Seeing the trees and the forest; understanding the equal importance of micro irrigation and groundwater management

-Karan Misquitta

Over the last half century technological & infrastructural advancements in the form of bore wells, pumping technology and rural electrification, has enabled farmers in the dryland regions of Maharashtra to access and extract groundwater at unprecedented levels, enabling the intensification and extension of cultivation. However, high levels of abstraction accompanied by recurrent droughts have led dramatic declines in groundwater levels. Further, the socio-legal paradigm that governs groundwater resources, privileges individual users while ignoring the common pool characteristics of groundwater and aquifers.

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While managing groundwater is a pressing need, it is important to recognise that in much of Maharashtra water is the major limiting factor, access to water is synonymous with prosperity. Thus,water governance must be understood as a both a problem of overcoming constraints at the farm i.e. increasing water use efficiency and overcoming production constraints and addressing collective action problems that surround the abstraction (demand) of groundwater.

Maharashtra has historically led the nation in the adoption of micro-irrigation. In Sangamner, a block in Ahmednagar where I often visit, the technology has been spreading from well-off “gentlemen” farmers who cultivate orchard crops like sweet lime, and pomegranate to relatively poorer farmers who cultivate seasonal vegetable crops like tomato and onion. Ironically while the state provides subsidies for drip, these farmers rarely take advantage of this. The sets available under the subsidy programme are expensive and accessing the subsidy requires them to pay the full amount for the set upfront and receive the subsidy at a later period, creating a barrier to accessing it. Instead, these farmers purchase low cost sets that are less durable but appear to meet their immediate needs. In the recent years, sales of these sets have sky rocketed and according to experts I interacted with  they contribute between 10-25% of the total drip sales in the state.  a significant portion of total sales of drip sets. In Gunjalwadi, a village in Sangamner, the no. of farmers investing in these drip sets has exploded in the last few years.Today,  60% of this area is under drip irrigation. Low cost drip sets allow them to experiment with the technology without making a very large investment and since the crops they grow are seasonal, the durability of the set is not a major concern.

Research suggests that the gains that accrue from using drip irrigation are considerable, both in terms of water savings at the plot level as well as productivity gains. However, this may not necessarily lead to reductions in groundwater draft. Today, Dry land areas  of Maharashtra are characterised by both over extraction of groundwater and very limited area under irrigation. In such a situation it is likely that farmers would translate the water saved as a result of increased water use efficiency into increased area under irrigation. Take for eg. Dadarao Tangde a farmer in Wadod Tangda a village in Marathwada, a farmer who recently installed drip and sprinklers on his farm. He explains “The amount of water used for 1 acre, now can be used for 2 acres. Last year, we used to take Rabi crops in 2 acres of land due to lack of water, however, this season we have been able to take up crops on 5 acres of land, thanks to the micro-irrigation techniques.” Simply improving farm level water use efficiency is insufficient. It is necessary to move beyond the naive belief that gains at the farm level will be translated into aggregate/basin level gains. Micro-irrigation can address the very real arm level constraints that exist. In fact, it is in all likelihood a necessary condition for making the shift to a sustainable water use regime. However, it may not be sufficient for addressing basin level outcomes. For these reasons, there is a need to address this crisis at the community or collective level.

The Maharashtra Groundwater (Development & Management) Act 2009 though not without its flaws is an important and welcome step, as it empowers local communities to play and important role in groundwater management. Importantly, Act emphasises participatory groundwater management, where villages are required to regulate groundwater use, prepare and implement crop and water use plans according to water budgets.  But reducing abstraction is almost synonymous with reducing incomes, thus unpalatable to many farmers. The Act has many provisions for punishing violations, but talks little about how to incentivize desired behaviour.

Micro-irrigation and crop-planning form two sides of the same coin. Improving water use efficiency and productivity at the farm level is one way to increase the willingness of farmers to engage in the collective management of groundwater resources. At the same time, collective management of groundwater is necessary if the gains from increased water use efficiency at the farm level are to be translated into desired resource outcomes at the aggregate level.

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