A New Deal For Micro Irrigation!
As readers are aware, the National Mission on Micro Irrigation has been promoting drip and sprinkler irrigation, primarily for horticulture crops, and in poly houses to optimise the use of water. Naturally this has been very successful in states and regions which are facing chronic water shortages, as for example, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan. Large tracts of land which would have otherwise been used for growing short gestation varieties of millets or pulses or coarse grains are now under high value agriculture: pomegranates, grapes, dates, guava and mango, thereby changing the economic profile of the land and the people. Even though the area under micro irrigation does not exceed 4-5 million hectares its contribution has been immense. More importantly, it is growing, and the farmers are seeing real benefits from this technology.
It is true that the demand for micro irrigation has also been spurred by the liberal financial support that has been extended by both the central and the state governments. Thus even as the GoI offers 40 per cent support for general farmers, and 50 per cent for Scheduled Caste/ Scheduled Tribe farmers, most state governments top this with state subsidies. In fact, with the sole exception of Gujarat and Maharashtra, most states offer an additional incentive, which often touches 90 per cent. Such high levels of support also create a problem—the potential area in each state gets limited by the budgetary support available in a particular financial year. This also makes the MI equipment manufactures chase governments, rather than farmers, or focus on improving technology and providing better value for money because the revenue model primarily depends on government support.
While many states have evolved transparent systems to identify farmers and fields where MI can optimise yields, in most states it takes the form of ‘patronage dispensation’. States also tend to overspend on MI in anticipation of next year’s allocations. States are now being impressed on the need to rationalise these subsidies so that with the same amount of funds, more area is brought under MI, than increasing the support per farmer, because the main argument in favour of MI is that it cuts costs and labour, and is viable ‘in itself’.
However, this column is about the new initiative from Planning Commission and the Water Resources Ministry. The Water Resources Ministry is concerned with the suboptimal uses of irrigation infrastructure that has been created. Areas under large commands have traditionally been using the flood irrigation technique, and farmers along the canal route have not really used this resource with respect. In fact, those at the tail end have often complained that the upstream users have often cornered more water than they actually require for their crops.
Moreover, cropping patterns have been decided not because of the soil and agro climatic conditions, but because water was available in abundance. As against flood irrigation technique, MI technologies (both drip and sprinkler) increase the water use efficiency by over 100 per cent. In water surplus areas, the individual farmer has limited incentive to put his time, effort and resources for the installation of MI equipment as water are not perceived as a ‘precious resource’.
The idea is to cover large command areas with Micro Irrigation in the PPP mode, whereby large-scale investments are made to provide drip/sprinkler on the farmers field, with the initial investments coming jointly from the government and the private sector for laying pipelines, creation of sumps, and providing the last mile connectivity to the farmers field. Farmers will have to pay for the operations and maintenance costs but there will be an assurance with regard to the quality, quantity and timings of water supply.
This will not only boost production, reduce costs, encourage the growth of high value agriculture but also and perhaps most importantly, increase the capitalisation of agriculture. Government’s gains are manifold there is substantial saving of water: thus more lands come under irrigation, water logging and salination issues are resolved and ground level convergence becomes a reality.
The corporates who install the system and maintain it over the next seven years can leverage the system to assist the farmers to integrate their farming systems for better value realisation. The farmers gain by getting an assured supply of the most critical input in agriculture viz- water and they can focus on production. Moreover, as they come together to make the water users’ association, these organisations can also take up the task of aggregation of the farm produce.
Is it too good to be true? Will the model be accepted by the states? Will farmers be willing to move to a system where quality of water is assured, but on payment?
Now this is where the ‘political economy’ takes over. In several states, farmers have been assured free power, and the canal rates are never enforced in letter and spirit. Thus even when farmers have defaulted on payment of the water tax, the state irrigation department has not cut off the water supply. In the proposed system, farmers will have to pay regularly. This writer is aware that most farmers want assured power and water, and are willing to pay for it—for in the absence of assured power, they need the back-up of diesel generators which turn the equation of free power on its head. When power is free, the farmer cannot ‘demand’ quality service as a right, and the power companies are most reluctant to supply power to the rural grid, because their ‘cash flows’ are affected.
This writer hopes that the initiative of the Planning Commission and Water Resources Ministry is given a fair trial as this will certainly help the country achieve the anticipated 4 per cent growth rate in agriculture!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)