India needs an ambitous programme on water optimisation (Opinion)

It is, indeed, ironic that, even after 62 years of self-rule, Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister of India, says an often-erratic annual wind phenomenon called the monsoon that switches its role rather easily between that of an angel and a devil, is the real holder of the portfolio and not he.

True, humans can do little when nature unleashes its fury, since the precipitation that comes with the welcome monsoon also often causes floods, kills hundreds and devastates entire villages, eating into a sizeable share of the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

But to say farmers have to do without water for their crops, rural folk have to walk miles to quench their thirst or urban street dwellers have to die of sun stroke as nature refused to shower her benevolence one year is something the government needs to sit up and think about.

What has been the progress thus far?

Fresh data shows that the contribution of India’s farm sector to its gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen below 15 percent for the first time, while that of trade, hospitality, transportation and communication is now the highest at 26.5 percent.

The share of manufacturing, basically India’s factory output, is 16.1 percent of GDP, that of community services – provided by the government at the federal, state and local levels – is 13 percent, while financial services accounts for 17.2 percent.

What do the figures reveal? That farming, a sector that accounts for around two-thirds of the country’s labour force – one of the youngest in the world and surely capable of much more – actually has a sub-15 percent contribution to India’s total output.

As economists will say the conversion of water to wealth is abysmally low in India.

So behind these numbers are some obvious but stark realities. India may flaunt its 7.4 percent growth, achieved in spite of the global downturn and near bankruptcies in some economies, and claim it is the best-managed economy in the world. But seen in the light of a mere 0.2 percent growth of the farm sector, it is a poor show of inclusiveness.

On this front, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did start on a promising note in 2004, with substantial hikes in outlays for rural India and a grand scheme that assures 100 days of labour in the hinterland.

But the larger issue remains unanswered, or at least ill-addressed.

The $16.5-billion farm loan waiver programme of 2008 won both accolades and criticism. Why the praise, we all know. But the critics pointed to a larger issue – a matter which the government needs to take seriously for the larger cause of food security.

That fact is farmers tend to take loans first to buy seeds and pay for the labour during the sowing season, and then to nourish the crop and and finally for their harvest, much like a company that goes for a mix of debt and equity for new projects as they progress.

But when monsoon does not bring rains, the investment by a farmer is sunk. He is unable to pay back the loan. And under duress, the situation even leads to preventable suicides. Who, or what, is to blame for this?

Media reports indicate that farmers’ suicides on account of their acute financial burden have mainly occurred in areas where there is little or no irrigation. These are areas where the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1970s and 1980s is yet to touch in a meaningful way.

So better seeds alone do not make a good crop. Water is the prime requirement for crops and so are proper nutrients.

Though late, yet in right earnest, the government finally woke up to the second key requirement of the farm sector – that of a nutrient-based fertiliser regime, which was unveiled in the federal budget for this fiscal.

This should help in restoring soil health, as farmers will have access to a wider basket of soil nutrients at cheaper prices. The earlier administration was biased towards urea, which was used indiscriminately, and actually caused soil infertility in many parts.

But that does not wish away the need for an ambitious programme on water, one addressing the needs of all three broad claimants – the people at large, the farming community and industry. Not that there are no solutions available.

India receives an annual rainfall of around 4,000 billion cubic metres, of which three-fourths comes during the four-and-a-half months of the monsoon season. Of this, only 1,100 billion cubic metres is actually utilised. The rest just flows away.

This can and must be harnessed. There is a proposal for interlinking of rivers and helping the flow of water from the abundant north to the scarcity-hit west and the south. While the estimated cost of $125 billion seems daunting, such schemes have been implemented in the US, Russia and China.

There are other proposals and methods as well, such as creating perennial water bodies, rainwater harvesting, incentives for conservation, reforestation along rivers to ensure proper flow and water percolation projects that can refill underground aquifers.

Only if these are taken up seriously can India enhance its area under crops and step up the grain output to the desired 380 million tonnes by 2025 from 230 million tonnes now, lest another finance minister say that monsoon and not he/she is the real claimant of the portfolio.

(Arvind Padmanabhan is executive editor-business of IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at arvind.p@ians.in and twitter.com/advaitik)

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