Water woes

Haryana’s decision to incentivise diversion of cropland from water-guzzling paddy to less water-consuming crops like maize, pulses and others is a welcome step towards mitigating the high-water footprint of its agriculture. Widespread rice cultivation is deemed the chief cause of rapid decline in groundwater in nearly 75 per cent of the state. Paddy, especially non-Basmati paddy, has not been the traditional crop of this inherently water-stressed state. It was introduced chiefly to meet the needs of the other food-deficit regions, most of which are now growing enough rice on their own. Haryana, therefore, need not expend its scarce water on cultivating non-Basmati rice, each kilogram of which takes a massive 3,000 to 3,500 litres of water to grow. The sops mooted to spur changes in cropping pattern include Rs 2,000 per acre as cash, free seeds of the alternative crops, full reimbursement of crop insurance premium and assured procurement of the output at the minimum support prices fixed by the Centre. 

Haryana, indeed, is not the only state that needs crop diversification of this kind to ensure sustainable use of water. Its adjoining areas of Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan, as also parts of southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra, need to modify their cropping systems to conserve water. Though, arguably, fiscal incentives-based crop diversification can worsen the already strained state finances, this burden would seem trivial when weighed against the consequences of inaction on this front. Going by the reckoning of the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, the lives and livelihood of millions of Indians are in jeopardy due to water deprivation. About 600 million people are already facing high to extremely high water stress and 200,000 of them die every year due to inadequate access to it. The consequential economic losses are anticipated by the NITI Aayog to mount to worth around 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050. 

Moreover, with business as usual, the demand of water is projected to surge to twice the availability by as early as 2030. The water level in about 54 per cent of wells across the country is receding at a worrisome pace due to withdrawals exceeding the annual recharge. Worse still, the quality of nearly 70 per cent of the available water is rather poor, thanks to rampant contamination, rendering it unfit for domestic uses and, in some cases, even for irrigation. Unsurprisingly, India ranks 120 among 122 countries in the global water quality index. 

The potential advantages of crop diversification, on the other hand, can be many. Apart from saving water, it can stave off the demand for power and diesel needed for running irrigation equipment. Besides, it can help improve environment by cutting down emissions of greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide which are spewed routinely from the flooded paddy fields and the smoke generated by burning paddy stubbles. Most importantly, inclusion of legumes (pulses) in the cropping systems can restore soil health by fixing nitrogen into it, thus diminishing the fertiliser requirement of the subsequent crops. It is, therefore, imperative to economise the use of water in agriculture through measures like crop diversifications, strict regulation of groundwater extraction and pricing water in accordance with its scarcity value.

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