Monday, April 19, 2010

A Sardar Sarovar Riddle

Whatever the project's detractors may claim, it has given Gujarat increased yields and diversified crops

In one of Harry Belafonte’s songs, he sings ‘all together now’. The entire audience then yodels ‘Matilda’, which is the theme of his concert. This happens at the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) too. About a year ago, my young friend Tushar Shah said that the Sardar Sarovar canals were not delivering any water while khet talavdis, which we all love, were responsible for Gujarat’s agricultural growth performance. I taught him econometrics a long time ago and as a teacher, it gives me satisfaction that he is better than me. But he doesn’t like government canals and when he was giving one of his first cost comparisons, I had to tell him that he was ignoring the social and energy costs of pumping out water from ground reserves. We, then, decided to have a seminar on SSP canals, which never took place. Then, IFPRI and Ashok Gulati got into the act and Gujarat’s agriculture department had huge hoardings advertising their certificates on farm ponds and agricultural markets. Thereafter, everybody got into the act and it was Matilda all over again.

I found this a little puzzling. For one thing, I travel a lot in Gujarat and always go to villages to talk with the Patels and other farmers. I am the first one to admit that we need to be faster in building SSP canals and distributaries. But I have seen Narmada waters in farmers’ fields. In fact, in my father-in-law Navin bhai’s village, adivasis received these waters and were making more than Rs 1 lakh per hectare.

On attending their wedding ceremonies, I saw that they spend a lot of money and are happy. Not following Brahmanical Hinduism, they pray to their own deities for whom they were building lovely temples. They were also building serais for pilgrims to which I contributed, being a son-in-law of the village. I also saw this in North Gujarat. A few weeks ago, I was coming down from Udaipur where Har Nath Jagawat, whose advisory committee I chair, had his annual meeting. There has to be something intoxicating about Sadguru’s adivasi cooperatives that build dams and harvest water, for tribal leaders to come down from Sahelian Africa to train with him. At Shamlaji on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, I decided to motor down to Panch Mahals, instead of continuing on NH-8. One still sees real poverty on the road, a heartbreaking sight in a very fast growing area. It seems so senseless. As one’s car climbs up the hill and since canals don’t go up the hill, skinny women and children appear, which is not the case in canal serviced areas. I remember a Norwegian researcher making fun of me in her piece on SSP planners who quoted me as saying that I wanted to plan for more equity but was limited by the fact that canals follow ridge lines.

By now, I was convinced there was a counterfactual to the Matilda crowd. How big, I do not know. And I have no compulsions about producing non-existent facts. But the macro story, if you look at it with a trained eye, strikes a wrong note in Matilda. The story you remember is that agricultural markets appeared in Gujarat, there were farm ponds and diversification and yields went up—presto agriculture was growing at 6%. To begin with, irrigated yields did not go up. The state government does not publish irrigated yield statistics cropwise any more but for wheat we know that irrigated yield was 27.1 qtls/hec in 1999-00, a year of average weather and it was 28.35 qtls/hec in the triennium 2006-07 to 2008-09. Informally, we know the same story is true of other crops, if you take both good and bad years into account. Actually, there was a setback to diversification and Gujarat went back to paddy in a big way. In the last few years, the paddy growing area has gone up in Gujarat and the state has contributed 27% of the additional area under paddy cultivation in India. Now, this makes you ponder. The SSP planners did not want more paddy. But traditional canals get you paddy. Are markets not important? Oh yes, they are and have always been, as is the case in Gujarat. Read Dantwala’s classic on cotton marketing in Saurashtra. Before the upsurge of paddy in the 80s and 90s, grain areas were going down.

So yield and diversification are not going up in irrigated areas.

Gujarat remains a market savvy agriculturist, as it has always been. But the source of its growth is coming from irrigation. With more irrigation, total yield goes up. As ISRO satellites show us (CMD of SSNL would happily send ISRO remote sensing data to anybody), on January 31, 2009, area irrigated by SSP canals was 3,74,606 hectares. On September 28, 2008, it was 2,46,995 hectares. SSP is delivering to farmers, with good and bad canals, 6.21 lakh hectares of irrigation. Of course, we want thrice as much and we want it controlled, so that more people benefit, our land is not spoiled and our crops are diversified. But, Planning for Prosperity said in 1985 Gujarat’s agriculture will grow by 6% after it delivers. That’s the way it is today.

Yoginder K Alagh, Former Union minister

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