The rapid population growth and the resultant need to produce more food are putting strain on the already depleted water resources in India. From water conservation to improving water efficiency and boosting farm productivity, Ashok Sharma, MD and CEO, Mahindra Agri Solutions Ltd explains why micro-irrigation is the future of agriculture.
It’s the month of April. The summer is already hot but still not at its scorching worst. A train trundles into a special siding at the Latur Railway Station. Its arrival is eagerly anticipated. A crowd of people numbering hundreds has gathered to greet it. As the train, made up of ten tanker-carriages, rounds a bend and eases into sight through the shimmering heat haze, the crowd rises. A collective sigh of relief ripples through the gathering. That train is carrying water for the worst-hit areas of the parched, agrarian Marathwada region. It is ferrying hope.
The situation facing Marathwada highlights one unequivocal truth – water scarcity is real. With a growing population placing even greater strain on already depleted reserves, it’s only going to get worse.
India is already a water-stressed country. Going by the current rate of population growth and consumption trends, India, by as early as 2050, could be a waterscarce country. That means, if this prophecy of doom comes to pass, there will be less than 1000 cubic meters of water available per person in a year.
This scarcity of water poses a severe existential challenge to humanity in general. But it presents an all the more grave and immediate threat to regions like Marathwada that rely on agriculture.
Water is fundamental to agriculture. The sector consumes more than 80 percent of the total renewable water resources in India. What this means is that, given its irrigation needs, a scarcity of water will hit farming the hardest. Agriculture contributes 15 percent to India’s economy and supports the livelihoods of two-thirds of the country’s population. The scarcity of water to meet basic irrigation needs could have devastating and far-reaching consequences.
Marathwada is just one welldocumented example. Many more regions, once fertile food bowls, are at risk of drying out. The growing population and the resultant need to produce more food are in turn further depleting water resources
It’s a vicious circle and breaking agriculture out of it, through water conservation and management, is vital. But how do water conservation and a water intensive practice like farming fit together? The answer to striking this contradictory balance lies in micro-irrigation.
Micro Irrigation Only half of India’s cultivated farmland is irrigated. Yet, the predominant use of out-dated and inefficient flood irrigation methods means a lot of water is lost to leakage, seepage and evaporation. In fact, less than a third of the water used in flood irrigation directly benefits the crop, with the rest wasted.
Micro-irrigation cuts out such wastage, improves water efficiency and boosts farm productivity and thereby prosperity.
There are primarily two major micro-irrigation practices adopted in India – drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation. Drip irrigation uses a network of pipes to deliver water directly to the root zone of a crop while the sprinkler method uses sprinklers to simulate rainfall and irrigate a patch of farmland.
The irrigation method is determined by different crops and their differing water needs. While drip irrigation is naturally more efficient than sprinkler irrigation, which inevitably does result in a loss of water to evaporation, both methods are vastly more beneficial compared to traditional flood irrigation methods.
Micro-irrigation not only helps in saving water and improving water use efficiency by 30-40%, but it also enables farmers to improve the productivity and quality of their crop. Over the years, farmers have experienced an average increase of 40% in the productivity of fruit crops and 50% increase in the productivity of vegetable crops. By reducing electricity, fertilizer and nutrition consumption, and the labour required, it also ensures that the costs are cut down by around 30%. Increased productivity and reduced costs help the farmers earn more and this has a potential of contributing significantly to the government’s agenda of Doubling Farmers’ Income.
There are further benefits to adopting micro-irrigation beyond the quantifiable ones highlighted above. To begin with, microirrigation can free a farmer from the vagaries of the monsoon. Crops can be irrigated when they need to be and with the right amount of water thereby avoiding over-irrigation.
Micro-irrigation also helps preserve soil quality – where flood irrigation tends to wash away soil or results in salination which harms the soil rendering it barren over a period of time, micro-irrigation helps maintain soil fertility.
The targeted nature of the water delivery also limits the growth of weeds and protects crops from diseases. Furthermore, it can be implemented in uneven or hilly terrain, making previously uncultivable land fit for farming.
The potential for adoption of micro-irrigation is vast. Despite its obvious benefits, micro-irrigation is an underutilized method with a majority of farmers still reliant on traditional but outdated flood irrigation methods.
According to estimates micro irrigation can potentially be adopted on around 70 million hectares of farmland in India. Currently, only 7.7 million hectares, i.e., 11 percent of that potential has been realized. Given the benefits, the growth rate in the last 5 years has been rather low. Factors that can promote the adoption of micro irrigation include timely disbursal of subsidies, single window system (drawing from the successful Gujarat model) for creating awareness, sanctioning cases & disbursing subsidies and leveraging IT.
The opportunities and benefits of micro-irrigation are not lost on policymakers. For instance, the government of Maharashtra – the state in which Marathwada is located – is making a major push to introduce drip irrigation for waterintensive crops, like sugarcane, in the next three years.
Companies and business houses, too, are taking the lead. For example, our micro irrigation company, EPC Industries Ltd. has been a pioneer in India. Our products, which include drip and sprinkler-irrigation systems, are assisting farmers in this journey, moving us closer to our vision of Delivering FarmTech Prosperity by equipping farmers with cost effective technology. Not just that, we are registered as the first CDM (Clean development mechanism) project in the industry by the UNFCC. We are saving more than 9 Billion Litres of water thereby making the entire Mahindra group water positive.
I would conclude by saying that the joint effort by government and industry is helping overcome the lack of awareness and misconception about its cost that has held back the spread of micro-irrigation and is spurring its adoption. We need to keep up this concerted push. Time is still on our side. We must work to transform parched farmland back into the prosperous food bowls they should be. Our future rests on it. (Views expressed by the author are personal.)