We must break ‘lock-ins’ of water usage in agriculture

Source: The post is based on the article “We must break ‘lock-ins’ of water usage in agriculture” published in the Livemint on 11th November 2022.  

Syllabus: GS 3 – different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage.

Relevance: About breaking India’s lock-ins of water usage.

News: The annual United Nations climate conference is underway in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The conference has entire days devoted to two crucial sectors agriculture and water. We must enable farmers to make choices that improve their earnings while helping them reduce their demand for water.

Water ‘lock-ins’ are among the factors that prevent progress in reducing water usage. So, lock-ins surrounding the use of water in agriculture must be tackled.

About the water crisis in India

India’s current system is focused towards growing high water-using and energy-intensive crops. The Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) estimates that over 60% of irrigation in India is done through groundwater.

As of 2015, there were about 20 million pump sets using energy in India. Hence, the agricultural sector accounts for about 20-22% of total electricity consumption.

About lock-ins of water usage in India

Lock-ins dictate how farmers choose their crops, irrigate their fields and use energy. When generations of farmers follow certain patterns of behaviour in terms of crop choices or cultivation practices, it is hard for them to break out of it.

Most of the water is used to grow water-intensive crops like paddy. Almost a quarter of India’s net cultivable area is under rice cultivation. It is predominantly grown in the Punjab-Haryana belt. This is because there is less risk associated with such crops, given their large-scale procurement by the government at minimum support prices (MSPs).

Why breaking lock-ins of water usage is challenging?

There are many reasons for lock-ins that are carbon and water intensive.

a) Physical infrastructure in terms of cold storage, granaries and markets have all been set up to support current crop choices. New crops would require new supply chains that may be expensive to set up, b) Conventional agricultural methods have developed over centuries based on specific skills and expertise. Shifting to new methods of farming would need additional investments in capacity, c) Consumption patterns are based on crops that are currently grown. For instance, rice and wheat continue to dominate Indian kitchens. Adapting to less water-intensive crops such as millets will take time, even if there are nutritional benefits and d) The Indian farm sector displays siloed ways of thinking and working.

How India can break lock-ins of water usage?

1) Different government ministries and departments need to work in conjunction at the policy design stage to solve complex challenges that span sectors. For instance, India needs to assess changes in farmers’ energy consumption with green technologies, increase farmers’ income and also achieve less water use.

2) Changes required from production to consumption: Due to insufficient demand, the Haryana government’s introduction of maize in the MSP system has failed to divert farmers from rice and wheat cultivation.  So, the government has to create an ecosystem for farms to transition as done by Odisha’s Millet Mission.

Under the Odisha Millet Mission, the Odisha government ensured the complete procurement of millets, ensured its distribution, and encouraged the consumption of millets at local levels through Public Distribution System (PDS), Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and even the Midday Meal Scheme at schools.

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