Beyond individual parties, the recently concluded assembly elections in five states witnessed the triumph of loan-waiver promises and financial support for farm inputs.
This owed itself, in whatever part, to several farmers-protests over the last six months, all in an effort to bring their crisis to the forefront of electoral politics. And it paid off, at least to the extent that all parties are sure to court farmers and their votes in the coming months.
Beyond offering these sops, politicians have also focused on major irrigation projects, but seldom in an effort to secure farming systems. India’s farm economy can be sustained only if its groundwater distress is properly assessed and ecological solutions implemented.
These haven’t been done, rendering the government’s peace-offerings nothing more than that.
The farm crisis is more serious in ecologically fragile regions, which are drought-prone, witness high temperatures with poor irrigation facilities and depend chiefly on groundwater irrigation. And it only become worse with climate change. In effect, politicians have to factor the global implications of the problems in their backyard into their manifestoes and promises.
Parties need to propose better schemes. For example, loan waivers may seem appealing they don’t benefit farmers with small holdings and those who don’t have complete ownership of their agricultural land. Instead, politicians can initiate schemes at the watershed level, through local institutions like the gram panchayat. Such schemes can be aimed at improving soil fertility, soil moisture, organic content, arrest degradation, reducing flash floods and manage pest impact.
A lot of farmers are indebted because of failing wells and falling groundwater levels, especially in the absence of a sustainable groundwater management policy. Moreover, the economic value of groundwater in food production hasn’t been assessed yet.
One reason for this is that the irrigation ministry seems obsessed only with engineering structures, and the science of groundwater hydrology has been neglected. For example, India is the world’s largest extractor of groundwater but doesn’t have a reliable database on the wells in the country nor a record of how much groundwater are used by different crops.
Since it’s impossible to physically consolidate small land holdings, the government should recognise an alternative model of consolidation of underground aquifer systems. Politicians also need to be pressured to restore well-based irrigation systems by guaranteeing some changes.
- Recognise wells as the principle source of irrigation
- Create an exclusive ministry for ‘groundwater management’
- Assess groundwater’s contribution to India’s GDP (in economic terms) and create appropriate investment programmes to manage it
- Prioritise groundwater use exclusively for food production, drinking water and for animals
- Implement a national groundwater census, place its data in the public domain and incentivise stakeholders to protect it against abuse and contamination
- Formulate technical specifications for different types of wells and recycling of wastewater
K.A.S. Mani is a groundwater engineer.