Surface irrigation may encourage monocropping: Evidence from Telangana holds lessons for India

Providing farm households with new irrigation facilities that improve groundwater table also significantly enhances farm profits

By Shagun
Published: Wednesday 17 January 2024
Photo: iStock

Farmers are more likely to move towards monocropping if farms receive a higher level of surface irrigation, as opposed to irrigation facilities achieved through projects that increase the groundwater table, a recent study on cropping patterns and trends in Telangana showed. 

Surface irrigation is a traditional method in which water moves over the land, depending on the gravitational gradient. When water is applied to the field, it advances across the surface until the water extends over the entire area. The drawback of this irrigation method is inefficient usage and wastage of water.

Results from the research indicate that the presence of new irrigation facilities, achieved through projects that increase the groundwater table, increases the likelihood of farm households adopting crop diversification compared to those with existing irrigation facilities.

This suggests that surface irrigation tends to encourage the adoption of monocrops, especially paddy, Dayakar Peddi and B Suresh Reddy, researchers from Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CESS), Hyderabad, Telangana, who conducted the study observed.

“The coefficient of surface irrigation is negative, indicating that farmers are less inclined to adopt diversification when their farms receive more surface irrigation compared to rain-fed conditions. This is attributed to the shift observed among many surface irrigation farmers towards paddy crops,” the authors mentioned in the report Analysis of Irrigation Enhancement, Crop Diversification and Farm Profits: Evidence from Telangana State published in Review of Development and Change journal.

Read more: Shifting to millets increases groundwater recharge more than drip irrigation in India’s northern plains: Study

Insights from focus group discussions revealed that small farmers cultivate a higher variety of crops when provided with access to irrigation through groundwater. 

Meanwhile, it was also found that providing farm households with new irrigation facilities aimed at improving the groundwater table significantly enhances farm profits, compared to those in regions relying on surface irrigation. 

In newly irrigated regions, the introduction of improved irrigation facilities has resulted in a 21 per cent increase in farm incomes compared to those in regions utilising surface irrigation. 

“Although surface irrigation may initially seem like a more lucrative option for achieving higher returns, it carries potential environmental challenges, including soil fertility loss due to waterlogging and salinity. In addition, continuous access to irrigation may contribute to the development of monoculture,” the researchers pointed out. 

The findings hold significance for breaking the monocropping pattern followed by many farmers across India to enhance productivity. Monocropping has led to nutrient soil deficiency and a decrease in resource-use efficiency. In states like Punjab, Haryana and Telangana, the monocropping of paddy has led to several problems, including an alarming decline in groundwater. 

In October 2023, a report from United Nations University-Institute for Environment and Human Security, warned that India was close to reaching its groundwater depletion tipping point. More research has indicated that the rate of depletion of groundwater in India during 2041-2080 will be thrice the current rate with global warming. 

Read more: Paddy puzzle: Why Haryana farmers, govt fight over the water-guzzling crop

Telangana, where the study was conducted, is one of the largest producers of paddy in the country. The observations of cropping patterns and trends in the state indicated a decline in diversified cropping systems over the years, attributable to different factors such as improved access to irrigation facilities and market policies favouring the cultivation of cereals. The state-level crop diversification index has been consistently low, standing at 0.27 over decades.

Farmers tend to move towards conventional and monocropping practices over the years across the state, except in some patches of rain-fed regions, the findings showed. Major cereals (paddy and maize), minor cereals (sorghum, finger millet, pearl millet and small millets), pulses (chickpea, pigeon pea and minor pulses), oil seeds (groundnut, sesamum, rapeseed, safflower, castor, linseed, sunflower and soybean), commercial crops (cotton and sugarcane), fruits and vegetables are predominantly cultivated, comprising more than 90 per cent of the total cultivated area in Telangana, according to data given in the study. 

However, the proportion of cultivation of major cereals, commercial crops, fruits and vegetables significantly increased from 1966 to 2017, while that of pulses, oilseeds and millets significantly decreased during the same period. 

Farmers make decisions regarding the cultivation of a specific crop based on the expected benefits derived from its cultivation and the constraints faced by their households (adopters). 

Additionally, the decision to cultivate a single crop (monocrop) or a set of crops (crop diversification) was based on the anticipation that the expected benefits from a specific crop surpass that of another set of crops or its associated benefits. 

The research encompassed 12 districts and 24 villages within Telangana, covering all agro-climatic zones. Among the 12 districts, six experienced partial benefits from new irrigation projects. 

Data for this study were obtained through a household survey, conducted from January-March 2022, involving 700 farmers, who were categorised into two groups: Those in highly irrigated areas and those in low irrigated areas. 

In addition, focus group discussions were conducted with various stakeholders at district levels, including farmers, government officials and scientists, for the study. 

These discussions highlighted that the minimum support price also plays a pivotal role in choosing a crop. Other characteristics which affect crop choices were agricultural implements and market access variables such as road connectivity and distance to the nearest city. 

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