Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Monsoon, welcome

The south-west monsoon is likely to be normal this year. But the bottom line is that the dependence of agricultural output on monsoon rainfall has increased in the recent years, despite large public sector outlays in irrigation

Ramesh Chandra

As the south-west monsoon makes up three-fourths of the total rainfall in India, the 12-week period from June to September is crucial for the country’s food security, farmers’ incomes, price stability, power supply, water availability and several other socioeconomic and ecological services. Preliminary indications are that the south-west monsoon this year is likely to be normal, which offers a ray of hope to almost everyone in the country.

Now, it is an old adage that Indian agriculture is a gamble on monsoons. What has changed in recent years is that the stakes in this gamble have gone high and turned asymmetric, involving more losses than gains. Thus, the interest in the monsoon as well as its importance have increased considerably. Several factors explain this change. Since the beginning of the First Five-Year Plan in 1951-52, India has accorded high priority to development of irrigation potential.

Investments in medium and major irrigation and flood control continue to be some of the most important categories of public investments. During the five decades since 1951-56, irrigation and flood control have received nearly Rs 1,600 billion of public sector outlay. Besides, huge private investments have gone into groundwater irrigation.

As a result, area under irrigation has increased from 22.56 million hectare in 1951-52 to 85.6 million hectare now. Irrigation is now available for 44% of the area under cultivation compared to less than 18% at the beginning of Plan period. Despite this progress, 56% of the net cultivated area in India remains without irrigation, and dependent solely on precipitation for meeting water requirements for crops and other vegetation in this area. Second, irrigation cannot be sustained without monsoon rainfall as this is the main source of groundwater recharge and water available for surface irrigation. Poor rains put a lot of pressure on the aquifer, which in turn reduces water availability and raises the cost of water withdrawal. Similarly, surface irrigation is also heavily dependent upon the amount of water received through the monsoon.

Expansion in irrigation has contributed significantly to growth in agricultural output and has also insulated agriculture production from the shock of monsoon aberrations to some extent. But the situation in recent years has turned out to be different. Water flows in a large number of canals has reduced, some of the canals are running dry and in many a case the frequency of getting water from canals has reduced. Official statistics show that despite large investments made in the development of major and medium irrigation, the area under canal irrigation has shown a decline after the late 1990s. It is both sad and surprising that large public sector outlays on major and medium irrigation are not showing corresponding increase in area under irrigation. For these reasons, vulnerability of agricultural output to rainfall fluctuations and its dependence on monsoon rainfall has increased in recent years.

Another reason for the rising importance of the south-west monsoon is that crop production, crop practices and crop seasons have shifted towards more water-intensive uses. This has resulted in a tremendous pressure on demand for water in agriculture. Upstream water use in agriculture is also rising, leaving less water for downstream uses.

Demand for water in non-agricultural sectors is rising rapidly. Total demand for water in the country exceeds normal supply. Thus, poor rainfalls aggravate the pressure due to gap in demand and supply of water.

Estimates of groundwater status show that in about one-third of cases, groundwater withdrawal exceeds recharge levels, which is lowering the water tables. In the most agriculturally progressive state of Punjab, annual withdrawal of groundwater exceeds the recharge or replenishment by about 45%. All these developments indicate that our dependence on monsoon rains is rising. The deficiency and uneven distribution of monsoon rainfall is causing a lot of disturbance in the system.

Another important dimension of monsoon rains is that they are erratic 40% of the time for the country as a whole. Except in the north-eastern parts of India, drought-like situations have been faced at least once in five years across other regions—in some regions, the drought incidence has been once in 2-3 years. The experience of the last four decades shows that deviations in output from trend and in rainfall from normal move in the same direction in three-fourths of the years. This implies that excess rainfall above the long-run average generally has a positive effect on agricultural output; it is the negative deviation which is a matter of serious concern. Also, while excess rain involves modest gains, deficiency involves large losses.

Agricultural production today is much more commercialised than in the past. Crop failure, which does not leave farmers with enough income to pay for input costs and various kind of loans, often results in distress for farm families. Despite so much value remaining vested in water and the rising burden on water resources, we do not harness enough of what nature gives us. The next few weeks will experience torrential rains in several parts of the country, much of which will be lost as run-off. Very little is done to conserve and harvest the water when it pours over the country.

* The author is director, National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi. Views are personal

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