Groundwater management and farmers’ suicides

Poor management of groundwater resources contributes to agrarian distress—but is anyone listening?

Over at Reporting on a Revolution, Suvrat Kher throws more light on an angle that is almost entirely missing from the national discourse on farmers’ suicides.

…if the wells themselves are dry then there is no backup for failed rains. A Tata Institute of Social Sciences report on farmer suicides found that farmers had little or no groundwater available to them during times of rain failure. A combination of complex hydrogeology and poor management of groundwater resources has exerted a powerful influence on the lives and livelihoods of Maharashtra farmers.

(Tushaar) Shah makes the following recommendation for complex hydrogeological terrains:

What hard-rock India needs is a new mindset of managing dug wells as dual-purpose structures, for taking out water when needed and putting water into the aquifers when the surplus is running off. Recharging aquifers needs to get the first charge on monsoon run off. Unfortunately, government planners give it the last priority.

Water available for recharge is estimated after allowing for the requirements of existing and planned surface reservoirs. This is absurd in a country where 70 percent of irrigated areas and 90 percent of drinking water needs are met from groundwater.

Is the government listening? The Prime Minister of India’s special relief package for Maharashtra farmers wants to attack the problem on a broad front which includes tinkering with the economics of cotton farming, encouraging a diverse array of crops and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers. But water underlies any successful agricultural strategy. In terms of water it lists irrigation development as the only long term solution to the water problems faced by farmers and doles almost 10 times more money to irrigation development than to watershed development. Irrigation development in the language of the government of India means canal irrigation (read mega infrastructure projects) and not local groundwater irrigation.

This despite the revealing statistic that even though thousands of crores of Rupees have been spent on canals, they irrigate just about 15% of arable areas over the landmass of India and marginal farmers and farmers with small landholding benefit most not from canal networks but through groundwater irrigation. [Reporting on a Revolution/What’s with the Climate]

Goodbye cotton, hello soyabean

The rational farmers of Maharashtra

Just how does P Sainath position facts that show how Maharashtra’s farmers are capitalising on the opportunity created by rising global foodgrain prices? Oh, by saying that they are replacing one type of volatility (planting cotton) by another (soyabeans).

After pointing out how farmers are reaping the benefits of growing soyabeans, he goes on to point out the risks of growing soyabeans, and the dangers of planting the same crop season after season. As if there are crops that somehow defy these risks.

Mr Sainath, unsurprisingly, fails to underline three really important points: first, that given a chance, farmers can help themselves by taking advantage of available opportunities. Second, information about prices, weather and market conditions enabled this. And third, following from the above, just letting them do what they like (and not placing value judgements on what they should grow) is the best solution.

Related post: Rising foodgrain prices present an opportunity for Indian farmers