India supports 15 percent of the world’s population, but has only 4 percent of the world’s water resources. World Bank data shows that only 35 percent of India’s agricultural land is irrigated. This means that a huge 65 percent of farming depends totally on rain.
Successive Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Even after constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic meters — compared to 6,103 cubic m per capita in Russia, 4,733 in Australia, 1,964 in the United States, and 1,111 in China.
India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors. For one thing, it is highly dependent on a few major river systems, especially the Ganges and its tributaries, for its water supply. But India also uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and United States. There are two main reasons for this. First, power subsidies for agriculture have played a major role in the decline of water levels in India. Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favor of these water intensive crops.
As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. In addition, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds.
Today, India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn, but contributes only 15 percent to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89 percent of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 percent, with industrial use accounting for 2 percent of groundwater use).
Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset India’s water balance are the farming practices in some of its provincial states, particularly Maharashtra, Punjab, and Haryana. The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum, and other cereals have turned to sugarcane in Maharashtra, which fetches more money but is a very thirsty crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, two parched states where the groundwater has sunk even further.
Maharashtra is the epicenter of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is a miserable state. It has been among the worst affected by water shortages, having faced three bad monsoons in a row, although this year’s rains have given some reprieve to the farmers.
Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis irrigation potential in the state. Of the potential land that could be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 percent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is at 76 percent. The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 percent lower than the rest of Maharashtra.
Farmers drawn to the region by government incentives have begun cultivating sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that is ill-suited to Marathwada’s semi-arid climate. Sugarcane consumes about 22.5 million liters of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just 4 million liters over four months for chickpeas, commonly grown in India and called gram locally.
Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine. Yet, the land area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 167,000 hectares in 1970-71 to 1,022,000 ha in 2011-12. Maharashtra is India’s second-biggest producer of this water-intensive crop, despite being one of the country’s drier states. Sugarcane now uses about 70 percent of Marathwada’s irrigation water despite accounting for 4 percent of cultivated land.
The sugar mill buildup in Marathwada was initially pushed by politicians in the region trying to replicate the prosperity of mills in other areas of Maharashtra state and was focused on areas with plentiful water. But later politicians opened mills everywhere, even in areas where drinking water is not available. Sugarcane is a popular crop because farmers sell cane directly to sugar mills, avoiding the need for middlemen who take a cut of the profits. Sugarcane’s sturdiness also attracts farmers; mature cane withstands heavy rainfall or dry spells and is also less vulnerable to pests and diseases compared to other crops.
A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, but with rice taking the place of sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, up from 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighboring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all crops, India still produces more rice, wheat, and sugar than it consumes.
It is quite natural for farmers to plant rice and cane when both power and water are almost free. In fact, government policies encourage them to do so. The government buys sugar, wheat, and rice at remunerative prices, which assures economic justice to these farmers.
Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favor of other, less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government currently asks farmers to shift to less water consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.
Scientists and activists have long warned that relentless groundwater extraction is leading to a steep drop in water tables across India — the world’s fastest rate of groundwater decline. Some farmers in these parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 meters) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 meters) in the 1960s, according to research by a local government scientist. They’ve been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock – 700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down. Lately, though, many farmers drill wells and find nothing at all. In some severely affected areas, bore wells as deep as 500 meters (1,640 feet) have all gone dry. The underground water level has dropped so much that there is no water at all
“I think there’s really no way out. There’s no water, so there’s no harvest, so there’s no income. And I think that’s the fate of every farmer,” said Vithal Mhaski, a farmer whose family has gone into debt drilling wells that turned out to be dry. “It’s time we took a longer view and stop the wastage of water with sugarcane.”
Realizing its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent from Mother Nature. Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But New Delhi must summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.
Moin Qazi is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.