Innovative Methods Required to Deal with ‘Deficient Monsoon’

By Ramesh Raja
In Agriculture
July 23, 2015

Deficient MonsoonEver wondered why does the prediction of a scarce monsoon send the same wave of fear across India as it would in pre-historic era? The answer is simple: The profession of agriculture has not changed for almost 40 per cent of the population and it  continues tobe their mainstay. The majority of populace is still dependent on the four-month South-West monsoon that accounts for nearly 75 per cent of the country’s total rainfall and which plays a crucial role as over 60 per cent of the area sown is still rain-fed. India gets nearly 53 per cent of its agricultural produce from the kharif season (June-September) compared to the rabi season (November-February), where the production is around 47 per cent. The impact of the monsoon is also crucial for rabi crops as it has an impact on the ground water and also reservoirs which are critical for rabi crops irrigation.

Agriculture contributes some 14 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country and any deviation from the normal progress or distribution invariably has a direct impact on the agricultural output and a cascading  effect on the overall economy, food inflation and therefore, consumer spending. When rain-dependent farm output is robust, rural income and therefore spending on almost everything – television sets to gold – goes up. This creates demand for manufactured goods, which in turn helps the general economy. For instance, 48 per cent of all motorcycles and 44 per cent of TV sets are sold in rural India. Without this demand, industrial growth would slow down. Normal rains, hence, act as a strong check on inflation through plentiful food stocks.

While a good monsoon always means a good harvest and brings in cheers all around India, a weak or bad monsoon is always considered as a big setback to India’s economy and always results in a significant deceleration in the country’s GDP growth. Now wonder Indian economy is often called the ‘monsoon economy’. The monsoon not only acts as a controller of prices of primary articles such as food grains, etc. but also impacts industrial production with nearly 40 per cent of the raw-material coming from the farm sector. Dr Arvind Panagariya, vicechairman of the Niti Aayog, feels it’s not just the farmers who get impacted, deficient rains rather have a domino effect on the entire economy. “Fast-moving consumer goods, consumer durables,
consumer staples, food/beverages, tobacco, prescription drugs and consumer discretionary spends, all draw sustenance from rural income. That’s why it is critical that India devise ways to reduce its dependence on the monsoons,” Panagariya opines.

Expanding irrigation cover is a tough task, however. It requires huge investment on the part of the government as private capital is not going to get involved in a signifi cant way because building canals demands long lock-in period for capital and offers very low returns. Even though private investment in agriculture has increased, but it has not come in irrigation projects. The composition of agri investments in recent years reveals that while the investment in agriculture grew from 7.5 per cent of the  investment in 2004-05 to 7.7 per cent in 2013-14, the share of government declined from 6.7 to 4.7 per cent, while that of the private sector increased from 7.8 to 8.6 per cent. The declining government investment in agriculture is the reason behind increasing vulnerability of farmers to water scarcity. The irony is that in all these years government did spend money on irrigation projects but not as much as needed and in usual inefficient manner. Between 2004 and 2014, the central government provided over Rs 53,000 crore to states for irrigation projects, but out of 297 projects, 163 were running delayed, including some for over 20 years.

Farmers have no other option but to turn to pumping groundwater out through tubewells. In 1990-91,  the share of tubewells in all irrigation was 30 per cent which jumped to 45 per cent in 2011-12. In 1960-61, tubewells contributed just 1 per cent to irrigation. Canal irrigation, on the other hand, declined from 36 per cent in 1990-91 to 25 per cent in 2011-12. But, this does not mean that the tubewell dependent farmer is untouched by a failure of monsoon, as his expenditure on buying water from tubewell owners shoots up manifold in the absence of rain. It may be noted that most small  and marginal farmers do not own pump sets and tubewells and have to buy water from bigger agrarians.

There are other ways in which economy is taking a larger hit because of lack of irrigation. For instance, farm productivity is much lower in rain-fed cultivation. A rain fed farm produces one to two tons per hectare for foodgrains compared to up to four tons that an irrigated piece of land yields. As per Kapil Dev Sharma, formerly with the National Rainfed Authority of India, it is not necessary to just build canals. Very small interventions, like lined ponds, can also go a long way. Over 27 million hectares (Mha) land can be provided water through supplemental irrigation by building such ponds that cost only Rs 18,500 per hectare.

Even though weather predictions remain a tricky business, many experts forecast that erratic monsoons are here to stay in the years to come. As such, there is an urgent need for a relook at our approach towards water management. The Modi government has already confirmed its urgency by kick-starting an ambitious project linking 14 rivers from the Himalayas and 16 across the Indian peninsula. This will facilitate bringing water from areas with plentiful of water to others afflicted by scarcity. This should be coupled with innovative and imaginative use of technology and research for conservation of groundwater and better crop planning. The Centre and the states must join hands to ensure the benefits of research reach farmers.

The grim situation, which occurs every other year, also displays the significance of making agriculture in India more drought-resistant and increasing agricultural water use efficiency to produce ”more crop per drop.” The Centers for International Projects Trust is one such institute that seeks to design and implement water solutions in some of the country’s most challenging settings. Affiliated with the Columbia Water Center at the Earth Institute, the center has undertaken various low cost technological innovations to reduce the amount of water used for the production of rice and wheat. In central Punjab, the CIPT and Punjab Agricultural University worked with 8,000 farmers to achieve a 12-15 per cent reduction in water use through the use of low-cost tensiometers, a tool used to measure the moisture content of the soil. These savings also correspond to a reduction in energy usage for groundwater extraction. It now plans to introduce a new, easy to- use and low-cost soil moisture sensor that will inform farmers when to irrigate their fields.

Likewise, in Gujarat, the CIPT has been pilot testing the use of GW-11 variety of wheat with farmers in the Mehsana district. GW-11 is drought resistant and produces yields that are comparable to the traditional variety of wheat. The GW-11 variety requires less irrigation than traditional wheat. The low-cost innovation not only reduces water usage in agriculture but also makes farmers less vulnerable to climate variability, especially relating to the monsoon season. Simple solutions like these have the potential to save significant quantities of water and may lead to higher growth in agricultural production. In order to cut down its monsoon dependency, the country must tap into a well-developed irrigation infrastructure during times of deficient rain.

The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has warned in a recent report that Asian countries need to update their run-down irrigation systems if they wish to meet the challenge of feeding an extra 1.5 billion people by 2050. India would be the biggest stakeholder in the scenario painted by the IWMI largely because only an abysmal 30 per cent of all agricultural land in India is irrigated. Experts say due to overdue government policies, productivity on existing land hasn’t been optimised as much as it should have been. Moreover, with the changing profile of the monsoons (short cloudbursts rather than a long spell of rains), the long dry periods in between heighten the danger of flooding and unexpectedly, drought also. According to a 2013 World Bank report, the ghost of drought remains a very real one. Between 2002-2012, three major droughts hit the country with the last one shaving off half a percentage point from the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Most economists believe
that high dependence on monsoon, mainly because of inadequate investment in irrigational infrastructure, combined with its inability to augment productivity of food grain is choking agricultural growth. As per Dr Rajeswari S. Raina, principal scientist, Council for Scientifi c Research, New Delhi, India needs a clear policy on rainfed agriculture.

“Our research needs to be strengthened in the area of agronomy to study the frequency and seasonality of rains and how that knowledge can be transmitted to help the farmer. Right now, all our research is focused on fertilisers and how they can enhance productivity but we need to broaden our focus to make India a food-secure nation,” he opines. The government needs to look at strategic ways to help farmers. “Rather than doling seeds and fertiliser subsidies, as is the norm, farmers should be educated  about the latest techniques in rainwater harvesting so that water can be captured, stored, and distributed more effectively during lean periods. Easier access to microfinance to provide small loans to farmers can also be transformative,” Raina explains.
These innovative methods can put a smile on every farmer’s face and go a long way in reducing the country’s unhealthy dependence on monsoons. Hope this year’s monsoon that got off to a good start after a slightly delayed onset brings good news for India in days to come.