Monsoon-Proofing Indian Agriculture: Pipe Dream or Possible?
The title is kept intentionally misleading. Rather it should read making Indian agriculture monsoon "vagaries-proof"?
Two decades ago, we heard our professors saying "Indian agriculture depends mostly on monsoon". Even today, it sadly remains so even today and probably will remain forever unless serious overhauling is done with respect to a few "Ps".
For the number crunchers, India's agricultural segment alone consumes about 80% of the country's water use and is grossly inefficient though just less than 50% of the total cropped area out of 140 million hectares is covered under irrigation. Recently, Water Use Efficiency (WUE) and "Per drop more crop" became buzzwords for promoting water saving behaviour among farmers.
Collaborations are linked with Israel, one of the world's most water stressed countries to learn from and adopt its model.
However, in reality, India has to first fix its problem with the first P – Policies. Promoting water saving techniques is absolutely necessary. But why should a farmer careat all as in most cases, he gets both power and water free? What are the incentives for the farmers to save water? On the other hand, what are the penalties for indiscriminately using or wasting water? Isreal has answers for all these questions but India should think about it while making policies, which must be holistic and not made in silos. The simple principle is "you can't control what you don't measure".
It is natural human tendency to not value anything that is free and it is definitely true with water in India. This perception on water, the second P, must be changed. So, pricing policy must be given priority. Though extremely difficult, if not impossible politically, minimal pricing for water for agriculture is necessary considering it is the biggest consuming segment as we can no longer remain oblivious to the elephant in the room. Any number of regulations relating to water use enacted will remain powerful only on paper if not enforced correctly and in an unbiased manner. Instead, this simple move would make farmers perceive water as a valuable but scarce resource and adopt measures such as micro-irrigation, crop diversification, crop rotation; using varieties with improved agronomic (e.g. drought-tolerant) traits, etc. that improve overall WUE. Subsidies can help but without this, any efforts on promoting water saving technologies or innovations will only remain cosmetic and will not have desired real impacts on the ground at all.
Further, there are more to what meets the eye about food production in India. According to World Resources Group, India will be able to meet only half of its water demand by 2030. Rice, Sugarcane and Wheat in India enjoy unjustified priority and privilege in terms ofpolicy support from the government. Except wheat, the other two crops are real water-guzzlers requiring 900 - 2500 mm and 1500 – 2500 mm respectively for a cropping cycle. Rice alone consumes nearly a quarter of all water used in the country. But sadly, India's food policies till date, are not favorable for crop diversification to make farmers grow pulses or corn which need only half of rice's and a quarter of sugarcane's water requirement.
Further procurement support, an important criterion for an average farmer who wish to dispose his produce as soon possible, is available only for these crops in most states. This is the harsh reality of India's resource-scarce small and marginal farmers having 1 – 2 hectares of land who form nearly two-thirds of the total. Marketing risk is the biggest and probably the first one they will strive to avoid at all costs. Hence, where are the incentives for farmers to diversify if the Governments keeps supporting only a few crops through skewed policies? Further the erstwhile engines of green revolution – Punjab and Haryana - are currently witnessing the most alarming levels of water stress.
Contrastingly, India's demand for protein - the next P, is growing in line with its economic growth and is forcing us to become more import-dependent in pulses, while Indian farmers do not prefer to grow, rather they cannot grow more pulses, even in most water-stressed areas unless they have absolutely no choice.
Maize's story is even more interesting−The animal feed industry in India the largest consuming segment (about 70%) for maize and is growing fast in tandem with the country's rising demand for meat. But, feed industry often finds it extremely difficult to source good quality maize all around the year and domestic prices are highly volatile and are at least 15 – 20% higher than the global prices.
Costs of feed raw materials (maize and soybean together) constitute nearly 70% of the cost of a kg of meat. So, if even a fraction of cropping area is shifted to maize from rice, wheat and sugarcane, consequent positive impacts on water use will be huge. Besides, it will ultimately make meat more affordable to consumers which will improve their overall nutritional status. Yet, farmers in many regions do not prefer to grow maize because they can grow something else like rice, which has assured procurement. In such a case, where are the incentives for diversification?
In terms of solutions, one of the low hanging opportunities in terms of agronomical innovation is direct seeding in rice and techniques like SRI (System of Rice Intensification). These can result in significant reduction in water footprint of Indian rice crop, which remains a staggering 2020 m3against the global average of 1325 m3 as quoted in a report of the UNESCO-IHE Institute of Water Education in 2010.
To wrap up, firstly there must be a balanced and holistic approach that would consider imminent need for water pricing policy; focus on nutritional (protein) security than clinging onto the cereal-based food policies for political or other considerations; and importantly, an enabling environment where markets and regulations synergize to address growing water stress.
Further, India can, and must be open to consider other options such as genetic improvements to produce drought-tolerant varieties, which will not only improve millions of farmers but also have greater socio-economic benefits than one can imagine. Policy makers must not become hostages of pseudo-activists who, with their unfounded ideologies mostly borrowed from wealthy Western world, have no clue about India's nutritional, socio-economic, political, and economic realities and priorities.
If pursued diligently, these measures will certainly relieve Indian agriculture from the perils of drought or monsoon failures and will further strengthen livelihoods of millions of farmers and rural Indians. All it needs to make Indian agriculture truly resilient, sustainable and not dependent on monsoon is a strong political will for reforms that is supported by holistic and integrated approach towards food, water and environmental policies while keeping the country's nutritional security as the top most priority.
This is indeed urgent before it is too late that we will have to face the "Day Zero" like South Africa, which became precariously close to running completely out of water.
*Views are personal
Executive Director (the livestock industry association) | CLFMA of India- Mumbai