Two major problems India’s farmers face during summer are reduced supply of electricity for pumpsets and scarcity of water for irrigation. Farmers cultivating high-value crops such as banana, sugarcane, cotton, paddy, etc., using groundwater are unable to supply water adequately to crops due to frequent load-shedding. This leads to crop losses on many occasions. But studies show that crop cultivation can be done profitably by adopting drip irrigation even in periods of water scarcity and load-shedding. Is this really possible?

Assured irrigation facility has become paramount for crop cultivation due to major changes in farming practices after the introduction of the Green Revolution in 1965-66. Tank and canal irrigation, which have been used for long, have declined in importance, whereas the use of groundwater for rrigation has increased manifold over time.

The widespread growth in rural electrification has brought about a major change in groundwater irrigation. The number of electric pumpsets has increased from just 16 lakh in 1970-71 to 207 lakh in 2018-19 — an almost 13-fold increase. This has hugely transformed India’s irrigation map. For instance, the share of groundwater in the total irrigated area has grown exponentially from 34 per cent in 1970-71 to 65 per cent in 2019-20 . Electricity consumption of the agriculture sector has, therefore, increased 48 times during the same period.

Most crops grown in the rabi and summer seasons depend on groundwater. However, due to the shortage of electricity during summer, the power supplied to the farm sector is significantly reduced in different States and most often water-intensive crops are the worst affected.

Water saving

Drip irrigation is different from the conventional flood irrigation method, but the former can be used to grow various crops profitably using less water and electricity. The flood method requires more time to irrigate each hectare of land, as a large amount of water is lost through evaporation, conveyance and distribution. Drip irrigation, on the other hand, provides water directly to the root zone of the crop through a network of pipes/emitters and hence water loss is completely prevented. The water saved in irrigating different crops is 30-70 per cent more under drip than under the flood method.

An acre of sugarcane or banana crop needs only one hour for each turn of irrigation by the drip method. But the same crops require 10-15 hours to irrigate using the flood method, because of which the consumption of both power and water increases.

An Agriculture Ministry-initiated field study conducted in Maharashtra, an important drip-irrigated State, shows that about 1,065 kWh of electricity per hectare can be saved by adopting the drip method in sugarcane cultivation.

A 2014 study by the Agriculture Ministry, covering 13 States, reveals drip irrigation can increase crop yield by 42-53 per cent, reduce irrigation costs by 20-50 per cent and fertilizer use by 7-43 per cent (see Chart 1).

Using the drip method, farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are growing various crops profitably even under highly deficient water and power situations. Research shows that most farmers in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, who are cultivating cotton, banana, onion and other crops have switched to drip irrigation due to severe power cuts.

Besides, the report of the Task Force on Micro-Irrigation, set up by the Central Government in 2004, also states that water and electricity can be saved to a large extent by increasing the area under drip irrigation.

Considering the various benefits, the Centre has been promoting drip irrigation since 1990-91 by providing 50-100 per cent subsidy on capital cost to farmers adopting it. To achieve the goal of ‘more crop per drop’, the Pradhan Mantri Sinchayee Yojana was launched in 2015, with higher allocation of funds to increase the area under drip irrigation. As a result of, the area under drip has increased from just 70,589 hectares in 1991-92 to 63.21 lakh hectares in 2020-21 (see Chart 2). Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, among other States, have announced various schemes with hefty subsidies to popularise this irrigation system among the farmers.

More efforts are needed to achieve an appreciable growth in the area under drip irrigation. The Task Force has estimated that 270 lakh hectares of cultivated land is suitable for drip irrigation. But, India’s drip irrigated area was only 6 per cent of the total irrigated area in 2020-21.

There can be no disagreement that drip irrigation can be a solution to profitable farming and that too with less electricity and water. Therefore, the government and its agencies should take urgent steps to take drip irrigation to most of the farmers.

Besides horticultural crops, more than 80 crops including cotton, groundnut, sugarcane, banana and tur can be cultivated through drip irrigation. Therefore, it is important to create awareness among the farmers about the benefits of drip irrigation on a continuous basis.

Groundwater risk

Central Groundwater Board data show that the number of blocks facing groundwater risk has increased from 1,645 in 2004 to 2,538 in 2020 due to over-exploitation.

The main reason for this is the cultivation of water-intensive crops such as sugarcane, banana, wheat and vegetables through the flooding method. Therefore, drip irrigation should be made mandatory for cultivating all water-intensive crops in those blocks where groundwater exploitation is high.

Measures should be taken to gradually bring sugarcane cultivation entirely under drip with the support of sugarcane mills. Also, the government should guarantee interest-free bank loans and immediate electricity connection for pumpsets to those farmers who agree to cultivate only through drip irrigation.

There are reports that rapidly changing climate may cause changes in rainfall and increase water scarcity. The sooner a larger area is brought under drip irrigation the faster can the goal of ‘more output per drop of water’ be achieved.

The writer is former full-time Member (Official), Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, New Delhi. The views are personal