Twenty first Century Mission: Living with Nature in the Modern Form.
WATER : FOR LIFE AND GROWTH
Appeared in KISAN WORLD March 2011 Vol 38 No.3
We will now continue our planned trajectory about the technological, infrastructural and support systems needed for agricultural prosperity. We took a small detour last month, but a crucial one, because structural and governance reforms in agricultural sector are the essential conditions to allow any technological application, infrastructural expansion and smooth functioning of support systems.
We need to place on the top of the agenda sustained water availability for all agricultural fields in India. In the article â€“ 2 of this series we have quoted some figures about the net sown area. Not only are they alarming after about 60 years of planned development, but they also indicate the inequities. Water is required not only for agriculture but also to all other human activities be it manufacturing, service sector etc and domestic uses. In the last (Feb 2011) issue Dr.N.Mahalingam has emphasized the role of water management for Indian agriculture and food supply.
Water is crucial for life and growth of life â€“ from smallest organisms to big life forms. Naturally therefore agriculture (crops, animals, fishes, birds etc) needs water â€“ quality water, in right quantities at right times.
Also if water falls on the fields at the wrong time, agricultural product suffers. But that is a more complicated issue and we will address those aspects much later in this series.
WATER: RIGHT QUANTITY, RIGHT TIMES
We will first address the question of availability of quality water in right (sufficient) quantities at right times.
Right times presupposes some form of storage in wells or in ground water or in a check dam, because rain does not always pour on the fields when the farmer wants depending on the growth of the plants. If there is a good irrigation system which is always available as in the canal systems of places like Punjab, then the right times are easy to adjust. Even then some pump sets are needed to fine tune availability, especially when one is concerned about maximizing the yields.
But large parts of agricultural fields in India have poor or no irrigation systems. They depend on rain or some sparse resources of water. They need urgently some water at the right quantities. This right quantity is not to be confused with the excessive use of water in the currently irrigated areas. They waste water and also the excessive use of the water spoils their soils and the environment. We will address the water management aspects of such irrigated agricultural lands separately later; if they can reduce their current levels of water consumption by about 30%, India will have plenty of quality water for industrial, urban and domestic use. Living with Nature in modern forms requires such changes as well. Before addressing those aspects, let us first concentrate on the unirrigated (rain fed) dry and semi â€“ dry agricultural areas. Indiaâ€™s poverty begins from such areas and therefore it is the great priority.
Speedily implementable and imaginative technologies and support systems are required to make these areas prosperous. We have enough of surveyed information (by satellite remote sensing and ground surveys) about availability of dry or wet lakes or ponds (some even inundated) in such areas; and also about the ground water potentials. It is very essential to create water sources for farmers even if they are small sized. Dig up the lakes or ponds and ensure channels of flow of sparse rain water to these lakes and ponds. Also dig wells in areas close to the fields and also create small feeder canals preferably through PVC pipes or some others with plastic liners to ensure that the sparse water resource does not leak away.
For all implementing all of the above, many of the current wage-for-work schemes MGNREGA, other rural development schemes etc can be restructured or fine tuned (as the case may be) to create the labour force for doing such works. If they are strongly coupled with the supervision of the beneficiary farmers with minimum supervision of govt. officials, the projects can be achieved successfully to meet the end goals.
SPRINKLER OR DRIP IRRIGATION:
Once such a water access is enabled, then simultaneously start introducing infrastructure and necessary training for laying down the tubes and equipment for sprinkler or preferably drip irrigation. There are good companies like Jain Irrigation System who have done remarkable work in many parts of India. Also there are some foreign companies like Netafim (Israeli) which work extensively in India. Use all of them but in a way they can expand fast in many such areas. They should profit and farmers should profit.
Training farmers with such drip irrigation systems is also another important function. It can also be a great opportunity to create employment for many rural youth.
Laying such infrastructure for drip irrigation, training etc should be funded by govt. If necessary, it will be good to charge some user fee, without complex formulas!
If corporates offer their contributions through avenues like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) accept them!!
ENERGY: ELECTRICITY, DIESEL
Crucial element for such system to work is the availability of reliable electricity or diesel pumps. Most parts of India where poor live are not reached by electricity (about 600 million Indians do not have access to electricity) Where there is an access, it is very often unreliable.
Also unfortunately populist politics and poor (corrupt?) governance systems have led to a situation in areas where Irrigation Pump sets (IP sets) are available, there are reports of wasteful use of electricity, In a recent report in Times of India, it is informed that the power distribution utility in Bangalore district BESCOM is worst hit by 46,000 illegal IP sets and other legal ones are very inefficient in use of power so much so that IP sets gobble up 40% electric power. Power subsidy is also part of the reason. Net result is waster of power and waste of precious ground water.
It is reported that in Gujarat State under the Jyoti Gram Yojana (JGY) the rural electricity loads have been bifurcated into two separate feeders; one for providing 24 hour continuous three phase supply to rural households and the other for agriculture, providing minimum 8 hour assured supply for IP sets. All JGY feeders are metred. As a benefit now the earlier disturbance to other grids which occurred in Gujarat due to the overdrawal from rural feeders have come down by 80%.
Another model being adopted by Tamil Nadu is to pay for the marginal and small farmers to replace their existing electricity power inefficient IP sets.
In both these cases farmers had some electricity and some pump sets. But for those do not have, these problems and the solutions given above need to be addressed at the initial stages. In the schemes designed to extend electricity to energize pump sets of farmers in the arid areas, let them be power efficient and also have separated out feeders so that a tendency to misutilise the electricity meant for farming is reduced.
But where the grids are not extendible, solar energy is an option. Jain Irrigation company has reported experiments with small solar pumps. Let us focus on such options also suiting the local conditions.
Otherwise energy supply has to be diesel IP set.
WHAT ABOUT ECONOMIC VIABILITY?
We cannot do any major improvement to agriculture unless we provide for water supply to all the agricultural lands which are being sown now. A pertinent question may arise whether all of them are worth investing upon? Are they having enough potential for good production or are these deprived soils so bad that they are best left alone without expensive investments? Over a period, market forces may lead these lands to be taken over for other relevant uses : for industry, habitat etc. Why not invest on the lands with better potential for return on investment (ROI) thus producing better crops and wealth?
There is a merit in such questions, purely from scientific and economic view points. But we need to balance the purely technocratic considerations with human and equity aspects. Those owning or working in extremely poor lands and with erratic water access, are already suffering in life. It is the responsibility of the State and the civic society to enable them to progress further. If their lands cannot be salvaged for good agriculture, we need to train them for other productive work in their areas; yes, switching over to some other professions. They will move over. But if it is found that some lands can be reasonably salvaged to a level to give reasonable incomes for them to lead a life above subsistence levels with their land itself, then we should try to help them with water access.
We should, no doubt, be aware that we have limitations of financial resources for these public funded activities and more unfortunately limitations of implementing managerial resources.
MODERN INFORMATION SYSTEMS
Modern information systems can help us to strike an optimal balance.
Remote sensing and various agro climatic and soil surveys have been done in the country very effectively for the past 25 years. We have assessments as to which areas (lands) are best suited for agricultural crops in terms of yields and production. We can also classify other lands in terms of better, medium and poor, capabilities. The social dimensions can also be brought in through Geographic Information Systems (GIS), as we also have fairly good census data about people, their incomes, geographical distribution etc. These multiple socio â€“ economic data overlays can be used to select areas where such enabling of water access described above has to be prioritized by balancing the ROI considerations and the larger social impact dimensions. In addition to ground level monitoring, satellite based monitoring can very well assess as to how well water access and the resultant growth of crops are taking place. Supervision is essential in India!
There have been a number of successful experiments in India in various States by ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) of ISRO and several other agencies, educational institutions and NGOâ€™s (Non â€“ Governmental Organizations).
MISSION FOR WATER ACCESS FOR AGRICULTURE FOR BULKY BASE
So the areas for a Mission for Water Access for Agriculture in the non â€“ irrigated areas as described earlier â€“ from creating water storage, ground water etc facilities, pumping, creating water distributing systems, as well as drip irrigation infrastructure, and providing electricity or diesel IP sets, training the farmers etc â€“ can be identified for phase I, phase II, phase III etc.
With the availability GIS, one can also easily overlay the Govt. schemes under operation so that financial resources can also be optimized by restructuring / fine tuning the on going programmes as we have described earlier.
This mission will take care of the basic requirement, WATER for the bulky base of Indian agriculture, which is low yielding and therefore is the source of poverty for a large number of our fellow Indians. No doubt they will need better seeds, fertilizer etc â€“ which we will address in later articles. First bring them WATER ACCESS, is the goal of the Mission.
We will, in the subsequent articles, address the issue of WATER for other segments of Indian agriculture, including areas in which there is excessive wastage. We will consider relevant issues such as technology, govt role and corporate sector role as well.