India’s farmers need financial motivation to check indiscriminate use of groundwater for irrigation

A paradigm shift in technology, agronomic practices and support to farmers is need of the hour

By Prem Chand , P S Birthal, Kiran Kumara TM
Published: Tuesday 18 July 2023
More than 60 per cent of irrigation requirements in India are met by groundwater. Photo: iStock

India receives 4,000 billion cubic metres (BCM) of freshwater annually through precipitation, but only 1,123 BCM of it is usable. Growing domestic, industrial and agricultural demand is increasing the stress on groundwater resources. We need to urgently address this pressure, starting with irrigation water use. 

A cubic metre equals 1,000 litres of water. India gets 1,486 cubic metres per capita of freshwater every year,  dangerously close to falling under the category of a water-scarce country. A country is officially water-scarce when the per capita availability is less than 1,000 cubic metres per annum, against the requirement of 1,700 cubic metres. 

Read more: 688 billion cubic metres: India's water withdrawals for agriculture is the highest in the world

Climate change is adding to the problem. If not addressed timely, the shortage of freshwater may have far-reaching implications, including threats to food security, increased conflicts and mass migration. 

Groundwater use changing crop patterns

Over the years, groundwater has become the dominant source for irrigation as well as domestic purposes. Farmers have no choice but to switch to groundwater due to the unavailability of surface irrigation in regions such as Rajasthan.

Multiple issues with surface water resources, such as ineffective management, exist in regions where surface irrigation is available. 

More than 60 per cent of irrigation requirements are met by groundwater. The country is the largest user of groundwater in the world, extracting more than the two largest economies, the United States and China, together. 

The installation of tubewells has rapidly increased, particularly in the northwestern plains. Since the 1980s, around 77 per cent of the total addition to irrigation has come from tubewells. This has introduced new crops in non-traditional areas, for example, paddy in Punjab and Haryana.

Tubewells have also increased cropping intensity by expanding cultivation in the largely dry winter and summer seasons. In Punjab, the area under rice and wheat increased from 47 per cent of the total cropped area in the 1970s to more than 80 per cent in 2019. 

Though not a traditional crop for Punjab, paddy has practically wiped out oilseeds and pulses, besides markedly replacing maize and cotton. This has created a crisis by depleting groundwater at an alarming rate and deteriorating soil and human health in the state and adjoining ones.  

Water and electricity policies are interconnected and are often considered the main drivers of growth in the area under rice, which led to overexploitation of groundwater and loss of crop diversity in many states, particularly in Punjab. 

Read more: Mapping efficient irrigation techniques

Electricity for agriculture was subsidised partly up to 1996-97 (charged on a per-unit basis up to the 1970s and a flat rate based on the power load basis up to 1996-97) and is now free in the state. 

Many have advocated energy pricing as an effective policy remedy for diversifying cropping pattern and checking depleting groundwater. However, this may not work, as farmers may switch to alternative energy sources for pumping groundwater. 

Solar pumping is green and low cost, but there are serious doubts if it will check declining groundwater tables as there will be no control over energy sources. Groundwater extraction by solar water pumps has increased in the arid western parts of the country, according to some reports. 

At the same time, there is greater push for connecting solar to the electrical grid. The arguments claim farmers will sell surplus solar energy to these grids. 

However, farmers may not be motivated to sell surplus solar energy, if any, unless the tariff is high enough to divert energy from pumping. Keeping the tariff artificially high may have other consequences too. 

The situation is similar for irrigation water pricing. Here also, policies do not encourage water conservation and its efficient use. The irrigation water pricing in India is non-volumetric and mainly applies to canal-sourced systems, depending on the area and type of crops grown. 

Read more: Conserving groundwater: Role of women crucial in bringing about significant change

Volumetric pricing can be a game changer

The National Water Policy, 2012 (NWP-2012) envisaged and laid emphasis on equity in the use of water, but the goal of equity will not be fully achieved unless intergenerational equity — the legitimate expectation of equitable access to water resources by future generations — is ensured. 

Therefore, the long-run solution ultimately lies in implementing a policy that ensures intergenerational equity in water access. One such policy could be the incentive-driven volumetric water pricing of groundwater that could motivate the economy in water use. 

Water resources satisfy both the conditions of limited supply and alternative uses to be treated as an economic good rather than a free good. As long as the water is free, good and accessible, the tendency for its indiscriminate use will remain until incentive oriented pricing mechanisms are in practise. 

Direct and visible incentives are required for the economy in terms of water use and diversifying the cropping pattern in the state. A rational producer always aims to maximise their profit and obviously, farmers too have the right to be rational producers. 

It is unlikely to promote diversification unless the difference in economic margins from alternative crops is removed. One should not expect that a farmer in Haryana will choose to grow Bajra where he gets less than Rs 20,000 per hectare and sacrifice more than Rs 90,000 from growing paddy. 

The famous opportunity principle of economics also does not advise doing so. This difference can be narrowed down in three ways: 

  • increase in yield of crops other than paddy 
  • incentivising water-saving crops 
  • dis-incentivising water-guzzling crops

Read more: Lighting up the fields: How electricity can help irrigation

Volumetric water pricing could achieve the two later-mentioned objectives. 

The mention of volumetric water pricing for all sectors is made in the NWP-2012 and the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti in the draft National Water Framework Bill has proposed a water law to implement it. 

The bigger challenge is the mechanism of pricing water on a volumetric basis. One of the ways could be by allotting a fixed quota of water per season, or water allotment rights (WAR). Farmers who use water below WAR can be given incentives at the defined rate, say Rs 3-4 per cubic metre. Others can be dis-incentivised. 

Water use in growing paddy under best management practices, for example direct seeded rice — an alternative to conventional transplanted rice — could be considered WAR for a particular season. 

This will encourage farmers to shift to alternative crops and adopt water-saving technologies, which are otherwise rare. This could also encourage the conjunctive use of groundwater and surface water.

Implementation of volumetric water pricing is obviously not an easy task and hence the first and foremost step should be developing perspective plans. The planning should be participatory, involving all the stakeholders. 

The required infrastructure, mainly the installation of water metres, will be the biggest challenge to be addressed for implementing the policy. Another challenge is defining the water allotment rights, which should consider socio-economic and environmental factors and the objectives of efficiency and equity.  

Read more: Punjab Assembly Elections 2022: Ignoring the groundwater depletion problem

The change in irrigation water policy is necessary but not sufficient to promote diversification, halt groundwater depletion and bring sustainability to agricultural production systems in the country. What is required is a paradigm shift in technology, agronomic practices and how farmers are supported. 

The long-run goal of the government should be phasing out environment-distorting subsidies on the one hand and mainstreaming the payment for ecosystem services in agricultural policies on the other. 

Prem Chand is Senior Scientist (Agricultural Economics), ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics & Policy Research, New Delhi; P S Birthal is Director, ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics & Policy Research, New Delhi; and Kiran Kumara TM is Scientist at ICAR-National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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