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Don’t water it down: Without getting prices right, water scarcity can’t be tackled

The Financial Express logo The Financial Express 31-03-2021 The Financial Express
a hand holding a glass of water: Till this is fixed, India’s water crisis will continue to worsen. (Representative image) © Provided by The Financial Express Till this is fixed, India’s water crisis will continue to worsen. (Representative image)

Prime minister Narendra Modi did well to, on World Water Day, launch the 'Catch the Rain' project since, in the years to come, the water shortage will get worse though, as a recent Down to Earth report has pointed out, over the past 15 years, around 29 billion cubic metres of water conservation potential has been created under MGNREGA. At a macro level, as NITI Aayog pointed out some years ago, water stress could shave off around 6% of India's potential growth by 2030.

The crux of the problem is that, as Kotak Institutional Equities pointed out five years ago, while India gets around 2,600 billion cubic metres of rain and snow-melt in even a bad year, the country's storage capacity is probably a tenth of that. Naturally, any solution to the country's water-scarcity problem has to factor in increased storage capacity; India's per capita water availability has fallen from 5,178 cubic meters per day in 1951 to 1,544 in 2011 and is projected to fall to 1,140 by 2050.

This is where, as Icrier professor Ashok Gulati has pointed out in this newspaper, it is critical to get India's irrigation strategy right since, as it happens, around 80% of India's available water goes for farm use. And, of this, 60% is used for just rice and sugarcane that account for just 24% of the gross cropped area in the country. India, thus, must move from land-productivity to water-productivity for sowing decisions.

While Bihar needs just 799 litres to produce one kg of sugar, Maharashtra, a major cane-growing state, needs 2.7 times as much water. In the case of paddy, Punjab has the highest productivity in the country when it comes to the amount of crop that is grown per acre of land, but when the same exercise is done for water, Punjab is the worst; so, in a period of increasing water scarcity, does India want to maximise the yield per acre or minimise the usage of water?

As Gulati pointed out in this newspaper earlier this week, apart from the issue of growing crops like sugar and rice in states that use water the most efficiently, drip irrigation should also be used. One pilot project found that while it takes 3,065 litres of water to produce one kg of paddy under traditional flood irrigation, this can be lowered to just 842 litres by drip irrigation.

Technologies like Direct Seeded Rice (DSR) and System of Rice Intensification (SRI) can also save 25-30% of water compared to traditional flood irrigation. Yet, as long as water is free-and electricity is near-free-farmers are not going to see the need to conserve water; and till such time that the government continues to buy crops at the MSP in a few states, even if they are not suited for the crop, farmers will continue to grow them. Till this is fixed, India's water crisis will continue to worsen.

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