A fresh perspective on water policy for rainfed areas

Ravindra Adusumilli/Partik Kumar | Updated on October 07, 2020

Comprehensive ‘water-as-moisture’ investments are required for rainfed areas over and above the watershed programmes

Our perception of ‘water’ and ‘nation’ are biased and non-inclusive, at least in the national water policies enunciated by the Government in 1987, 2002 and 2012. Hopefully, the committee of experts drafting the new National Water Policy, 2020 under the Chairmanship of Dr Mihir Shah, a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, will come up with a more inclusive perspective on water.

‘Irrigation’ dominated the discourse when it comes to water for agriculture. Irrigation is seen as coming from canals that span from reservoirs of large, medium and minor dams, or groundwater. ‘Irrigated area’ and percentage exploitation of the potential created (area) are the metrics used in planning and evaluation. All through the Planning periods, the Ministry of Water Resources planned for and evaluated lakhs of crores of public investment with these parameters. It takes about ₹2 lakh of public investment to create an acre of such ‘irrigated area’ at present.

So, what’s the issue? These ‘irrigated areas’ are now the lifeline for national food security, wherefrom millions of tonnes of paddy and wheat are produced in surplus that feed the PDS system. This system however, is propped up by a myriad of subsidies on irrigation, fertilisers, seed, electricity, mechanisation, MSP/procurement and storage.

Focus on irrigation

This edifice of ‘irrigation’ constitutes only about half the agriculture area while the rest (over 60 per cent of farmers) are essentially dependent on rainfall for crop growth. These are the areas where one can see frequent crop failures due to erratic rains, droughts and farmers’ distress; call them rainfed areas where the irrigated area is less than 40 per cent.

A small supplementation of water at the root zone of these crops during the spells of dry periods in the season (about three irrigations) is all it takes to secure the crops. These are the areas from where we get our pulses, oilseeds, millets, meat, etc; the backbone for the ‘national nutrition security’.

Why is that the nation could not meet such simple water requirement for securing these crops in the rainfed areas? This is where the biases in perception entrenched in our own development process creep in.

Plants do not drink water like humans do. Moisture is required at the interstices in the soil particles where the roots penetrate. Soil solution in these pockets of open spaces helps to build bio-colonies at the root systems. These help plants to absorb the required nutrients and transport them through their internal system to leaves and other parts where food for the plant is manufactured using sunlight through a process called ‘evapotranspiration’. If moisture is in deficit in the soil, plants cannot absorb and transport the required nutrients and, therefore, suffers beyond a limit of tolerance.

While the plant grows with rainfall, agriculture in rainfed areas needs 2-3 waterings, that is, replenishing the soil moisture deficits for plants to survive and produce well. ‘Irrigation’ here is filling in the moisture deficits arising out of gaps in rainfall events. The water required here is soil moisture enough to fill-in the moisture deficit, and not cubic meters of water flowing in the canals or borewells.

Research results at ICAR-CRIDA and other places show that the productivity of such watering to fill moisture deficit will be far higher than the conventional irrigation.

Soil moisture

Rainfed agriculture, therefore, needs a different perspective on water; water seen as soil moisture and ‘irrigation’ as filling in or avoiding moisture deficits. Water seen as cusecs of flow, area irrigated, or irrigation potential created keeps all those areas unreachable by canals and borewells outside the ambit of investments in irrigation. This creates a dichotomy of ‘irrigated’ versus ‘rainfed’ areas.

Irrigation investments circulates within. Cost escalations, maintenance, modernisation, improving water-use efficiency and the escalating human resource costs of the huge irrigation establishment siphon off all investments — creating a circulating economy within the system and not releasing any public investments for other areas. After watershed development programmes are merged with PM Krishi Sinchay Yojana, even the meagre investments on watershed development plummeted.

This perception of water and irrigation led to bias in investment in water resources over years and excluded more than half of the agriculture area and still more number of farmers from its benefits.

The Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture network (RRAN) made a representation to the committee drafting the National Water Policy to consider water resources policy for rainfed areas as a separate section within the national policy and see water as soil moisture and water investments as those required to harvest maximum rainfall into the soil and retain it there for longer periods to avoid moisture deficits. In case of slightly longer gaps in rainfall events, run-off harvested in local water bodies can supplement.

A comprehensive ‘water-as moisture-investments’ are required for rainfed areas over and above the watershed programmes. It will secure over 60 per cent of farmers from droughts and distress. Instead of canals and lift irrigation, investments are needed here in local water bodies, improving soil organic matter to harvest and retain moisture, crop systems diversification and such other measures.

These investments must be allocated in proportion to the rainfed areas in the total net sown area within and as a part of the ‘irrigation’ investments in the Ministry of Water Resources. This way, the committee can undo the historical injustice to rainfed areas and the people there.

Ravindra Adusumilli is Director, WASSAN, and Partik Kumar anchors Working Group on Water; both associated with Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRA N)

Published on October 07, 2020

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