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Punjab: Less Water, More Money (Part 1)

punjabIn an earlier blog, I highlighted the story of declining groundwater in many parts of India. This story is one of agricultural intensification and widespread groundwater pumping, facilitated by highly subsidized or free electricity. As the Government of India sought food security for the nation, it promoted the procurement of rice and wheat from the state of Punjab at guaranteed prices. Farmers switched to these crops, even though, climatologically, rice, given its water use, is not well-suited to this region. This, in combination with the nearly free electricity, has led to progressive groundwater depletion. The districts of central Punjab are now listed as “overexploited” by the Central Groundwater Board. Many hand pumps that were set up for rural drinking water supply are no longer operational.

Declining groundwater tables are problematic, not only because they stem from inefficient use of energy and water, but also because they can lead to the loss of a buffer during critical periods of drought, cause potential social inequity (as marginal, less wealthy farmers lose out first in the race to the bottom of the well), risk irreversible pollution of the whole groundwater supply, and lead to the dying off of shallow rooted natural vegetation. There are a number of possible routes to take in tackling this situation. This will be a three-part series of posts aimed at discussing three such activities:

Part 1: Energy subsidy reform

Part 2: Direct seeding of rice in Punjab

Part 3: Crop-choice changes, made on the individual farmer level

Energy Subsidy Reform

The success of the Green Revolution in India was made possible through the use of subsidy programs which introduced plant-breeding science, scaled up supply chains of agrochemicals, mobilized a grass-roots agriculture extension effort, and ensured minimum support prices. The combination of these programs dramatically changed the agricultural climate of the country. Production of wheat in India, for example, doubled from 1966 to 1976, and doubled yet again in the 10 years following. On the flip side of this success-story, however, the same subsidies that revolutionized the country’s agriculture have also created a system which lacks incentive to exercise efficiency in water and energy use.

Water use, in India, is intricately linked with energy use. Irrigation is necessary in most parts of the country to ensure a level of productivity that maximizes crop yield, and requires energy to get the water from groundwater storage up to the surface level. As it stands now, farmers have access to basically free electricity. The problem, however, is that the electricity is not available reliably 24 hours a day. Farmers cannot count on getting the electricity required to pump water for irrigation when they need it, and so the common practice is to leave the pumps on constantly and over-irrigate. This current subsidy structure, in which farmers pay virtually nothing for either water or the electricity needed to pump water from groundwater wells, encourages waste, groundwater depletion and a lack of investments in water saving.

Energy subsidy reform is needed to reduce profligate groundwater pumping.

A movement to end or change this system of subsidized energy is politically sensitive, since populist politicians tend to shy away from measures that have the perception of reducing access to the rural constituency. It is interesting, though, that in our field visits and interviews in India, none of the farmers we talked to were in favor of the free electricity for pumping. They express a willingness to pay for metered use, provided that the electricity supply available is reliable. We hope that our farmer surveys and work with the Punjab Agricultural University and the Punjab Farmers Commission will facilitate the development and implementation of a reform that is both politically feasible and consistent with a better water use trajectory.

Continue reading Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.

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14 years ago

[…] week, I began the story of declining groundwater tables in India. I talked about the current system of subsidized energy, […]

14 years ago

[…] the previous weeks, I began the story of declining groundwater tables in India. In the first post, I talked about the current system of subsidized energy, the need to change it, and the willingness […]

Shilp Verma
Shilp Verma
14 years ago

Universal metering of agricultural pumps is theoretically desirable but practically not very feasible. I am a bit surprised to hear about farmers wanting to shift to meters. I guess the rider “provided that the electricity supply available is reliable” is more complex than it appears. Farmers need 20-24 hours power supply on 20-30 days in a year. For the rest of the year, they can live with much less. The electricity boards, on the other hand, deliver 6-8 hours of unreliable supply everyday, leading to wastages, losses and discontent.

Flat rates / per-HP rates were promoted with the objective of benefiting the water buyers. A high flat tariff would encourage a pump owner to sell more hours of irrigation service to neighboring farmers to recover the fixed costs. However, given the political sensitivity of the tariff, flat rates have been difficult to revise upwards and as a result water selling rates (Rs/Hr) have been sticky and over-irrigation rampant.

Gujarat seems to be at the forefront in understanding and managing the “energy-irrigation nexus”. The recent “Jyotigram Yojana”, although publicized as a scheme to provide 24-hour power supply to village households (to appeal to larger masses) has a smart hidden objective – to check electricity pilferage in agriculture. As a result, Gujarat has moved from a scenario where the Gujarat Electricity Board (GEB) provided dwindling hours of unreliable and poor quality power to farmers TO 8 hours of good quality power supply everyday, as per a pre-announced schedule and this has certainly gained currency among the farmers.

Gujarat has also managed to un-bundle and reform the GEB, which has, since the past few years turned from running losses to making operating profits. It seems Gujarat can offer several useful lessons for other states…