Water is the very basis of life and is the foundation for human survival and development. Sustainable and equitable use of water over millennia has been ensured by cultural adaptation to water availability, through water conservation technologies, agricultural systems and cropping patterns, adapted to different climatic zones, and conservation-based life styles.

However, in the last few decades, the increase in population, increased pace of industrialisation and urbanisation, along with the influence of consumerist culture, have interfered with the natural hydrological cycle of rainfall, soil moisture, groundwater, surface water and storage of all sizes. We have accordingly witnessed overuse, abuse and pollution of our vital water resources, which has disturbed the quality of water, and the natural cleansing capacity of water.

India’s 1.3 billion people have access to only about 4% of the world’s water resources, and farmers consume almost 90% of the groundwater water available. As global temperatures rise and overuse of water depletes existing resources, the threat to lives and businesses in the economy is projected to grow.

Currently India is said to be the world’s biggest extractor of groundwater, more than China and the US combined, accounting for almost a quarter of the total extracted globally. Between 2000 and 2017 its groundwater depletion is said to have increased by as much as 23%.

Water is one of the most crucial elements in our national developmental planning. Therefore, proper management of our limited water resources will be essential to ensure food security for our growing population and to eliminate poverty. It will be essential also, to avoid growing conflicts, and the possibility of social unrest in the country in future, due to water scarcity.

To minimise the negative impacts of the overuse and misuse of water, and to ensure that our precious water resources are used optimally, it is necessary that we have a water policy which recognises and adequately addresses the challenges we face, and those we are going to face in the twenty-first century.

A national water policy for the twenty-first century has to recognise water as a national resource, for the purpose of national development goals and planning. For this, the management of water has to be done in a decentralised way, in partnership with the local communities and the concerned state governments.

Different regions of the country, endowed differently with water, in the form of precipitation, surface flows and ground water, need their own region-specific water policy.

The policy accordingly, should provide broad guidelines, and should be flexible enough to suit the various conditions in each watershed and river basin, such as the agro-climatic zone, location of polluting and other industries, the location of towns and population density, etc.

Reliance on water-intensive crops has increased water woes

India’s food policy has remained focussed on wheat and rice since the 1960s, when the Green Revolution changed the farming landscape, and made the country self-sufficient in food grains for the first time.

During 70s the states like Punjab, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, increased the acreage of water-intensive crops like wheat and rice, in a bid to make India self-sufficient. Experts say, this reliance on water-intensive crops has over the years increased India’s water woes. It needs to be noted that, in India, water consumption for irrigation accounts for 80-90 per cent. Of this, 80 per cent water is consumed by just three crops, rice, wheat and sugarcane.

It is reported, water shortages are already acute, as nearly half of the country’s population faces high-to-extreme water stress, and about 200,000 die each year due to inadequate access to safe water.

A Committee, headed by Mihir Shah, a noted Water Policy Expert and a former Planning Commission Member, has submitted its report to the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti. The Ministry is currently going through the Draft Policy before finalising and adapting it.

The Policy, drafted by the 11-member committee constituted by the Ministry, has opined that, it will be impossible to meet the basic water needs of millions of people for drinking and irrigation purposes, without a “radical change” in the pattern of water demand.

The Draft National Water Policy 2020 has blamed the Government’s Procurement Policy for wheat and rice, for aggravating the water crisis in the country. The Federal and State subsidies for fertilizers, power and water, particularly for these two crops, have to be blamed for this crisis, according to the Committee. Additionally, the purchase of these crops by governments, even in times of glut, at a minimum support price (MSP) has complicated the problem further. For India’s farmers, these are hard habits to break, as is obvious from the major demand of the protesting farmers for not only continuing with the purchase at MSP, but additionally, demand for making it mandatory for the traders & corporates as well.

It is said, the farmers love rice and wheat, primarily because of stable prices and assured state purchases. These two staples, along with another thirsty crop, sugar cane, it must be noted, are grown in 40% of the country’s gross farmed area, but consume about 80% of its irrigation water.

To encourage farmers to move away from growing rice and wheat, the National Water Policy 2020 has recommended shifting the Irrigation Water Fee, from Crop/Acreage/Season to Volumetric basis, Volumetric basis meaning, the farmers will be charged, based on the volume of water they use. Currently, farmers pay a fixed amount, regardless of how much they consume.

It is expected, this will pinch the farmers, as they will have to pay more & hence will push farmers to diversify to crops, other than the water-intensive rice and wheat.

In the long run, the Experts say, water shortages will make crop diversification an inevitability. The impending water crisis has therefore forced the Government at the Centre to try & turn around established farming practices & convince farmers to shift from water-guzzlers like rice and wheat to alternate crops which consume less water, particularly, in states like Punjab & Haryana. However, for this, the government may have to provide such incentives to these farmers, like assurance to purchase the alternate crops, to which they will be shifting, at MSP.

Diversification incentives are not a bad idea in the opinion of Ila Patnaik, the former Principal Economic Adviser to the Federal Government, and a Professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. However, many of these reforms will have to be demonstrated to the farmers, before they gain faith in the government. For this, we must give time for reforms to play out, she opines.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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