Monday, January 3, 2011

Micro Irrigation;
the way to 2nd Green Revolution

There were times when people used to begin their speech/ lecture saying “Indian agriculture is a gamble with monsoon.” The scene has changed now. Thanks to micro irrigation and an increasing number of fields and crops getting covered with it, we can begin our speech with talking about improved yield, better quality produce, and higher monetary returns with efficient utilization of inputs.

Indian agriculture is basically rainfed farming, as most of our farmlands do not have enough irrigation facilities throughout the cropping season. This makes it imperative to use the available resource efficiently, sustainably, and economically to get the best yield out of that.

Water, one of the most necessary production input, is getting scarce, particularly in the aftermath of untoward events of climate shift, fast groundwater depletion, and repetitive monsoon failures. The shift from conventional flood irrigation to sprinkler, micro sprinkler, or drip irrigation systems is apparently visible, indicating the importance of water use efficiency for covering more area under irrigation.

The Government support in the form of subsidy is serving as a catalyst to compensate for the high initial cost of the system. Irrigation through micro irrigation techniques can give a real spurt in the water use efficiency as compared to the conventional means wherein we stand to loose copious amounts of water through evaporation, leaching, seepage, and percolation. Micro irrigation systems (MIS) direct droplets of water carefully, so much so that water use efficiency is enhanced to the tune of 30% - 60%. The advantages of this system has also prompted many farmers to adopt a more intensive way of cultivation incorporating multiple crops and a better cropping pattern, thus, increasing the yield and income from unit area to a greater extent.

Micro irrigation technology is gradually emerging as demand driven technology in India. This stage has come about over a period of 20 years. The role of Private manufacturers, government policies, and level of farmer awareness and that of media has helped to create the present situation - from a scantily respected “forced in Technology” micro irrigation to “much sought after” technology.

The coverage of micro irrigation is 5 million ha in India, which is far behind the potential area estimated at around 116 mha. The awareness level, however, has grown tremendously. yet, the spread of technology is restricted to states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. The Northern states of India still have not come into the main picture yet. States like Haryana and UP are slowly getting into the groove.

There is an overall potential of more than 30 million ha area in India for providing drip irrigation. This includes fruits, vegetables, Sugarcane, Cotton, Tobacco, spices, Tea, Coffee, Rubber, Coconut, and floriculture crops. Of the potential area for Drip irrigation, only 58% comes under irrigation cover at present. The idea of rain water harvesting and farm pond concept would have to be taken with high priority to bring in the presently rain fed areas under drip irrigation. Similarly, 40 million ha area grows crops that can be suitably irrigated by Sprinkler systems.

There are manifold benefits of adopting the micro irrigation technique, which includes water saving to the extent of 40-60%, upto 40% yield benefits, healthy crops, fertilizers saving, labour cost cutting, bringing the problematic area under profitable cultivation, improving the overall quality of the produce, etc.

Using micro irrigation system, water is applied to the plant root zones as per the crop water requirements. This enables the plants to yield at the best of their capacity, in the lack of moisture crises at any stages of the crop growth. The soil moisture level is always maintained at the field capacity. Due to these and many more reasons, the technology is getting popular among the farming community.

Policy Interventions

Earlier, the impact of the invaluable technology was to the laudable scale and sector was much apprehensive about its growth, but government subsidies and financial assistance did the miracle job and today, even small / marginal farmers are installing the system on their farm for reaping the benefits of the well documented success stories at pan India level. National Horticulture Mission (NHM) acted as catalyst for the systems and the launch of National Mission on Micro Irrigation (NMMI) in June 2010 had a considerable total outlay of Rs 1000 crores, which was much ahead of the earlier allocation of Rs 450 crore to the Micro-irrigation scheme. With this, the Micro-irrigation scheme is going to be extended to a total of 18 states from 12 states at present.

Agriculture ministry has recently released the new guidelines on National Mission on Micro Irrigation (NMMI). In this, the government has increased subsidies provided under the National Mission on Micro Irrigation (NMMI). Under the new NMMI guidelines, small and marginal farmers will get a subsidy of up to 60% of the MI project cost from the Union government, compared to a subsidy of 50% earlier. Other farmers will get a subsidy of 50%, compared to 40% earlier, for land holdings with a maximum area of 5 ha. The guideline also includes new MI technologies such as fertigation systems, sand filters, etc. Besides, payments are likely to get accelerated as the subsidy will now be disbursed by state implementing agencies, instead of district authorities. The agriculture ministry has allocated 1,106 crore for the NMMI scheme for the current year.

With these, the Mission would boost converge of micro irrigation activities under major government programmes such as National Food Security Mission (NFSM), Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil palm & Maize (ISOPOM), Technology Mission on Cotton (TMC), etc. for increasing water use efficiency, crop productivity, and farmers income.

Industry.....on the move

Today, the industry is vibrant like any other agri input sector, with the presence of all major Multinationals and desi giants and world class technology to farmers in India, helping them in optimum utilization of scarce water resources, enhancing farm productivity and quality of their produce.

Some of the major players in micro irrigation in India are Jain Irrigation, Netafim, Plastro Plasson, Nagarjuna, Parixit, and Premier. Apart from this, John Deere has also ventured into the Indian segment last year. Many other small and medium micro irrigation companies are functioning, mainly from Pune and Bangalore, which is making the industry highly competitive. The international expertise and desi blend of technology are working tirelessly in cost minimization and bringing refinement in the presently available systems.

Fertigation and Soluble/ Liquid fertilisers

Looking into the prospects of drip covering more and more area, another parallel industry of soluble fertilizers is catching the momentum.

Fertigation allows an accurate and uniform application of nutrients to the wetted area, where the active roots are concentrated. Therefore, it is possible to adequate the nutrients quantity and concentration to their demand through the growing season of the crop. Consequently, recommendations have been developed for the most suitable fertilizer formulation, including the basic nutrients NPK and micro nutrients according to the type of soil, physiological stage, climate, and other factors.

Fertigation system and nutrient supply to the crops according to their physiological stage of development, and consideration of the soil and climate characteristics, result in high yields and better quality crops with minimum pollution, thus, ensuring manifold benefits from the technology.

Almost all major private fertiliser companies supply liquid fertilizer in one or another form and micro nutrients. But majority of the liquid fertilizer is still imported from countries, mainly Israel and Netherland, whereas the Indian companies are mainly involved in their marketing and distribution.

As on today, the cost of liquid fertilizer is too high and unaffordable by most of the drip farmers, so government has to give an economic consideration for its wider adoptability.

Newer avenues

Micro irrigation technique should be furthered to other field crops in view of its resource utilization efficiency and economic benefits accrued per unit investment. Jain irrigation, ICRISAT, and some other government and private institutions are working on standardizing the protocol of micro irrigation for water intensive crops like rice and sugarcane, which can pave the way for much talked future of green agriculture.

Over the period, much collaboration had come up between public and private sector to refine the technology. In this direction, ICAR and many of the private companies have collaborated with Israel based institutions and multinational in the sector. Israel and Netherland are the countries, which have the authority on the sector and their productivity is on the same line.

There is a need for developing seeds and varieties suitable for cultivation under the micro irrigation system, so that more resource efficiency can be ensured, with aptly exploiting the production potential of the crop.

Netafim’s Jugaad technology

The world’s largest micro-irrigation company indigenised its Family Drip System (FPS) for mainstream farming in India. As a result, drip irrigation is now available for farms that are as small as a quarter acre. FPS was originally developed for irrigating the backyard gardens in developed countries.

For the purposes of drip irrigation, India’s farm needs were different from most other countries in two significant ways - small fragmented land holdings and electricity availability at the farms.

The conventional FPS is a pressure compensated system, which ensures that the flow of water is equal all over the farm right from the beginning to the end of the pipes, both on low lying portions of the field and on higher levels. This is achieved through valves, which clamp down when the water pressure increases and eases up when this pressure decreases. A conventional FPS has tap inlet through which the water supply is taken into the system.

This is where Netafim used a little bit of Indian jugaad/ improvisation, as water supply is not very regular on Indian farms.

To create water pressure, Netafim decided to befriend gravity. It recommended the setting up of a water tank at a height. This water tank could be filled with water with just 10 minutes of electrical motor power. If there was no electricity, the water could be filled in the tank through a hand pump. Once the tank was full, it could irrigate the field for over three hours.

As against other systems that would cost at least double, this system cost just Rs. 30,000 of which 50 percent came in by way of a grant from the state government. The farmer had to finance just around Rs. 15,000.

Way to ‘GO’

Other than the present level of subsidy by GOI under NMMI, additional assistance should be entrusted to the farmers of the water deficient regions and dryland areas, so that the majority of the areas could be brought under the cultivation.

But still the cost factor is hindering its growth story to make inroads into the areas of low risk bearing farmers and with the ongoing sets of R&D in the sector, to make it more affordable and befitting for such farmers. The days are not far when the diesel and electric irrigation pumps would go redundant and India would boast of the second Green Revolution, which can only be ensured through the way of efficient resource utilisation.

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