In the last Rabi season (January-May 2018), a farmer from Medak district of Telangana cultivating paddy in two acres preferred to hire a combine harvester by paying ₹1,800 per hour despite having four family members who could have completed harvesting their field without paying a rupee.

As a sociologist, three points emerged while trying to make sense of the farmer’s action. First, a combine harvester would complete all the work related to paddy harvesting — cutting, threshing, winnowing — in about an hour per acre. Thus the farmer could complete the task in a matter of two to three hours. When compared to this, manual paddy harvesting would take at least 10 days for the family of four, apart from hiring a tractor for threshing.

Second, given the weather uncertainties the farmer wanted to complete the task as early as possible and escape ‘unhurt’. And, third, the costs of hiring the combine harvester were met by the farmer’s family going for wage labour.

This experience highlights the pitfalls of academic explanations which ignore the emerging realities. As a result, many a scholar tends to place empirical reality in a rigid theoretical framework, thus providing a contrived explanation.

A white elephant?

This write-up is in response to the article ‘A white elephant in the making’, by Biksham Gujja, which appeared in these columns on August 3.

After the formation of Telangana, the State government set its priorities right, addressing issues related to farmers in the region who became more and more vulnerable over the decades due to neglect in the integrated state. The problems of Telangana farmers are peculiar and could be addressed by a perspective that is evolved from within and definitely not dominated by command region’s experiences.

The Kaleshwaram project is a complex system of barrages, pump-houses, tunnels and canals, to move water over some very difficult terrain to irrigate 18.25-lakh acres. The additional benefit built into the project is water availability for 25 per cent of the 18.82-lakh acres of ayacut under existing irrigation systems of SRSP, Nizamsagar, Singur and SRSP Flood Flow canal.

The Telangana government recently announced another flagship programme of linking of minor irrigation tanks with all major, medium and lift-irrigation projects, including Kaleshwaram. The irrigation department assessed that there are more than 5,000 chains of tanks which cover more than 25,000 tanks across Telangana.

The State has tried to address the issue of power supply within a short time ending the years of dangerous night commuting by farmers to the fields. Appropriate market interventions ensured adequate supply of seeds and fertilisers and remunerative prices to crops like paddy and maize.

The uncertainties Telangana farmers have been facing for long have been: erratic, inadequate and poor quality of power supply; untimely and inadequate supply of inputs like seeds and fertilisers; non-remunerative prices, unregulated markets; and dwindling groundwater.

The most important uncertainty to be addressed is the issue of water to irrigate fields, directly or indirectly. Mission Kakatiya, though envisaged to increase the storage capacity of the tanks, fares poorly when there is no adequate rainfall. Village tanks are central to farmers as they recharge groundwater substantially. Thus, maintaining sufficient water in the tanks round the year becomes critical. The Kaleshwaram project, apart from directly irrigating 18.25 lakh acres , aims to recharge groundwater by filling tanks, and other water bodies.

The benefits of such an effort are long term and difficult to evaluate through cost-benefit analysis in mere economic terms. For example, how can cost-benefit be calculated if farmers’ choices of crops to cultivate widen as a result of increasing access to irrigation water through 24-hour power supply and heightened groundwater table resulting in greater discharge from bore-wells.

Every season thousands of bore-wells are dug in every mandal across the State by desperate farmers to source more groundwater. Considering that each bore-well costs not less than ₹1 lakh, stabilising the groundwater through the Kaleshwaram project will ensure that farmers need not go for new bore-wells — a major benefit for them indeed.

Irrigation needs

In his article, Biksham Gujja raises concerns about the cost-benefit of the project and wonders if 180 TMC water is enough for any meaningful irrigation of 26 lakh acres. Irrigation experts suggest that it is possible to cultivate 13,000 acres with one TMC of water. They quote the instance of Nizamsagar project where, in the last Rabi (2018) season, the irrigation engineers could ensure water for irrigating rice crop by adopting on-off and ‘tail to head’ water supply systems successfully.

Cost-benefit analyses are vital for planned state initiatives, but such analyses can also sometimes reveal half-truths.

The modern welfare state can seldom afford to go with economists’ preference for cost-benefit analysis when millions of farmers are under agrarian distress. The Kaleshwaram project has to be seen in that perspective.

The arguments against the Kaleswaram project also ignore the new seed varieties developed by crop breeders which are of short duration, thus reducing the irrigation days.

This can increase the extent of cultivation from 13,000 acres to 15,000 acres with one TMC of water.

It has been amply demonstrated that in the regions where surface water is provided through canals, it has resulted in the recharge of groundwater.

As most of Telangana farms are electrified and rely on groundwater, a substantial increase in water table will be a boon for cultivation.

This is a long process, wherein continuous supply of water to village tanks and other water bodies for at least three to four years is needed to replenish the groundwater significantly.

In fact, the present long dry spell (since mid-July till date, in most parts of Telangana) is triggering anxiety among farmers who cultivate using bore-wells. Had the village tanks been full, the farmers would not have to be worried about weather tantrums.

The apprehensions expressed in the article over increased crop yields and potential returns to farmers once Kaleshwaram begins delivering water to farmers are because of the linear approach taken in analysing the complex issue of agriculture. For sure, DPRs (detailed project reports), given the technicalities, seldom reflect the complex reality which is more to do with social costs.

What’s needed is a holistic understanding of the project from the perspective of Telangana farmers. The critics also ignore the larger socio-economic benefits of the project, which include development of fisheries, inland waterways, tourism, and biodiversity.

Terming the project ‘A white elephant’ is due to the narrow presentation of facts, ignoring the social and environmental benefits for the people of Telangana.

The writer is Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad.