For a fluid management

It is clear that changing the course of a river is not the best solution. Growing suitable crops instead is a smarter option

For a fluid management

This is certainly not the right season to talk of interlinking of rivers as rains are inundating different parts of the country. Several cities including Kolkata are experiencing inundation, flights and train schedules are getting disrupted and many are going awry. However, as this point came up in a discussion on 'water and agriculture', this columnist could not resist pointing out that there are many ways to grow ecologically sustainable grains, nuts, and fruits in rainfed areas, and therefore, rather than look at big irrigation projects with attendant issues of displacement, distribution, and equity, we could focus on crops and techniques which optimise the resources available to each geography.

Large river projects, with command areas running into thousands of hectares, are symptomatic of the might of the state and the magisterial view of being able to resolve each and every issue that comes up. In hindsight, it is now becoming quite clear that changing the course of a river is not a perfect solution. Rather, growing crops where they ought to be grown is a smarter solution, besides ensuring that whatever is produced is not lost on account of poor infrastructure or imperfect markets. True, steps have been taken in this direction, but there is no clear, organised lobby which supports these alternatives: on the contrary, project consultants, contractors, and irrigation engineers are making the pitch for inter-linking rivers. That at a time when we are not short of food grains, and higher production may actually lead to depressed prices leaving the farmer more distressed than before.

Let us look at the broad picture of rainfall in the country. Given the continental spread and diversity of our nation, even in a normal monsoon year where the East and the Northeast may be reeling in floods, there would be parts of the country, especially the West and the North which may be stressed for water. The big challenge for us is that policy interventions to prevent sowing of water-intensive crops in these regions have not been very effective for reasons for political economy. Thus, rice in Punjab and sugarcane in Maharashtra are crops which make the least ecological sense – but no political party will take up the gauntlet of getting the farmers in the region to shift to alternate crops. However, one must place on record that both Gujarat and Maharashtra have taken steps to popularise micro-irrigation (MI) for all crops, including sugarcane, as this can lead to major savings in the application of water, besides of course savings on labour and fertiliser.

In fact, this column would propose that insofar as sugarcane is concerned, the state governments can jolly well direct sugar mills to engage in long-term production contracts, based on which the banks can fund large MI interventions with additional support from the PMKSY and the Mission for the Integrated Development of Horticulture. This should save precious water for use elsewhere. This could be a fine example integrating all the elements of the value chain. If hundreds (if not thousands of farmers take up micro-irrigation – economies of scale will bring down the per unit cost of MI equipment, farmers will save on labour and water, banks and FIs will be able to offer a better package, funding agencies will find it easier to carry out their verifications, and farmers would also find it easier to pay their instalments as this could be linked to the final payment to be made by the sugar factory. All this is possible today on account of seamless IT interface and integration and the prototype is available with the Gujarat Green Revolution Company which is spearheading MI interventions in the state.

The Agriculture Ministry has already taken steps to shift rice production to the Eastern Region through the BGREI (Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India). This can easily be expanded to the cultivation and growth of sugarcane so that precious water is saved elsewhere. Pulses and Oilseeds need to be grown and popularised in the North and West, which have comparatively less rainfall – and this needs similar focus and emphasis as was done in the case of wheat. One must mention here that this columnist was then a Joint Secretary at Krishi Bhawan when the BGREI was rolled out – and like the NHM and its later avatar MIDH – has been one of the most successful interventions.

Now is the time for the launch of a Pulses and Oilseeds Mission for North and West (Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat) so that the country should not only be able to meet its requirements, but also usher in the much required ecological balance. As in the case of the BGREI, the program should have all components – from pre-production to post-harvest, with the greatest focus on procurement and processing. Not only should NAFED be given adequate funds for procurement: its member organisations should establish a network of processing facilities. This columnist is aware that both Markfed (Punjab ) and Hafed (Haryana) are the leading agribusiness organisations in their own states, and can take up the forward linkages - for supplies to PDS as well as a premium brand for retail formats, as well as for exports (in the years to come). It did not take long for Punjab to become the leading rice-producing state in the country – and its farmers are ever ready to take the gauntlet! But this has to be backed by not just policy statements, but with credible programs and institutions too. Hopefully, the mandarins in NITI Ayog and Krishi Bhawan will pay some attention!

(The author is Director General, ATI & Additional Chief Secretary, Government of West Bengal. The views expressed are strictly personal)

Sanjeev Chopra

Sanjeev Chopra

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