Israeli expertise in, of all things, water management.

The first entrant is Tahal Consulting Engineers Ltd, a Tel Aviv-based firm which has bagged a Rs 13-crore contract to prepare a master plan for irrigation water management -- a major component of a World Bank-sponsored scheme for Rajasthan's agricultural development.

Several critics, however, question the wisdom of introducing Israeli water-saving technology, citing regional variations, finance and the loss of traditional Indian systems as factors.

Indian consultancy firms are piqued. Says R Rajappa, chairperson-cum-managing director of Water and Power Consultancy Services Ltd (WAPCOS), "We have the requisite experience in India, rooted in the local context. They do not have relevant experience in canal irrigation of the magnitude present in Rajasthan, nor can conditions in Israel and Rajasthan be equated."

The project will comprise a 3-year study to prepare a comprehensive "irrigation policy" for Rajasthan, valid till 2045 AD. Says Abbas Ali Baig, Tahal's representative in New Delhi, "The focus will be on integrated water management, conjunctive use of surface and groundwater, recycled sewage and, perhaps, desalination."

Tahal was formed in 1952. It has operated in over 40 countries in 4 continents. The company has also been shortlisted for another comprehensive World Bank-aided project to study the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP).

Rajasthan-Israeli relations may transcend mere technical knowhow. After his 5-day visit to Israel, starting April 24, at the invitation of Israeli agriculture minister Yaakov Tsur, Shekhawat indicated that Israel's strictly-regimented water control regulations may be suitable for Rajasthan. A committee has already been constituted by the Rajasthan government, comprising the IGNP chairperson and 2 chief engineers from the irrigation department, which will offer solutions to stop the misuse of water and to rectify the existing system.

Says Rajasthan irrigation minister Devi Singh Bhati, "We are more interested because in Israel water resources are akin to a bank -- whatever is withdrawn is deposited back and recharging is mandatory." Israeli techniques utilise drip and sprinkler systems, which the state government wants to exploit. "We can't change thinking in one day, but we will speak to the kasthkars (farmers) and educate them about the conservation of water through such methods," says Bhati.

There is criticism, however, that the Israeli system may not be replicable in Rajasthan: Israel's National Water Carrier, a canal system which transports water from the water-surplus northern and coastal regions is based on the principle of minimising evaporation with covered channels, and depends substantially on groundwater. In Rajasthan, of the total groundwater availability of 3.038 million ha feet, 49 per cent has already been utilised. And handpumps and tubewells are fast drying up. And while Israel's water management schemes have to deal with only 27,000 sq km, Rajasthan's area is 3.42 lakh sq km.

Arjun Singh Kapoor, IGNP board chairperson, says that covered channels would be difficult to replicate in India: "The 659 km-long main canal for IGNP is already complete and is an open channel. We cannot change that. To adopt the Israeli method, an additional Rs 40,000 per ha would be required for the system, along with the Rs 25,000 it costs now. We are finding it difficult to get money -- Rs 1,100 crore -- for the project as it is." Plus, the area to be brought under irrigation in IGNP is 17 lakh ha, as against barely 20,000 ha in Israel. But covered channels would undoubtedly help reduce transmission loss.

Similarly for drip irrigation. The Indian Agricultural Research Institute's project director of the Water Technology Centre, T K Sarkar, says that an additional expenditure of Rs 25,000 per ha would be incurred. Rajappa adds that drip irrigation would also be about 50 per cent more power intensive than gravity irrigation.

Also, while Israel's Negev desert's summer temperature peaks at 38 degrees Celsius, Rajasthan's Thar has the mercury approach 49 degrees Celsius, leading to more evaporation which could render the drip's measured flow ineffective.

Rajappa also says that in Israel, alluvial or windblown land can easily absorb water, but in Rajasthan's arid zones, the clay-like, hard strata could make such inputs redundant. Mohammed Hasan, professor of area planning at the HCM Rajasthan State Institute of Public Administration, says that there is another negative factor: "Rajasthan has a lot of underground gypsum, which leads to calcite formation. This would block the fine network of drip or sprinkler pipes, which would then require constant cleansing." In addition, drip irrigation is suited mainly to horticulture and vegetable cultivation, where the crop is spread out. It is not considered economically viable for cereals (staple crops in Rajasthan) barring bajra. "Drip can be used mainly for commercial cropping, for exports," says Rajappa.

Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation adds, "Technological intervention of this magnitude can create reverse pressure on scarce water resources. And water experts are anticipating a drastic change in cropping patterns biased towards water-intensive crops."

Also, the state government could further the demise of the vigorous traditional water-harvesting methods. Alice Garg, secretary of Bal Rashmi, an NGO which has undertaken water management activity in the Basti tehsil of Jaipur district, says, "Things are decided for people which are neither practical nor consonant with the local culture." Poonam Chand Vishnoi, opposition MLA from Phalodi and former speaker of the Rajasthan Assembly, agrees: "The traditions have been neglected because of the philosophy of using groundwater. Rainwater is the ultimate, reliable source, and the traditional methods are competent enough for storage and usage."

Mishra says of importing drip irrigation, "While it is all right to argue that it is important to share experiences, it ought to be recognised that there are problems with replication of technologies which have evolved in different cultural and economic contexts. Israel has got American aid to develop highly capital intensive technologies. Even the social cohesion of their homogeneous community has made adoption of an unified technology possible."

Indian desert communities have thrown up a variety of low-cost and community-managed water harvesting technologies to trap and use every drop of rainwater. Even the cropping system is more suitably adapted to harsh climatic conditions. In this scarce rainfall area, drip irrigation systems would have to be heavily dependent on enormous withdrawal of ground water. Can this be allowed in the desert? Besides, where would Rajasthan find so much power to pump up water? An irrigation system in the desert is not a mere technology -- it embodies intricately-balanced water- and land-use patterns."

The khadin system, for instance, is based on the principle of harvesting rainwater on farmland. Khadin is an earth embankment built across the general slope which helps to retain maximum rainwater runoff within the agricultural field. They make use of shallow, gravelly and rocky uplands as catchment areas. The water is trapped in the low-lying area, where 1 or 2 crops are grown, depending on the rainfall. This system assures the farmer at least 1 crop. Even if the rainfall is scant, it can charge the khadin soil with sufficient moisture. The collected runoff in the khadin>/I> area recharges the subsoil.

A total annual precipitation of even 80 mm to 100 mm is sufficient to fill up the khadins and raise a good rabi crop. Although yields in the khadin areas are moderate compared to the yields in the Rajasthan canal command area, there are no overheads, no fertiliser costs or cost of land preparation.

Organisations like the Central Arid Zone Research Institute and the State Remote Sensing Application Centre are suggesting more and better sites for new khadins in areas like Jaisalmer, whose climate is hot and arid, with an annual average rainfall of only 164 mm. Considering that the general water requirement of agricultural crops is much above 250 mm even for the less-demanding minor millet, rainfed cropping is not possible. This makes the khadin system indispensable to desert agriculture.

Bhati, however, says that the traditional methods will now be rejuvenated after "years of blindly following the Western model. For centuries each house had a kund (tank) which stored rainwater, with a capacity lasting 8 to 10 months. We propose to amend the municipal laws to make it mandatory for every new construction to have a kund." Says Sarkar: "Drip irrigation saves 30-65 per cent water when compared to surface irrigation, and there is a 5 to 50 per cent increase in agricultural production."

Kapoor feels that the systems could be introduced with external credit or with a cooperative approach, as in the Israeli kibbutzim, but with a coherent management package. A strong supporter is John Singh, who is operating a 30-acre farm using Israeli drip irrigation technology: "Yields calculated in terms of acres, or income, are meaningless. They should be based on litres of water used because it is becoming the scarcest commodity. I am convinced this is the foremost method of water administration. The difference is radical: a well which irrigated 2 ha."

An exercise overlapping Tahal's has been undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), partly funded by the state government. IDS' senior fellow, M S Rathore, claims that the study could be the blueprint for overall water resources management in the state. Management could be divided into 3 segments -- supply, demand and management and regulation, including traditional applications. IDS, says Rathore, was approached by Tahal for assistance, but it refused to associate itself with the Israeli firm because it "wanted to function independently".

The New Delhi-based WAPCOS is also disgruntled. It was dumped from the shortlist of bidding firms, apparently following pressure on the Rajasthan government from the World Bank. In a letter to the Prime Minister on May 17, Rajappa argued: "Whereas more and more foreign involvements are welcome, it should be ensured that it should not be definitely at the cost of available Indian expertise gained over the years." The Rajasthan government's decision, says Anupam Mishra, "only reflects the alienation of the political leadership from the community, and disregard for the local knowledge of the environment and its management."

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