When Punjab exported 18 million tonnes of surplus wheat and rice in 2003-04, it actually exported 55.5 trillion litres of water as well. The focus on exports and the shift to cash crop cultivation will come at a huge social and environmental cost as India's water crisis worsens
An Australian TV journalist asked me the other day: "Rice farmers in India are drilling millions of tubewells in a desperate search for water. Isn't such over-exploitation of groundwater going to lead to a catastrophic situation in the years to come?"
The question was loaded. And coming from an Australian journalist whose own country has been in the grip of a serious drought for six consecutive years, it clearly showed that water has become a major global problem. Indeed, the magnitude of the emerging water crisis is such that it transcends national borders, even continents.
It's not only rice farmers who are to blame. While rice farmers in India consume around 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of rice, Australian farmers cannot shrug off their role in groundwater exploitation by saying that they do not produce much rice. Australia is a major beef-producing nation; studies show that 1 kilo of beef requires 70,000 litres of water.
If you are rearing cattle only for milk, you use over 900 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk. Wheat requires about 3,168 litres of water for 1 kilo of the golden grain. Globally, 1,000 tonnes of water are required to produce 1 tonne of grain.
Take wheat and rice -- the most common cropping pattern followed in irrigated regions of the country. Both require a little over 8,000 litres of water a year to produce 1 kilo each of wheat and rice. A huge waste of water resources, you might say; now you know why the groundwater table has been steadily dropping.
Many people are of the opinion that we need to urgently change our cropping patterns. Policymakers and business houses have begun telling farmers to shift from wheat and rice to cash crops. Shift to cotton, sugarcane or cut flowers, they say. Somehow it is presumed that shifting to these crops will ease the country's water crisis.
What industry is not telling the nation is that the alternatives they are suggesting will suck groundwater supplies dry in a very short time. Irrigated cotton alone consumes as much water as is required by wheat and rice. The water requirement for sugarcane is four times greater; cut-flower cultivation demands 20 times more water than cotton!
First, the induction of Green Revolution technology and high-yielding crop varieties resulted in more groundwater being mined. Small farmers drilled over 22 million tubewells hundreds of metres below the earth's surface. This caused the water table to plummet to alarming levels. What's more, chemical inputs-based technology has seriously degraded soil quality.
With water-guzzling crops (hybrids and Bt cotton) sucking aquifers dry, agriculture in India has all but collapsed. Farmers are drawing around 200 cubic km of groundwater every year. And not even a fraction of this is being put back into our groundwater reserves.
Instead, the ministry of agriculture has been unabashedly advocating crop diversification, mostly of cut flowers. Tamil Nadu is the latest among the states to urge farmers to share in the US$ 40 billion global floriculture trade. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have already done so. Sops are being announced to attract farmers to cultivate roses, carnations, gerbera and other flowers, with state governments offering attractive financial packages including subsidies, technical backstopping, extensions and post-harvest management support.
What the ministry does not tell them is that cut flower cultivation will hasten the process of water depletion, leading to desertification. Rose cultivation requires, on average, about 212 acre inches (212 inches of water, for an acre of land).
Let us look at the damage that's already been done. In Punjab, the food bowl of the nation, of the 138 development blocks, 108 have already been declared 'dark zones'. Levels of groundwater exploitation here have been in excess of 98%, against the critical limit of 80%. In Uttar Pradesh, the Central Ground Water Board has identified 22 overexploited and critical blocks of which 19 are located in western Uttar Pradesh (the sugarcane belt). Similarly, of the 53 semi-critical blocks identified, 28 are located in western Uttar Pradesh. The water table has already plummeted to a level that makes agriculture here an unviable proposition.
Faulty cropping patterns are a major contributor to India's water crisis. All these years, dryland regions which comprise nearly 75% of the total cultivable area have been sown with hybrid crop varieties. But while crop yields from these varieties were undoubtedly high, they also guzzled huge quantities of water.
For the sake of comparison, let us take the example of rice. High-yielding varieties of rice normally require about 5,000 litres of water, on dryland, to produce 1 kilo of rice. Commonsense tells us that the rice varieties cultivated on dryland regions of the country should be those that require less water. Instead, the opposite has happened. A large proportion of cultivable dryland is being sown with hybrid rice varieties that demand a lot of water -- around 7,000 litres for 1 kilo of grain.
Strange that in Punjab, which has assured irrigation, only high-yielding varieties of rice are grown that require relatively less water. In rainfed parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, hybrid rice varieties that use up roughly twice the amount of water than in Punjab are grown abundantly.
And it's not just rice hybrids, all kind of hybrid varieties that require more water -- whether it is sorghum, maize, cotton, bajra or vegetables -- are promoted in dryland regions. In addition, agricultural scientists have misled farmers into believing that drylands are hungry for chemical fertilisers. Add to this the thrust on contract farming, which also requires greater chemical inputs, and India's drylands will soon become barren.
With the plummeting water table, the impact of deficient rainfall will become more pronounced, forcing farmers to abandon agriculture and migrate. This is what normally leads to famines.
We encourage cash crop farming because we want farmers to earn more from international trade. But this makes sense only if crops (including food crops) are being hydroponically cultivated in the Indian Ocean! To produce crops for export defies any sensible logic. A former vice-chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala, Dr S S Johl, puts it more succinctly. He says that when Punjab exported 18 million tonnes of surplus wheat and rice in 2003-04, it actually exported 55.5 trillion litres of water. Feeding this surplus grain to the domestic population obviously makes sense, but exporting vast quantities of scarce water to foreign countries comes at a huge social and environmental cost.
Commerce Minister Kamal Nath would like to turn a deaf ear to Dr Johl's wise words. He is happy reiterating in Parliament that the speedy resolution of the World Trade Organisation's Doha Development Round will boost agricultural exports. Unfortunately, the gains in trade are not being measured in terms of India's water crisis. The cost of production of wheat and rice (and other crops) does not include the cost of water. If the 5,000 litres of water required to produce 1 kilo of rice were to be measured as input costs, rice would be priced beyond the reach of even Mukesh Ambani and Sunil Mittal!
The urgent need, therefore, is to come up with a cropping pattern based on the availability of groundwater and surface water irrigation. Instead of considering grandiose schemes like the US$ 200 billion riverlinking scheme, the aim should be to draw up a balance sheet for agriculture linked to water availability. Britain also considered riverlinking as a solution to its water crisis, but dropped the idea when it realised it would not serve the purpose.
In India, riverlinking is being pushed in the name of ushering in a second Green Revolution. A similar grandiose irrigation scheme, the Sharada Sahayak Irrigation Network, was launched some years ago in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The region is still waiting for its green revolution... The same will be said about India's flawed plan to link its rivers.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India's latest report on Gujarat points to the shape of things to come. The report, for the period ending March 31, 2006, shows that the bulk of the water from the Sardar Sarovar Project meant for drought-prone villages in Kutch has been diverted to non-drought-prone areas of the region and to industry in Gandhinagar. The most glaring diversion is of 255 million litres per day to Gandhinagar, which was not covered under the master plan.
It's no use stressing popular water conservation schemes without first taming industry. Few people know that producing 1 tonne of steel requires around 1 lakh litres of water. And that each golf course (and there are nearly two dozen in Delhi) consumes as much water every day as would have met the daily requirements of 18,000 middle-class households. What's the use of saving water in the parched and arid lands of Rajasthan if we allow the marble industry, which produces almost 91% of all India's marble, to guzzle around 2.75 million litres of water every hour? No wonder the majestic lakes of Rajasthan have all gone dry.
But does anyone care?
It is easy to blame the politicians and policymakers. What we forget is that all of us are responsible for the current water crisis. As long as we don't look beyond the statistics and analyses that appear in the newspapers, we too are part of the conspiracy of silence.
InfoChange News & Features, June 2007