An above average monsoon will go some way in replenishing depleted reservoirs and aquifers. Farm production may go up, and the rural economy is slated to benefit. This is good news but it does not detract from the overall crisis affecting Indian agriculture — the over-use of water.

Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water resources. Industry and consumers come a distant second and third. India’s skewed water politics has led to an over-use of groundwater. To put this in perspective, while only 4 per cent of farmed land in Maharashtra is under sugarcane, it consumes 71.5 per cent of the State’s irrigated water, including wells. The State is the second-highest producer of sugarcane after Uttar Pradesh.

A policy matter Why do farmers persist with sugarcane when they can shift to drought-tolerant crops when the going gets tough? The danger is that no one seems to be communicating the adverse effects of long-term climate change to them. A medium to long-term state specific policy needs to be articulated, given the changing agro-climatic landscape. A World Bank report titled ‘Water in India’ paints a doomsday scenario in this regard.

The report observes that between 2020 and 2050, the supply-demand gap for water will increase from roughly 200 per cent (in 2020) to almost 1200 per cent in 2050. To put this in reverse, the availability of water in 2020 is projected to be 50 per cent of demand and in 2050 it will be less than 9 per cent. The problem with a good monsoon is that it doesn’t allow us to practice what we preach.

As parched fields get water after successive droughts, farmers are likely to throw caution to the winds and invest in even more water-intensive crops. But the rains, however good, will eventually cease. Ponds, dams, aquifers, wells, streams and rivers will not be recharged to the extent that they have been depleted.

Aquifers can take hundreds of years to fill up and recharge slowly with water from snowmelt and rains. Water-intensive farming is likely to continue. But a drought situation may recur and the same stories of farmer distress and demand for more government action will do the rounds.

Biotech varieties The answer is not to stop farmers from planting their preferred crops. The focus instead should be on conservation, and it is here that science and technology can help. Irrigation networks should be linked to an extensive network of drip irrigation infrastructure (to gradually replace flood irrigation).

Farmers can be incentivised to do this and shown how this can result in water savings of 40-50 per cent, while simultaneously increasing farm yields by up to a third. New methods of agriculture should be encouraged, including the use of hybrid and biotech seeds that are engineered to be more drought, saline and pest resistant.

As less water-intensive farming takes root, more water will be available for use at homes and groundwater depletion will be minimised. Women will need to walk considerably less to fetch water. Even in drought-prone regions, new biotech seeds and water management technologies can ensure that farmers can move to multiple crop yields.

Several countries have developed technologies to suit their agro-climatic conditions. Indonesia grows drought-tolerant sugarcane while in the US, drought-tolerant maize is grown commercially. If other countries can take steps to cope with climate change and drought, why can’t India do the same?

The Government needs to encourage new crop technologies for robust strains of wheat, rice, sugarcane and corn that need less water, thrive in semi-arid conditions, resist pests and withstand the vagaries of climate change.

The Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) should co-develop technologies with non-government funded bodies around the world that deal with climate change, and create a sustainable impact for farmers.

Recently, ICAR announced that it will develop drought-tolerant sugarcane for India. While this announcement is laudable, in view of the current regulatory scenario in India it might take more than 10 years before farmers can benefit from this technology.

The time for us to take the monsoons for granted is over.

The writer is executive director of Association of Biotechnology Led Enterprises - Agriculture Group