Thirsty Crops Drain India Dry


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

World Water Day –22 March 2018

Water is a crucial part of all societies as it has myriad uses. In India, however, it is of much more importance as over 600 million people make a living off the land. They rely on the monsoon to replenish their water sources and the unpredictable nature of rain leaves them vulnerable. Even today, the country breaks out in a cold sweat every time the south-west monsoon is delayed.

India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of economic, geographic, and political factors.   India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn, but contributes only around 15 percent to the country’s GDP. To use another metric, 89 percent of India’s extracted groundwater is used in the irrigation sector (for comparison, household use is in second place at 9 percent, with industrial use accounting for 2 percent of groundwater use). World Bank data shows that only 35% of India’s agricultural land is irrigated – defined as the artificial application of water to land or soil. This means that 65% of farming depends on rainfall.

Indian farmers use nearly 70 percent of the total groundwater drawn in the country each year. India uses more groundwater every year than China and the United States combined .It is groundwater that boosted the Green Revolution and brought us food security but today we are in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. We have drilled deep for groundwater, without taking this basic hydrogeological fact into account.

The lack of sustainable agriculture   sucks rivers, lakes and underground water sources dry. The main causes are: wasteful field application methods, leaky irrigation systems; cultivation of thirsty crops not suited to the environment, low public and political awareness of the crisis, and weak environmental legislation. India also uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and the United States. It has also been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favor of these water intensive crops.

As traditional mixes of crops have been replaced with high-yielding wheat, rice, sugarcane, and cotton, the consumption of water has gone up. In addition, new artificially modified seeds may be giving higher crop yields, but they are also thirstier than natural seeds. A WWF report, Thirsty Crops: Agricultural Water Use and River Basin Conservation, identifies cotton, rice, sugar cane and wheat as the ‘thirstiest’ crops.

Some classic examples of the skewed and short-sighted agricultural priorities that upset India’s water balance are the farming practices in some of its provincial states, particularly Maharashtra, Punjab and Haryana. The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum, and other cereals have turned to sugarcane in Maharashtra, which fetches more money but is a very thirsty crop. Likewise, farmers have taken to growing rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryana, two parched states where the groundwater has sunk even further.

Maharashtra is the epicentre of India’s farm quagmire and its landlocked Marathwada belt is a miserable state. It has been among the worst affected by water shortages, having faced three bad monsoons in a row, although this year’s rains have given some reprieve to the farmers. Marathwada has the lowest ratio of actual irrigated land vis-à-vis irrigation potential in the state. Of the potential land that could be irrigated by dams created in the region, only 38 percent is actually being irrigated. For the rest of Maharashtra, this ratio is at 76 percent. The per capita income in Marathwada is 40 percent lower than the rest of Maharashtra. Farmers drawn to the region by government incentives have begun cultivating sugarcane, a water-intensive crop that is ill-suited to Marathwada’s semi-arid climate. Sugarcane consumes about 22.5 million litres of water per hectare during its 14-month long growing cycle compared to just four million litres over four months for chickpeas, commonly grown in India and called gram locally.

Growing sugarcane in drought-prone areas is a recipe for water famine. Yet, the land area under sugarcane cultivation in Maharashtra has gone up from 1,67,000 hectares in 1970-71 to 1,022,000 ha in 2011-12. Maharashtra is India’s second-biggest producer of this water-intensive crop, despite being one of the country’s drier states. Sugarcane now uses about 70 percent of Marathwada’s irrigation water despite accounting for four percent of cultivated land. The sugar mill buildup in Marathwada was initially pushed by politicians in the region trying to replicate the prosperity of mills in other areas of Maharashtra state and was focused on areas with plentiful water. But later politicians opened mills everywhere, even in areas where drinking water is not available. Sugarcane is a popular crop because farmers sell cane directly to sugar mills, avoiding the need for middlemen who take a cut of the profits. Sugarcane’s sturdiness also attracts farmers–mature cane withstands heavy rainfall or dry spells and is also less vulnerable to pests and diseases compared to other crops.

A similar story is playing out in Punjab and Haryana, but with rice taking the place of sugarcane. Rice covers 62 percent of Punjab’s area under cultivation, up from 10 percent in 1970. The expansion of rice has been similar in neighboring Haryana. Though the droughts have hit all crops, India still produces more rice, wheat, and sugar than it consumes. It is quite natural for farmers to plant rice and cane on account of the supply of free or subsidized power which boosts politicians’ popularity. The government buys sugar, wheat, and rice at remunerative prices, which assures economic justice to these farmers. Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favor of less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government currently asks farmers t o switch from rice to oilseeds and pulses and protect dangerously low water levels. But it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.

Scientists and activists have long warned that relentless groundwater extraction is leading to a steep drop in water tables across India — the world’s fastest rate of groundwater decline. During the last three decades, there has been an explosive growth of private tube-wells   because of a lack of reliable surface irrigation. India uses 230-250 cubic kilometres of groundwater each year accounting for about one-quarter of the global groundwater use. Farmers using groundwater obtain twice the crop yields compared to surface water. This is because groundwater irrigation gives the farmers more flexibility as to when to irrigate and the amount of water they can.

A recent European Commission report counted more than 20m boreholes in India, up from tens of thousands in the 1960s. The water table is falling on an average by 0.3 metres and by as much as four metres in some places. Some farmers in parched states now need to dig 300 feet (91 metres) for water, compared to five feet (1.5 metres) in the 1960s,   They’ve been drilling wells deep beneath the tilled soil into the volcanic rock–700 feet, 800 feet, even 900 feet down. Lately, though, many farmers drill wells and find nothing at all. In some severely affected areas, bore wells as deep as 500 metres (1,640 feet) have all gone dry.

Realising its predicament decades ago, Israel studied the “water equation” and made itself all but independent from Mother Nature. Israel took 70 years to solve its water problem; India won’t need that long, as it can emulate Israeli advances. But we  must summon the political will to act before water runs out. Changing governance, raising money, and installing technologies all take time and the climatic stresses are mounting fast.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Mar 2018.

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