Bringing Telangana’s groundwater irrigated area under drip irrigation without any cost to farmers

Groundwater levels in undivided Andhra Pradesh

By Rajendra P Sishodia, Sanjay Shukla, Wendy D. Graham, Suhas P Wani, and Kaushal K Garg*

During 1960s, subsidized agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, seeds and electricity spurred green revolution in India. To enhance the agricultural production, the government promoted groundwater irrigation through development and distribution of affordable pumps and subsidized electricity. However, during later decades (1970–2000), when farmers began to organize themselves in favour of agricultural subsidies, politicians started to use the subsidies as a political instrument to win the popular farmers vote bank.

Former undivided Andhra Pradesh was the first state where flat rate tariff was promised during the election campaign in 1977. Later during 2004 elections, another political party promised free electricity to win the election and implemented it in May 2004 soon after coming to power. Politicians persist for the subsidized electricity for their vote bank and farmers persist for subsidy for their perception that free or subsidized electricity is good for them. Although subsidized electricity made the agriculture profitable for many farmers, it also promotes wasteful use of electricity and water. For example, farmers in Punjab over-irrigate the fields because they think that in hot climatic conditions the more water they give the better it is for plants.

A study over 370 districts in India indicated that a 10% reduction in electric subsidy could decrease the groundwater demand by 6.8%. The major problem lies in the way the subsidized electricity is administered and not the subsidy itself; they suggest that instead of complete removal of subsidy, an intermediate approach involving better administration of subsidy which encourages efficient use of power would be a more practical option in reality. The Telangana state provides 5–7 h of daily free electricity for pumping.

Instead of unreliable 5–7 h of low quality electricity (night hours, fluctuating voltages and intermittent supply), timely 2–3 h of high quality (continuous and stable voltage) electricity could help reduce the wastage of electricity as well as reduce the groundwater withdrawals. Untimely and low quality electricity causes wasteful groundwater use, high electricity consumption and increased pump repair costs; which is lose-lose situation for both farmers and state electricity boards.

It has been argued that free electricity may not cause groundwater decline because the policy was implemented with rationing of electricity and the aquifer can’t be over-exploited with such small number of daily electricity hours. This may be true if the groundwater withdrawals didn’t increase after 2005. However, the region has been experiencing steady increase in groundwater irrigated area which is likely to increase the aggregated groundwater withdrawals and worsen the groundwater decline problem.

It can be argued that the free electricity policy, which was targeted towards the benefit of small farmers, has benefited a disproportional more number of medium and large farmers because almost 90% of small and marginal farmers in the state do not own irrigation well. The financial and risk taking capacity (cost of well and pump) of marginal and small scale farmers is limited and as the wells become unproductive due to declining water levels, small farmers cannot afford the competitive drilling for deeper well installation and ultimately may suffer most from the subsidized power policy itself.

In essence, the free electricity policy may in fact be detrimental for small farmers which make up 80% of the farmers in former Andhra Pradesh. In addition to subsidy-related declines, future increase in high intensity rainfall events is likely to promote the runoff and decrease the natural groundwater recharge in this crystalline aquifer region of Telangana. This decrease in natural groundwater recharge combined with increased groundwater uses can further exacerbate the groundwater declines and well drying.

Various regulatory acts and guidelines have been developed for proper management of surface and groundwater resources in the Telangana state. One of the notable acts, Andhra Pradesh Water, Land and Trees Act, was enacted in 2002 for integrated management of surface and groundwater resources. According to this act, the farmers are required to register the existing bore wells and receive permission to drill new irrigation tube wells. While the act was reasonably successful in registering existing bore wells, very few farmers complied with the permit requirement for drilling new tube wells.

Only 2500 new wells were granted permission during 2005–06 under this act, while the Transmission Corporation of Andhra Pradesh Limited has reported an increase of 66,000 individual agricultural electrical service connections during the same period. The purpose of these agricultural electric service connections is to pump the water from the tube wells and it indicates that in reality 66,000 new tube wells were drilled during that period. To regulate the groundwater withdrawals, an appropriate policy should be designed and effectively implemented to restrict the expansion of new tube wells in the decline affected areas. Effective implementation of this policy would require proper coordination between the state electricity board and the agency which grants permission for new well drillings. Deeper and increased extraction of water from the tube wells may also increase the groundwater quality problems.

Almost all districts in the state, including Rangareddy, Medak, and Nalgonda locally suffer from excess fluoride and nitrate content in these shallow aquifers. Excessive fluoride in drinking groundwater has caused dental and skeletal fluorosis in parts of the Telangana state. Granitic igneous rocks are usually high in fluoride content and the aquifers in this region possess high fluoride content as compared to other granitic aquifers elsewhere in the world. Deeper and increased pumping may result in drying of these rocks and subsequent saturation due to recharge would result in leaching of the fluoride from rock minerals to groundwater. Increased return flows due to irrigated area expansion are likely to exacerbate water quality (e.g. salinity and fluoride) problems in these shallow aquifers.

It has been argued that resource efficient technologies such as drip irrigation could result in irrigation water savings of over 80% as compared to conventional flood method of irrigation while maintaining or even improving the crop yields in some situations and crops. However, the water savings are likely to be lower at the basin scale because water lost though deep percolation and tail water runoff at one location is available for reuse at another location in the basin.

The magnitude of real water savings, and hence reduction in declines, would depend on reduction in unproductive crop consumptive water use (e.g. soil evaporation). In efficient irrigation systems such as flood irrigation wet the entire field rather than the root zone area as is the case with drip irrigation. This localized wetting by drip system reduces the unproductive evaporation from the plant row middles (and between the plant) thereby reducing the crop evapotranspiration by 34%.

Studies have shown potentially significant basin-scale water savings from adoption of efficient irrigation such as drip irrigation. Therefore, switching from flood to drip irrigation will reduce the consumptive water use and help reduce the groundwater declines. Water efficient drip irrigation management is also likely to reduce the operation costs (e.g. electricity) and enhance the water productivity (crop yield per unit of water used) and improve water quality.

A preliminary economic analysis was performed to evaluate the feasibility of drip conversion in former Andhra Pradesh. Initial installation cost for drip irrigation is approximated to be 1600 US$ per ha. In 2013–14, the electric power subsidy to agricultural consumers in former Andhra Pradesh was about 2 billion US$ (GOI, 2014). If the power subsidy were removed completely, the money saved over two years could bring the entire groundwater irrigated area in the state under drip irrigation without incurring any cost to the farmers.

Although, practically it may not be possible to eliminate the power subsidy in one year, a phased implementation of drip irrigation and reduction in power subsidy may help control the groundwater declines. Along with the promotion of drip irrigation, some policy measures, such as reduced number of free electricity hours, reasonable flat rate tariff and effective policy on well drilling may be needed to limit the aggregated groundwater withdrawals. Even with reduced electricity hours, drip irrigation is likely to provide sufficient irrigation to areas currently irrigated with flood irrigation. Lesser duration but high quality power supply hours are also likely to reduce the electricity wastage and carbon footprint of irrigation.

*Excerpts from “Bi-decadal groundwater level trends in a semi-arid south Indian region: Declines, causes and management” in Journal of Hydrology: Regional Studies 8 (2016) 43–58. Download full paper HERE

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