India's draining issue

As drought grips the country, the way out of thirst might lie in drip irrigation and local community efforts, not more mega projects or dams

Recurring monsoon failures have resulted in India experiencing one of its worst droughts in 30 years.

Drought has gripped 330 million people - a fourth of India's population of 1.33 billion - across 13 of the country's 29 states. Beset by failed crops and unpaid loans, a staggering 3,228 farmers committed suicide last year in just one state alone, Maharashtra, which has Mumbai as its capital. The state-appointed Farmers' Distress Management Task Force blames the deaths on the "collective failure of government officials".

Indian governments have done little to conserve water for off-season use. Even after constructing 4,525 large and small dams, the country has managed to create per capita storage of only 213 cubic m - compared to 6,103 cubic m by Russia, 4,733 cubic m by Australia, 1,964 cubic m by the US, and China's 1,111 cubic m.

India's water crisis is thus as man-made as it is natural. Both central and state governments have been systematically misappropriating funding for irrigation, flood control and drought proofing. As well, they have largely disregarded more workable community-level water conservation and watershed management practices.

Water is a lifeline more in India than anywhere else, as agriculture consumes 83 per cent of national freshwater resources as the nation strives to feed a huge population, of which more than 15 per cent is undernourished.

A farmer throwing water after making a canal to irrigate his field in Kolkata, India, last month. Agriculture consumes 83 per cent of India's national freshwater resources as the country strives to feed a huge population, of which more than 15 per cent is undernourished. PHOTO: REUTERS


A staggering US$52.7 billion (S$72 billion) has been expended on major and medium irrigation (MMI) projects from the First Five- Year Plan (1951-56) to the 11th Plan (2007-12) periods, but irrigation has reached only 45 per cent of India's net sown area to date.

A study by a committee for the 12th Plan (2012-17) revealed that the average cost overrun, especially on the large dams, has been as high as 1,382 per cent.

Drip irrigation has been shown to result in up to 65 per cent savings in irrigation water for horticulture crops and up to 47 per cent for vegetables, while sprinkler irrigation has similarly resulted in up to 40 per cent savings of water in the cultivation of groundnut and cotton.

Priorities should shift from MMI dams to multiple micro-watershed development and rainwater harvesting projects.

One area of promise is drip irrigation. Also called drip line irrigation, it delivers water directly to the root zone of a plant, via a maze of flexible tubing and lines, with each dripper or emitter supplying precisely controlled water, nutrients and other growth substances. Fertilisers can be applied through the system as well, cutting down on extra labour.

Drip irrigation has been shown to result in up to 65 per cent savings in irrigation water for horticulture crops and up to 47 per cent for vegetables, while sprinkler irrigation has similarly resulted in up to 40 per cent savings of water in the cultivation of groundnut and cotton. Drip and sprinklers also lead to up to 28.5 per cent less fertiliser use and 30.5 per cent energy savings.

Yet, a recent joint study, titled Micro Irrigation, An Efficient Solution, by business lobby FICCI and Irrigation Association of India, found the penetration of micro-irrigation to be abysmal, despite its potential savings.

Just the six states of Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat and Haryana account for over 82 per cent of India's micro-irrigation coverage.

Though only 7.73 million ha of a potential 69.5 million ha have been covered under micro-irrigation, and despite the prolonged drought and the government's penchant for catch phrases like "more crop per drop", central subsidies for micro-irrigation dipped to US$161 million in 2015-16 from US$167 million the previous year.

The study recommends direct cash or direct benefits transfer to farmers to promote "on-demand" micro-irrigation. It also urges better process management and online tracking schemes, as well as mandating micro-irrigation for water-intensive crops such as sugarcane and banana.

The study foresees dependence on subsidies coming down over time if companies providing micro- irrigation equipment and services are brought under priority sector lending and if farmers can avail themselves of interest subsidies.

Efficient drip irrigation can transform agriculture in India, but its high initial cost of purchase - US$525.5 per ha - is a deterrent to most small farmers. Its application has been known to increase crop yields by up to 45 per cent in wheat, 20 per cent in gram and 40 per cent in soya bean. As well, drip irrigation can cover 10 times the area as the same quantity of water used in conventional flood irrigation.


There has been a range of localised efforts involving innovative experiments to address water shortages.

Social crusader Anna Hazare lifted his village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district out of despair and drudgery. The scant rainfall of 400mm to 500mm that his village received ran off almost completely. The village could thus cultivate only one crop and most families learnt to survive on one square meal a day.

Mr Hazare urged the district administration to take up watershed development in his village, and started supervising the work once it began in 1972, without any remuneration.

With the experience and knowledge he gained, he constructed 48 nulla bunds (farm ponds), five cement check dams and 16 gabions - rock-filled gravity retaining walls - over the years, enabling all the rainwater to be conserved and the groundwater aquifers to be recharged. Ralegan Siddhi now harvests two crops.

With rising prosperity, "distress" migration stopped and farmers now hire labourers from other villages. The village's success in watershed development has now been replicated in 85 other villages in Maharashtra.

The 1,300 inhabitants of Hiware Bazar, also in Ahmednagar district, too, scripted their destiny differently since the 1990s when Mr Popatrao Pawar took over as village head.

Mr Pawar realised he could solve water scarcity and joblessness by having the village council start out with a van kshetra (local plantation) initiative that reimbursed farmers through the state's employment guarantee scheme for planting saplings of lemon, custard apple and tamarind trees. Spurred by the success, the council then marshalled the villagers in building trenches and earthen bunds, which transformed more than 1,000ha into a "watershed" of sorts.

Then there is 57-year-old Mr Rajendra Singh, known as the Water Man of India. The winner of the 2015 Stockholm Water Prize started out as an ayurveda practitioner. But as he wandered through his desert state of Rajasthan in the mid-1980s to set up health clinics, villagers told him their greatest need was water.

As wells dried up, crops wilted and rivers and trees disappeared, many able-bodied villagers left for cities in search for work.

Mr Singh galvanised support from the villagers in building a series of johads, or traditional earthen dams. Within the next two decades, he and his co-workers in Tarun Bharat Sangh (the India Youth Association) built 8,600 johads and other water-holding structures, re-introducing water to 1,000 villages across the state.

Sometimes, the best way to combat drought is not to build more mega dams, but to look for that groundswell of local initiatives.

  • The writer is the executive editor of Business India in Mumbai.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'India's draining issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe