India has a worrying water crisis.
In over a billion people, nearly half of us face some stress due to water scarcity. This is not all. Do you know that almost 200 000 people die because of this water issue in our country? While we struggle with water, it is interesting to note that India is also the world’s largest virtual water exporter. Now, what is virtual water? While we do not explicitly export water, we ship a lot of commodities that use water. Entities such as textiles, such as crops, and machines that use water, So when we export these commodities, we are also exporting millions of water gallons.
Now, this does not make sense. How are we exporting water and at the same time having such a profound water crisis? Now virtual water aside, let us talk about the relationship between agriculture and the water crisis. Now it is only logical to conclude that because of the water crisis, agriculture is adversely affected. However, it is interesting to note that it is the other way around – that is why the water crisis exists as it is today in India because of agriculture.
For this, we must know what groundwater is. Groundwater is the water that is stored in the spaces and cracks of the soil. 90% of India’s groundwater is used only by agriculture; let us compare it with the US numbers. In the US, only 64 percent of groundwater is used by agriculture. The remaining portion of groundwater is used for drinking water purposes. It is also used for industrial purposes, and it is used to replenish water bodies such as lakes and rivers.
How come 90% of the groundwater is used by agriculture?
In the majority of the farmlands in India, the crops grown are water-guzzling crops. Now, what is the meaning of a water-guzzling crop? Put these are crops that consume a lot of water. Primarily in India, water-guzzling crops include rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton. So what is the problem in growing these crops? after all, aren’t these crops necessities? Yes, while these crops are essential, these crops are grown in numbers that exceed the demand.
Furthermore, a lot of these water-guzzling crops are grown in drought-prone areas. Take, for instance, the cultivation of sugarcane in drought-prone Maharashtra. Sugarcane is a water-guzzling crop. In a hectare of land, sugarcane consumes 22.5 million water liters over a growing period of 14 months.
Still, despite sugarcane being a water-guzzling crop grown in drought-prone Maharashtra, its cultivation has only skyrocketed. This happened since the cooperative movement of sugar started gaining traction in Maharashtra. A lot of mills (owned mainly by politicians) started cropping up across the state.
Since policymakers controlled these mills, mills had every incentive to produce sugar as they felt safe. They did not have to fear a law or a policy passed that would clamp down sugar production. Now it’s not only mill owners that had an incentive to produce sugar. Even farmers had every incentive to cultivate sugarcane because sugarcane is a lazy man’s crop for the simple reason that it is easy to maintain. While it’s being developed, it can weather heavy rains, and it is least prone to pest attacks. So since these mills had every reason to make money off sugar production and farmers found it favorable to grow sugarcane, this water-guzzling crop continued to be cultivated in Maharashtra.
Noted here that it is not like policymakers turned a completely blind eye towards this problem. It did enforce policies to conserve water.
For example, they outlawed the practice of flood irrigation and enforce the way of drip irrigation. They also issued a five-year ban on the sanctioning of new sugar mills. They also encourage farmers to grow other crops by giving them cheap loans to help them. But the government did not intentionally discourage farmers from growing these water-guzzling crops in these drought-prone areas. Unless this happens, this approach will continue as this approach makes more money for the mill owners and the farmers. Now it’s not just the case with Maharashtra. Take, for instance, Haryana. Haryana grows another water-guzzling crop – rice.
Over the last 20 years, Haryana’s water table has reduced by 100 meters, and in those specific regions, which grow rice, the water table has diminished by one meter per year. However, Haryana’s government has tried to encourage farmers to grow other crops by offering incentives such as a cash dole of rupees 2000, free seeds, and the assurance of a minimum support price. Many farmers are reluctant to shift because they fear they may not make the same as they drive from rice cultivation. So unless the government works with farmers to dismantle the system of growing water-guzzling crops in drought-prone areas and help farmers see an alternative, we won’t solve the water crisis plaguing India.