Commodity Analysis

In Telangana, the sky and the earth run dry

Rajalakshmi Nirmal | Updated on June 30, 2019 Published on June 30, 2019

Farmers exploit 24/7 free power to drain groundwater, and rains are a no show

As far as the eye could see, there stretched a vast swathe of dry land. Driving down a narrow road lined with thorny bushes, I reached Chittapur village, in Telangana’s Siddipet district. The moment I stepped out of the car, dry hot winds hit my face. Walking a few kilometres into the village, I came across an elderly farmer. When I told him why I was there, his reply was: “There is no rain, no one is farming in the village…what do you want to know? Go tell your folks in the city that we are dying…” In all the five villages I travelled through — Dacharam, Chittapur, Thallapally, Nagaram and Lingapoor — in Siddipet district, the farmers faced the same conditions. Without rains, and with wells having dried up, they had no means of livelihood. Those who did sow crops pinning their hopes on borewells were salvaging fodder from the failed crops.

There’s no water to be found even 400-500 feet below the ground — the aquifers (the underground layer of water-bearing soil) have dried out completely.

How did this absolute water scarcity come about?

If the rain gods have been unkind to the State’s farmers in recent years, there has also been excessive use of groundwater that has emptied out the wells. There has been more abstraction than recharge of groundwater, say experts. From 2016, electricity for agriculture has been heavily subsidised in Telangana. Initially, farmers were given nine hours of uninterrupted power in a day, but, beginning 2018, the K Chandrashekhar Rao government announced free power for 24 hours. This resulted in large farmers with high-power pump-sets recklessly using water, say activists. Farmers in the State are now digging 1,000 feet deep and risking producing contaminated crop by using fluoride-contaminated water.

A State government report, released in March, on the of depth-to-water level data of 957 piezometers (devices used to measure depth of ground water) revealed that the average groundwater level is 13.40 metres below the ground level. This was 11.88 m in March 2018.

These official numbers are not representative of the ground-level reality — while it captures the trend of drop in the groundwater table, it doesn’t capture the levels correctly. Many farmers across the villages I visited, had dug as deep as 500 feet to find no water.

 

 

Small farmers, big issues

Across the five villages that were visited, many other farmers, too, complained of failed borewells. The only source of income for these farmers is cattle. But with no grass, feeding the cattle has also become a major issue, they said. Many small farmers have been selling their land, partially or completely, to take care of household expenses.

A farmer in Chittapur village said: “I have no money. I didn’t want to borrow and dig a borewell. I sold two acres last month as I needed money for my daughter’s wedding. So, in the two acres left with me, I will sow cotton once the monsoon sets in. This time last year, it had already begun raining, but now it is still dry.” He has leased a one portion of his farmland to a mobile company to erect a tower. “They pay me peanuts for it, but it is still some money.” While aggregation of smallholder land is what the government should have facilitated, it is happening now in the most undesirable way, with farmers losing ownership of their land. Those who buy small parcels from different farmers then lease the land for contract farming. The tenant farmer who works the land pays a fixed sum to the owner. But more often than not, the farmer does not even make enough to pay the landlord.

Balaaiyah, a tenant farmer from Thallapally, said: “I don’t own this land, I am a tenant. I do hard work, but have not seen much money in the past few years. Sometimes, there is a water problem, sometimes there is some pest or virus attack, and I lose crops…I get no money, from either the Rythu Bandhu scheme or the PM Kisan scheme, all of which go to the land owner…” Balaaiyah planted sugarcane on three acres, and tomato on one acre this year. While the sugarcane fared well, with drip irrigation arranged from four borewells, he lost the entire tomato crop because of a virus attack. Asked why he chose sugarcane on such a dry land, Balaaiyah replied: “My entire cane is procured by a mill here, so I know I will get assured return from this. And, since I arranged drip irrigation and there is water in the ground, I did not have a problem.”

There are many lessons here for the government. One, a farmer prefers to grow only those crops where there is assurance on procurement and a return is guaranteed. Not just this sugarcane farmer, other farmers in the five villages, who plan to sow paddy and cotton as the rains start, said they opt for the same crops year after year, as there is assured government procurement for them.

So, any effort from the government to change the cropping pattern from water-intensive crops to others has to be accompanied by a good market for the new crops.

Two, marginal farmers who work as tenants on farm land and need direct income schemes more than other farmers, are not benefiting from such schemes. So, direct income schemes may not be the answer to farm distress.

An oasis

Amid the dry lands in the villages, there were also lush green patches with vegetables. It was evident, even from a distance, that these were not regular farms as they were covered by a large net. On closer inspection, I found they were net houses.

One of the farmers, Venkataswamy, said: “This is a net house where I grow cucumber. The advantage with net houses is that they consume less water and pesticide, and give high yield. An agri start-up, Kheyti, is active in the region and supplies net houses of 426 square metres for ₹3.35 lakh. While about ₹3 lakh is borrowed from the bank, the farmer has to put in ₹35,000 from his pocket. These net houses come with drip irrigation, a pump, a water drum and other inputs. A net house cuts off heat by 3-4 degrees, reduces water use by 98 per cent and decreases the risk of pest attack compared with open-field agriculture, says Kheyti.

The start-up has installed net houses for more than 110 farmers across 20 villages in the region. The yield difference, compared with growing vegetables outside, for cucumber and capsicum, can be up to seven times. The green house is made of a plastic film (a mesh and a shade net). It protects crops from adverse climatic conditions, including extreme temperature, excessive radiation, insects and diseases, by creating a micro environment. Farmers from the five villages also admitted that crop yield is higher inside the net house, and because of drip irrigation, water consumption is minimal.

Many countries including the US, Canada, Spain, Israel, Turkey and China use green house technology on a large scale, but in India, it is not as widespread. With periods of drought becoming more frequent, the country needs to rapidly move to adopt such technologies and practise precision-farming.

The lessons to be learnt

Drought is now a common phenomena in India. It strikes every other year leaving millions of people water-stressed. But the country has not been learning its lessons.

While efforts of States (for instance, Telangana’s Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project) and the Centre to build large-scale irrigation projects are welcome, these alone cannot solve the water crisis.

When there is no rain, water storage programmes have no utility. The water bodies built across the country through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) since 2006 have not helped drought-proof our villages.

In good rain years, if the country is going to recklessly use water and go for water-intensive crops, the result will be insufficient water next year. And once again, farmers will be at the mercy of the monsoon.

Awareness

Thus, awareness has to increase on the advantages of micro-irrigation.

By making drip irrigation equipment free as it is in Telangana and a few other States, the governments believe farmers will adopt to it quickly. True, adoption happens quickly, but without bringing desired results — even after setting up drip irrigation, many farmers end up keeping the taps open through the day.

Farmers are also not taught how to maintain the drip laterals. The emitters stop functioning after a while because of blockage and farmers get back to the old ways of flood irrigation.

Demand-side solutions for water-crisis management that includes regulation of water use and better agronomical practices should also be practised. For this, first, across States, subsidy on power should stop. And each State need to form a body to regulate and monitor ground water usage. This institution, functioning at the village panchayat level, can limit the number of borewells per farmer.

The government can also take a conscious effort to bring about crop diversification in the country.

Paddy cultivation should ideally be practised in the eastern parts of the country where there are enough rains and the crop need not be supported by irrigation from bore wells. The northern parts of the country, especially Punjab and Haryana, where there is overexploitation of groundwater for paddy, should move to maize and pulse crops.

Crop choice

The government should ensure that that it provides enough incentives for farmers who agree to switch from traditional paddy and wheat crop to others. It is very clear that for a farmer it is ‘assured procurement’ that influences the choice of crops. So, the Centre should either procure the new crops or cover the market risk the farmers may face.

It is time the Centre and States work in unison to solve the water crisis so that future generations of farmers are assured of water security.

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