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The micro-irrigation challenge

The Statesman
By Professor  

With the run-up time for this year’s assembly polls in several states contracting fast, and stage for the 2019 finals already in sight, the recent Union Budget attempted some ambitious allocations in the agriculture sector.

  
Over Rs 5,000 crore was allocated to micro-irrigation, up by 276 per cent from the UPA-II regime (2009-14) – long overdue in the backdrop of unprecedented crop failure in the past couple of years and burgeoning agrarian unrest with dire socio-economic ramifications.

   
This was a highly praiseworthy move indeed. Globally, most nations are now increasingly leaning to micro-irrigation-based strategies owing to huge water-energy savings leading to substantial economic gains on input.

  
A 2016 study by Grant Thornton India L.L.P., in collaboration with the Indian Agricultural Institute (IAI) and FICCI estimated that micro-irrigation can curtail current energy demand in the agriculture sector by about 30 per cent, and on fertilizer expenses by about 28 per cent, besides increasing opportunities of introducing newer crops.
But the million dollar question is, are the aspirations grounded in reality?

  
As a first reality check, the Thornton report suggests that at the current coverage rate – 0.5 million hectare/annum – it will take another 100 years to provide ‘nationwide’ micro-irrigation support.
Should the government wish to round it up by 2025, current coverage rate should be jacked up to about 2 million hectare/annum, and then keep raising it by at least 20 per cent on a year-on-year basis.
Is this achievable, given our current situation of extreme power-water shortage?

  
Recent releases of the International Energy Agency (IEA) project intense power shortages in India for coming decades, attributable largely to water shortage. Water is used as a coolant in coal-fired power plants.
With at least 19 states under acute water shortage (affecting livelihoods of 330 million people), functioning of these plants is becoming increasingly challenging, pitting in turn, nation’s power supply framework at the very core.

  
In 2016, there was nationwide loss of over seven billion units of power, as a recent Greenpeace report estimates. Several major power plants were forced to shut down, triggering widespread power supply crises and financial losses.

  
A FICCI report estimated that in 2013, power shortages cost 0.4 per cent of (USD 68 billion). In 2012 there was a loss of about 12,000 MW of power. With hydroelectric capacity strained to the limits due to reduced stream-flow, demand-supply imbalance kept surging owing to constant operation of air-conditioners and irrigation pumps. 

  
Dire electricity crunch – marked by aberrant voltage fluctuations, rampant pilferage (illegal diversions/conversions), lack of proper metering – are already major hitches to irrigation pumping in India, and by the same token, could be greatest obstacles to the aspirations for expanding micro-irrigation in the country.
Farmers tend to keep pumps turned on 24/7. Cases are known where the system has been automated so that pumping resumes as soon as electricity returns. Such actions deplete both electricity and groundwater resources.

  
As water-levels drop owing to aggressive withdrawal, in a vicious negative feedback loop, it demands for irrigation pumps run round the clock to tap deeper reserves, thus straining both power and water sector to the limits.

  
Eco-environmental challenges ensuing from growing dimensions of such water-energy nexus in the irrigation sector assumes added significance with severe drought alert in several states coupled with increasing land degradation-desertification interfering with daily livelihood opportunities of millions.

   
But apart from these technical challenges, there are policy concerns that need to be sorted out first. For example, micro-irrigation schemes have repeatedly changed outfits (or been ‘subsumed’ under multiple schemes) over time – beginning with the Centrally Sponsored Scheme on Use of Plastic in Agriculture (1992) and followed by Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program (AIBP, 1996); National Horticulture Mission (2005); Centrally Sponsored Scheme on Micro-Irrigation (2006); Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (2007), National Mission on Micro-Irrigation (NMMI, 2010); National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (2014) and finally to its present form, Pradhan Manti Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) in 2015.

  
The question is whether amidst merging and re-merging through the years, has the impact of micro-irrigation as a stand-alone programme been ‘diluted’? Opinions are emerging that such transitions may have kept us from desired level of capacity building – a dedicated team of professionals skilled/trained specifically to address micro-irrigation related demands (research and development), and/or systems to back it up by necessary IT support.

 
The latter is of utmost importance for having real-time monitoring of transactions and geo-tagging – two key elements for successful implementation of micro-irrigation projects.

  
Other hindrances include, (1) delays in subsidy disbursement in some states – largely because of approving installation of equipment when the funds for subsidy aren’t yet available, which often causes a shortage of funds, and in turn, delays in subsidy payments and uncertainty for the suppliers of micro-irrigation systems; (2) lack of widespread private financing in micro-irrigation projects (NITI Aayog only began inviting proposals from private sector in 2016); and (3) no ‘easy’ financing mechanism for farmers to adopt micro-irrigation, where collateral stays within the farmers’ means.

   
The last-mentioned issue raises questions on economic viability. Yet in India, like in many developing countries, micro-irrigation peripherals are quite expensive for the smallholding communities.
With effective farm-sizes diminishing and farm output/income depreciating, chances of nationwide adoption of micro-irrigation is limited by financial constraints of potential users. Under the PMKSY, there is now a 60:40 cost-sharing agreement between the government and farmers (90:10 in NE states). But is this enough?

   
Till now, micro-irrigation has been a tool for wealthier clans and with about 18 per cent GST on supplies, it has become more so in recent times. Moreover, for poorer farmers (smallholder and/or female-farmers or female-headed households), it is still unviable as government schemes and financial assistance programmes barely (if at all) cover re-procurement of equipment in the event of the sophisticated system becoming obsolete before the stipulated period of next assistance.

  
Added to this is lack in support for maintenance (for example, rodent attack on piping, pore-clogging) and operation.
Another challenge that seeks serious policy intervention is the ‘mismatch’ between timing of micro-irrigation supports available to the users, and seasonal cropping patterns.
Micro-irrigation schemes are yet not operational year-round (available for only five months on average), which means there are likely risks that farmers may miss peak of the cropping season, be unable to enjoy true benefits and thus, gradually become disinterested.

   
Overall, multidimensional challenges, ranging from negative corollaries between the water and energy sectors to lags in policy framework, tarnish future prospects of expansion of micro-irrigation network in India. Much depends on how best we can turn challenges into opportunities and come up with innovative solutions in the coming years.

   
Denominators of success may include thorough re-appraisal of farmers’ subsidy/credit schemes, especially ones targeted for micro-irrigation; capping central subsidies to states doing well while hiking them for those lagging behind; encourage private financing; increase support staff, both at central and state-level, and jack up IT support (a key propelling force for Haryana, AP, Gujarat and Maharashtra to make them national leaders in micro-irrigation), and make provisions for year-round operational support.
  
But first and foremost, attempts to subsume micro-irrigation schemes under other agrarian schemes should stop. It is time to realise the need to make micro-irrigation the core of future rural economic growth and developmental paradigms.