Paddy in Punjab & sugarcane in Maharashtra are emptying irrigation resources

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Paddy in Punjab & sugarcane in Maharashtra are emptying irrigation resources Paddy and sugarcane are India’s most water-guzzling crops - using up over half of the country’s total irrigation water resources - but procurement policies and water and power subsidies are skewing profitability and distorting crop decisions, says a recent study done by agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, and Gayathri Mohan. It has been published as a working paper by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

The ICRIER team has also completed work on a water atlas, to be published by NABARD, which will track the water usage of ten major crops. “It will be published within a month,” says Dr. Gulati, who is a former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, the agency that recommends minimum support prices for major crops. “But 60% of water for agriculture goes to just these two crops. If you can fix these two, paddy and sugarcane, you will solve the problem.” Agricultural usage accounts for at least 80% of total water resources.

Paddy farmers in Punjab need thrice the amount of irrigation water used by farmers in Bihar to produce one kilogram of rice, according to the paper. Punjab faces rapidly increasing groundwater depletion at a rate of up to 120 cm per year. Yet, the government’s robust paddy procurement policy and farmers’ access to highly subsidised power for irrigation means that rice cultivation on a per hectare basis remains high in Punjab. Rice in the desert.

“When you start growing rice in a desert, what do you expect? Much of Punjab is an extension of Rajasthan,” says Dr. Gulati, pointing out that subsidies tend to disguise geographical facts. “Which State is willing to reform power subsidies? State electricity boards are in the red because of subsidised power for farmers. And power is being stolen by others in the name of agriculture for non-agricultural purposes.”

Agriculture Commissioner Suresh Kumar Malhotra points to the crop diversification programme and the drive to double micro and drip irrigation by 2022 as efforts towards better water productivity. However, he admits that progress is slow, and that water and power pricing reforms are needed. “If you have metering or charging, then farmers will realise it is not free of cost, and there will be a more judicial use of water and an incentive to diversify to less water-intensive crops,” he says. Farmers will shift to corn, which uses one-fifth the amount of irrigation water in comparison to rice, says Dr. Gulati, if they can be sure they will be able to sell it at a profit.

Irrigation water productivity of Maharashtra’s sugarcane is lower than crops such as cotton, tur or groundnut. Sugarcane uses almost two-thirds of the State’s irrigation water. With guaranteed irrigation and sales, cane farmers in Maharashtra are reluctant to change to other crops.

The ICRIER paper says that in order to align cropping patterns better, marketing opportunities for sugar and procurement policies for rice must be strengthened in water-rich States, and marketing risks of less water intensive crops reduced. Farmer incomes should be supported with direct benefit transfers rather than water and power subsidies.

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By BOA Bureau