Copious virtues of drip irrigation

A. Narayanamoorthy | Updated on April 23, 2012

Besides saving electricity, drip method of irrigation can solve the problem of water scarcity.

Drip irrigation implies reduced use of water, and electricity to run the pumpsets.

Electrical energy shortage is a major problem the country faces today. An estimate by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) shows that the average shortage of power during the period April 2011 to February 2012 was as high as 71,200 million units, which is about 8 per cent less than the requirement.

This demand-supply gap is expected to rise further during the next three-four summer months.

The shortage of power supply is affecting the growth of agriculture, where electrical power is used to operate pumpsets to lift water from wells and other sources for irrigation.

Reports from different parts of the country suggest that high-value crops such as sugarcane, banana, cotton, paddy, etc, have dried up due to irregular supply of irrigation water as a result of power shortage. How to protect the standing crops is the biggest question haunting farmers today.

Ground water usage

Why is electrical power important for agriculture? The face of Indian agriculture has been changing swiftly since the Green Revolution. Farmers have started following intensive agriculture where assured irrigation becomes an essential factor.

The reliance on conventional irrigation sources such as tanks and canals has reduced, while the importance of ground water has increased substantially.

With rural electrification, the number of pumpsets energised in the country increased to about 18 million which accounted for over 90 per cent of India's total irrigation pumpsets as of January 2012.

The rapid expansion of energisation of pumpsets has significantly altered the irrigation scenario. During the sixties, the share of ground water irrigation in India's total irrigated area was only about 29 per cent, but it has increased to over 62 per cent today.

As electricity is essential to operate pumpsets, the consumption of electricity by the agricultural sector has also risen sharply — from 833 Gwh in 1960-61 to 1,29,051 Gwh in 2010-11, an increase of about 155 times. Today, the agricultural sector accounts for close to 20 per cent of India's total electricity consumption; it was only around 5 per cent during 1960-61.

This sharp increase has occurred due to extensive use of ground water.

Most crops, especially during rabi and post-rabi (summer) seasons, are cultivated using primarily ground water.

But due to scarcity of electricity, its supply to agriculture is sharply reduced in almost all the States.

It has been reported that farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu don't even get six hours' continuous supply of electricity for irrigation pumpsets. Heavily interrupted and limited supply of electricity poses great hardship to farmers who are unable to supply irrigation water to the standing crops from their own wells.

Conserving water, power

Is there a way out? Field studies suggest that this looming power shortage can be effectively solved by adopting micro-irrigation (drip irrigation).

The time required to irrigate one hectare of crop land under the conventional flood method of irrigation is large as it irrigates the entire land instead of crop. Moreover, the loss of water by conveyance, distribution and evaporation is large.

Under micro-irrigation, water is supplied only at the root zone of the crops at the required quantity through a network of pipes.

One hectare of banana or sugarcane can be irrigated within an hour by drip irrigation method, whereas it requires 10-15 hours under conventional flood method of irrigation. This reduces the consumption of irrigation water and also electricity.

Empirical studies done in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and other parts of India under the the Ministry of Agriculture proved that drip method of irrigation can save electricity up to as much as 45 per cent, compared with conventional flood method. An estimate shows that the saving of electricity due to the cultivation of sugarcane under drip irrigation was 1,065 kwh/ha in Maharashtra and about 3,150 kwh/ha in Tamil Nadu. Similar reduction was also found in crops such as banana (2,434 kwh/ha), grapes (1,476 kwh/ha) and in cotton (346 kwh/ha).

Since water is supplied only at the root zone of the crops and that too at the required level, farmers need not operate the pumpsets for longer hours. Besides, the drip method also reduced the consumption of water and increased the yield significantly.

Farmers in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Gujarat have also reported that they are able to irrigate crops even during acute power shortage without any hassle.

Power shortage has been reported as the main reason for adopting drip irrigation in Jalgaon district of Maharashtra, where large areas of banana, cotton and other crops are being cultivated under the drip system.

Promotional schemes

The Task Force on Micro-irrigation (TFMI), appointed by the Ministry of Finance during 2004 has also underlined the fact that drip irrigation can save enormous amount of electricity, if adopted extensively.

The Central and State governments have introduced promotional schemes since 1990-91 which offer over 50 per cent of subsidy on the capital cost of drip set to farmers.

Recently, the Government of Tamil Nadu also announced a scheme to promote the adoption of drip irrigation in the State with over 75 per cent of subsidy for marginal and small farmers.

Though the benefits are large, the adoption of drip method of irrigation has not been very appreciable. As of today, only about two million hectares of area has been brought under drip irrigation, which is only about 7 per cent of its total potential of 27 million hectares estimated by the TFMI.

Besides saving electricity, drip method of irrigation can solve the problem of water scarcity.

Given the looming demand-supply gap in electricity, there will be no respite from electricity shortage in the immediate future. Therefore, concentrated efforts are needed to persuade farmers to adopt drip method of irrigation.

Low awareness levels

Studies have shown that slow growth of drip method of irrigation was not mainly due to economic reasons but due to low awareness among farmers about the real economic and other benefits of drip technology.

Apart from the provision of capital subsidy, there is also an urgent need for an awareness campaign through an effective extension network, including aggressive field demonstrations.

If drip system is made available at low cost, the area under drip irrigation can be increased at a faster rate. Therefore, measures can primarily be taken to reduce the fixed cost of drip irrigation by promoting R&D activities.

If the government recognised drip industry as an infrastructure industry as well as announced tax holiday for it for a specific time period, competition can be increased, which will ultimately bring down the cost of the system.

There cannot be two opinions that the extensive adoption of drip irrigation method will be a win-win solution for both the farmers and the government as it helps conserve precious resources.

(The author is NABARD Chair Professor and Head, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu.)

Published on April 23, 2012

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