It is time to drought-proof rainfed agriculture

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Schemes like PMKSY will pave way for increasing contribution of agriculture to GDP
Agriculture now needs to shift to less water-intensive crops especially pulses and oilseeds

By Sudhirendar Sharma

Six decades of investment in the irrigation sector notwithstanding, 45 per cent of the 142 million hectares of agricultural land has only been covered under assured irrigation. With cost-intensive dam-based large projects unlikely to expand irrigation any further, the shift in focus for ‘har khet ko pani’ (water for every field) through in situ water conservation under the recently launched Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) is a step in the right direction.

As India plans to spend Rs 50,000 crore to fund irrigation schemes over next five years, drought-proofing the country has moved centre-stage in the implementation process. In last two years, 10 states have been severely hit by drought causing distress in agriculture and crash in commodity prices. An allocation of Rs 5,300 crore has been made in the first year of the scheme to bring additional 6 lakh hectares of rainfed agricultural land will be brought under irrigation.

By merging the existing three ongoing schemes viz., Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme, Integrated Watershed Management Programme, and On Farm Water Management, PMKSY not only intends to extend irrigation coverage but promote water-use efficiency at the farm level as well. It is in this context that the scheme will promote drip irrigation in some 5 lakh hectares of land.

To be able to achieve its targets of irrigating additional area, existing water bodies and carrying capacity of traditional water sources will be strengthened. Securing additional resources from private agencies, groundwater and command area development to meet the growing water needs has also been envisaged. The crucial challenge, however, is to ensure that no additional groundwater sources, beyond the existing 30 million wells and tube wells, are exploited.

It is in this regard that water conservation and cutting down on wastage holds the key to bringing irrigation facilities to every farm in the country. This makes introduction of sustainable water preservation practices and optimization of water resources just as important as introduction of new irrigation facilities. A number of methods to treat and re-use municipal water have also been planned to augment irrigation water supply.

For a country that has historical tryst with droughts, such initiatives alone pave way for increasing contribution of agriculture to GDP. Between 1801 and 2012, the country had experienced 45 severe droughts. The recent weak monsoons have affected agriculture, registering low growth for the second year in a row. This has caused serious setback to economy, lending credence to the argument that only drought-proofing can cut down the impact of agriculture on the economy.

The Economic Survey 2015-16 has rightly called for a paradigm shift in agriculture, proposing efficient water use via micro-irrigation alongside more investment in research on hybrid and high-yielding seeds, technology, and mechanization. What has not been emphasized is the need to invest in researching climate-smart agriculture technologies for raising productivity and ensuring food security as the specter of climate change looms large.

Being water-stressed, Indian agriculture has long remained a ‘high investment, high risk’ proposition. The water-intensive cereal-centric nature of agriculture has further increased vulnerability to climatic exigencies. Unless it shifts to less water-intensive crops especially pulses and oilseeds, supported by a favorable minimum support price regime, productivity from nearly 98 million hectares of rain-dependent farmlands may not contribute to growth in agriculture

It is here that ‘decentralized State-level planning and execution’ under the PMKSY has to rise up to, drawing comprehensive District Irrigation Plans (DIP) from holistic developmental perspective outlining medium to long term water needs. The task is to not only conserve and secure local water sources but make distribution network efficient such that water-use at the field-level sustains crop productivity even during difficult times.

Having committed to reducing carbon emissions by 30-35 per cent of its GDP by 2030, India is obliged to reduce irrigation carbon-footprints of large-irrigation projects by switching to decentralised water management as outlined in PMKSY. However, the scheme will yield additional gains if increasing soil organic carbon through precision farming is made its integral part, carbon stocks retain soil moisture and reduce climate-induced crop vulnerability.

It is in this context that ‘captive water availability’ through community-managed traditional tank systems, and improving ‘soil moisture regime’ through decentralized watershed development assumes significance. Both are critical inputs for drought-proofing the countryside, as in situ surface water storage converts soil profile into a veritable water reservoir that acts as a cushion against climate aberrations.

An Inter-Ministerial National Steering Committee within NITI Aayog has been established, however, it remains to be seen how various departments at the State-level cooperate in delivering ambitious results of PMKSY on the ground.sudhirendar-sharma

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma researches and writes on development issues.)

(Source: Press Information Bureau, Govt. of India.)

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