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Addressing India’s Agri-Water Crisis

This article is authored by Kanishka Chatterjee, director, The/Nudge Prize.

For years, experts have been urging people to understand that the fast-depleting status of groundwater is not beneficial for conventional agriculture. In India, the correlation between many agricultural issues and poor agri-water management is stark. With over 600 million farmers collectively contributing to 10% of the global agricultural yield, India’s farmers tend to disproportionately use groundwater and lack awareness about its actual levels.

In recent years, the narrative has largely shifted towards adoption of alternative and organic farming methods, which is easier said than done. This shift is difficult for small and marginal farmers owning less than 2 hectares of land, who form about 85% of India’s farmer population. According to the recent annual survey by TRIF/DIU, despite the challenging livelihood circumstances involved with small and marginal farming, around 84% of these farmers do not want to sell their land to pursue other economic activities.

While 85% of this section of rural India continues to be dependent on groundwater for their livelihood, they continue to be unaware of the dangers of its depleting levels. In Punjab, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu 76%, 63%, and 40% of groundwater blocks respectively are “over-exploited” wherein the used excessive groundwater is threatening to overtake the groundwater recharged.

For a country as big as India, with only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources, their uneven distribution, and poor methods of irrigation deployed for agricultural purposes compounds the stress on water for agriculture. We are not water deficient, rather water inefficient. It’s time we encouraged smarter, scalable technological interventions and innovations anchoring on improving productivity while addressing existing agrarian challenges pushing for efficient use of water and farmland.

Moreover, getting the best price for their produce is challenging for smallholder farmers steadily dependent on established markets or Minimum Support Price (MSP). They resort to sowing major crops like rice and wheat or cash crops like sugarcane which not only provide income visibility but also tend to need more water. This dependency on MSP can also be a risky proposition due to the rising inflation in rural areas. Many cannot get their produce back once they take it to the mandi. They also face the lurking challenges of poor price realization, higher transaction costs, and poor bargaining power. While MSP is a big component in the Indo Gangetic Plain, other farmers across the nation are also producing cash crops, wheat, and rice expecting to generate better income sometimes in water-stressed regions. Despite selling their produce in areas which are not governed by MSP, there is a chance that they may receive prices dictated by the market resulting in unfavorable returns on their yields.

Invisibility of groundwater, and the lack of knowledge and interest of the concerned stakeholders in addressing the same are some of the other problems.

Thus, it necessitates thinking about scalable innovative solutions which help cover and address concerns about conventional farming of maximum number of farmers indulged in fine cereals and cash crop farming, accessing MSP; all while keeping our groundwater resources in check.

Furthermore, the water market lacks clear incentives for a payment structure based on usage due to a scarcity of risk capital. The connection between water reduction, yield improvement, and agricultural prosperity is not adequately addressed. With significant interest and investment in the preproduction and post-production markets, the production cycle, particularly concerning water, suffers from insufficient capital, limited investment dynamism, and a lack of agri-tech interventions, leading to sluggish production. This negatively impacts smallholder farmers, who lack the resources to experiment and enhance their abilities.

To address this issue, the Government of India and World Bank signed a loan agreement in February 2020. With a worth of $450 Million, this agreement was reached upon for the World Bank to support the national groundwater management program, Atal Bhujal Yojana (ABHY), to arrest the slide in groundwater status and to further solidify it.

With the rise of social entrepreneurship in India, there has also been an increase in technological interventions helping smallholding farmers improve their yield through efficient use of water. The use of remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to identify areas with higher levels and dig borewells are already in practice. Micro-irrigation solutions and innovations are paving the way for adoption of digital agriculture as well as affordable greenhouses, alternate wetting, and drying methods of irrigation, as well as yield guarantee programmes. Currently, the country has approximately 1300 active agriculture startups, a number that is going to actively increase.

However, for long, India has been plagued with depleting levels of groundwater. Already, about two thirds of Indian villages, have been adversely affected by the depletion in groundwater. the Poverty rate where the groundwater tables have fallen below 8% has risen by 9-10% directly putting pressure on small and marginal farmers. In this decade, we are failing to collectively identify the alarming depth of the issue of depletion of groundwater facing us.

To put our money where our mouth is, newer innovations must be supported to scale to facilitate and improve both conventional methods of agriculture, making them accessible, as well as encourage adoption of sustainable agri-water management. Scaled interventions will set the stage for more people to apply their technological prowess to assist in addressing one of India’s biggest challenges. As the climate crisis disrupts rainfall patterns across the country, the significance of maintaining a healthy groundwater level in India becomes paramount. Promoting affordable and innovative approaches for conventional agriculture will protect and optimise the land usage of smallholder farmers, leading to improved agricultural productivity yields and contributing to overall economic growth. This will also further foster innovative solutions for comprehensive agri-water management, directly safeguarding groundwater levels in India.

This article is authored by Kanishka Chatterjee, director, The/Nudge Prize.

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