Punjab: Less Water, More Money (Part 1)
In an earlier blog, I highlighted the story of declining groundwater in many parts of India. This story is one of agricultural intensification and widespread groundwater pumping, facilitated by highly subsidized or free electricity. As the Government of India sought food security for the nation, it promoted the procurement of rice and wheat from the state of Punjab at guaranteed prices. Farmers switched to these crops, even though, climatologically, rice, given its water use, is not well-suited to this region. This, in combination with the nearly free electricity, has led to progressive groundwater depletion. The districts of central Punjab are now listed as “overexploited” by the Central Groundwater Board. Many hand pumps that were set up for rural drinking water supply are no longer operational.
Declining groundwater tables are problematic, not only because they stem from inefficient use of energy and water, but also because they can lead to the loss of a buffer during critical periods of drought, cause potential social inequity (as marginal, less wealthy farmers lose out first in the race to the bottom of the well), risk irreversible pollution of the whole groundwater supply, and lead to the dying off of shallow rooted natural vegetation. There are a number of possible routes to take in tackling this situation. This will be a three-part series of posts aimed at discussing three such activities:
Part 1: Energy subsidy reform
Energy Subsidy Reform
The success of the Green Revolution in India was made possible through the use of subsidy programs which introduced plant-breeding science, scaled up supply chains of agrochemicals, mobilized a grass-roots agriculture extension effort, and ensured minimum support prices. The combination of these programs dramatically changed the agricultural climate of the country. Production of wheat in India, for example, doubled from 1966 to 1976, and doubled yet again in the 10 years following. On the flip side of this success-story, however, the same subsidies that revolutionized the country’s agriculture have also created a system which lacks incentive to exercise efficiency in water and energy use.
Water use, in India, is intricately linked with energy use. Irrigation is necessary in most parts of the country to ensure a level of productivity that maximizes crop yield, and requires energy to get the water from groundwater storage up to the surface level. As it stands now, farmers have access to basically free electricity. The problem, however, is that the electricity is not available reliably 24 hours a day. Farmers cannot count on getting the electricity required to pump water for irrigation when they need it, and so the common practice is to leave the pumps on constantly and over-irrigate. This current subsidy structure, in which farmers pay virtually nothing for either water or the electricity needed to pump water from groundwater wells, encourages waste, groundwater depletion and a lack of investments in water saving.
Energy subsidy reform is needed to reduce profligate groundwater pumping.
A movement to end or change this system of subsidized energy is politically sensitive, since populist politicians tend to shy away from measures that have the perception of reducing access to the rural constituency. It is interesting, though, that in our field visits and interviews in India, none of the farmers we talked to were in favor of the free electricity for pumping. They express a willingness to pay for metered use, provided that the electricity supply available is reliable. We hope that our farmer surveys and work with the Punjab Agricultural University and the Punjab Farmers Commission will facilitate the development and implementation of a reform that is both politically feasible and consistent with a better water use trajectory.