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Hard Row to Hoe: Why the Farmers' Cost of Irrigation Needs Serious Attention in India

In the middle of a water crisis, as agricultural production faces the test of an economic slowdown, the changes in number of land holdings by fragmentation and irrigated area could have economic consequences for the small and marginal land holding farmers.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:August 27, 2019, 8:43 AM IST
Hard Row to Hoe: Why the Farmers' Cost of Irrigation Needs Serious Attention in India
Image for representation. (Reuters)

New Delhi: The current state of Indian agriculture theoretically explains a scenario where land holdings are getting fragmented, thereby creating more land owners who, in turn, are irrigating their lands.

According to Phase 2 data of agricultural census 2025-16, total land holding area, net sown area and net cultivated area in the country has reduced. But more number of people are buying land for agricultural production, while uncultivated land area has increased.

Similarly, net irrigated land area in the country has also increased over the past five years. There has been a 12 per cent increase in the number of holdings receiving irrigation. Wholly irrigated holdings in the country have also risen by 5.14 per cent over the past five years — a nominal figure given the number of people and land area involved in farm activities.

In the middle of a water crisis, as agricultural production faces the test of an economic slowdown, the changes in number of land holdings by fragmentation and irrigated area could have economic consequences for the small and marginal land holding farmers. They form nearly 86 per cent of all farmers in the country.

Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer rights activist, told News18 that the increasing practice of fragmenting land as inheritance within families working in agriculture could make things worse. He said for the 80-85 per cent land in the country used for agriculture, arranging for irrigation, causes a disruption in their economies of scale.

“Many small and marginal farmers owning land less than two hectares do not own consolidated land. Some farmers have lands next to one another, while some own them in patches, away from each other. Either way, a majority of Indian farmers use ground water for irrigation. Now a small farmer with less than one hectare has to bare the same cost as a farmer owning large land to install a bore well. That farmer will not be able to balance the cost of production,” he added.

What Mann takes note of must be looked at from the point of view of the Narendra Modi government’s push to double farmer income. Given the imbalance that only the cost of water puts on the farmer, the agriculture sector may face further scrutiny. Experts warn of increasing farmer suicides given the trends of land owning patterns and access of irrigation facilities.

Devinder Sharma, a distinguished food and trade policy analyst, an award-winning Indian journalist on food and trade policy, told News18 that five per cent increase in the net area under irrigation is a bleak sign for growth of farmers.

“The increase in irrigated area in the country over five years is negligible. It tells how inefficiently our systems work for the agriculture sector. The government has always been saying that we are expanding irrigation, but if it has only increased by five per cent, more needs to be done here,” he said.

In many states, farmers often enter into an arrangement of irrigation wherein the cost of water is shared between two or more farmers, or two or more farm lands. However, this practice does not always come to be true. Without a cost-sharing mechanism, the small and marginal farmer has no choice but to bear the entire burden.

Besides increasing economic burden, fragmented land holding practices also lead to exploitation of groundwater, if there are no checks on the installation of groundwater drawing systems.

“In Punjab, 27 per cent of irrigated water comes from the surface water of streams, while the rest is pumped out of the ground. There are 14.5 lakh tube wells in the state. If producing 1 kg of paddy takes 5,400 litres of water, imagine the amount of water being pumped out of the aquifers as the number of tube wells increases,” the farmer activist reasoned.

News18 spoke to Rakesh Kumar Bains of the Bharatiya Kisan Union to get the ground report on the fragmentation of land and irrigation practices in Haryana. Bains said that while the practice of sharing a source of water for agricultural purposes saves farmers a lot of money, it is not a common practice across the state.

“The state has very limited means of accessing water via canal irrigation. Most of the irrigation water comes from rainfall or groundwater using tube wells. Farmers use water sprinklers or drip irrigation. The area under Kurukshetra, Ambala, Panchkula, Yamunanagar and Karnal in Haryana is completely dependent on groundwater. Some parts of Hisar use canal water, but the rest have to spend at least Rs 4.5 lakh to install a tube well,” he said.

In fact, this crisis of increasing costs has much to do with how irrigation and agricultural policies are framed in India. Mann told News18 that making agricultural policies vis a vis the United States or any other western country is a deeply flawed method because of the distinct realities of both the countries.

“In the USA, the average land holding size is 344 acres, while it is only 1.08 acres in India. The more land is fragmented, more the negative affect on the farmer's economies of scale. If our farmers had more consolidated land, farming could have been a profitable business,” he said, pointing to the need for a comprehensive exercise of taking stock of our own.

“In the previous Agriculture Census, the number of hand pumps, tube wells etc. were mentioned were counted. But the new census has not shown any such data yet,” he added.

Nevertheless, the ground reality is far distant and different from the policy approach the country has taken towards agriculture. Suresh Kuthi of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti has been working with farmers for decades now. He said, “Having a small farm is possibly the worst thing ever to happen to a farmer.”

“Without water there is no crop. Every farmer, even if by means of loan, arranges money for groundwater. They say the number of lands accessing irrigated water from canals has increased. But what has actually increased is the use of khara water (brine) for agriculture because a farmer is unable to meet the costs of affording clean water. This bad drainage water is often labelled as irrigated water. The crop produced by bad water often fails,” he added.

“Those farmers who wish to have clean water for their crops, take loans to install tube wells. Even before the farmer is able to sell his produce, he is under the economic burden of procuring clean water.”

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