70-80% Indian farmers depend on groundwater; solar irrigation inadequate to change crop choices: Report

Policies favouring growth of staple water-intensive cereal crops in different states have played major role in irrigation expansion

By Zumbish
Published: Monday 07 August 2023
Farmers use electricity (usually free or highly subsidised) to pump groundwater to irrigate their fields, the report noted. Photo: iStock

India’s looming groundwater overexploitation crisis is particularly concerning for the agriculture sector – the biggest user of groundwater, according to a new report. 

“Of the farmers using irrigation in the country, 70-80 per cent are groundwater dependent. And more intensive irrigation frequently means more income,” stated the report released during the launch of Water, Environment, Land and Livelihoods (WELL) Labs, a new Bangalore-based organisation, July 27, 2023. 

Farmers use electricity (usually free or highly subsidised) to pump groundwater to irrigate their fields, the authors of the report noted. “As of 2017, 1,499 out of 6,881 units (blocks / mandals / taluks) assessed for groundwater fell under the category of ‘overexploited’ or ‘critical’, covering areas across six states,” they wrote citing a Central Ground Water Board report.

The findings of this report were based on six case studies - one each from Punjab, Bihar, Karnataka and West Bengal, and two from Gujarat.

Even as groundwater is being overexploited, half the smallholder farms in India, with less than two hectares (ha) of land are still rainfed and have no access to irrigation, it stated. “This directly threatens the incomes and livelihoods of smallholder farmers as they are vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoon.”

Through the case studies the report established that policies favouring the growth of staple water-intensive cereal crops in different states have played a major role in irrigation expansion.

In Bathinda, Punjab, for instance, farmers are likely to continue growing paddy-wheat and cotton-potato, given strong government procurement systems, the researchers observed. “A sustainable transition to a less water-intensive crop will require the setting up of strong market linkages for alternatives like kinnow (a citrus tree). Otherwise, the groundwater status in most parts of the district will continue to remain critical and overexploited.”

In the case of West Champaran, Bihar, the report authors assumed that solar irrigation is likely to replace diesel pump sets. “Since they also assumed that they are not connected to the grid, there is no income earned from the sale of energy to the grid. Here too, farmers are likely to continue with current cropping systems, with the inclusion of a third summer crop like minor pulses, which results in a marginal increase in income and abstraction,” the findings of the study revealed. 

However, aquifers in most parts of Bihar have not been overexploited yet, which means continuing current cropping systems can still be viewed as a sustainable choice, the authors noted. 

In Nadia, West Bengal, farmers grow rice across all three seasons and are likely to switch over to growing rice during kharif season and lentils in Rabi season, according to the report. “This is a far more sustainable option compared to the present cropping pattern as the water requirement declines drastically and farmers may be able to earn better by switching from rice to other crops like lentils.”

The report also shed light on the potential of solar irrigation. “Solar irrigation is being promoted in India to address the twin problems of irrigation access and groundwater overexploitation. However, the potential impacts of this step are not fully understood,” it pointed out.  

Adoption of solar irrigation may not happen if it reduces income levels compared to current incomes, as is likely to happen in the case of sugarcane farmers, the report highlighted. 

While solar irrigation offers options to circumvent the political non-feasibility of doing away with some policies pertaining to agriculture (Minimum Support Price – MSP) and energy (free or highly subsidised electricity), it will still be inadequate to change farmers’ crop choices, it argued. 

However, the situation is not hopeless, the researchers added.

For solar irrigation to result in crop diversification and the cultivation of crops that fit in the water budgets of specific regions, sociotechnical evolutions also need to occur concurrently, the report stated. This, the authors explained, means the entire system ranging from preproduction to consumption will have to evolve for true change to take effect. 

Changes in agricultural policies such as the introduction of MSP for less water-intensive crops and energy policies such as the removal of electricity subsidies that give farmers in states like Punjab free or highly subsidised access to the grid can pave the way for truly impactful and long-lasting change stemming from the introduction of solar irrigation, they added.

The report was authored by Veena Srinivasan and Anjali Neelakanthan. Srinivasan is the executive director and Neelakantan is the managing partner of the Data and Tools initiative at WELL Labs.

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