How to reform power & irrigation

Last week, I showed that spending $50 billion on dams and canals in the 11th Plan would be a waste. Surface irrigation provides water in quantities and at times fixed by the irrigation authorities. This is useless for farmers growing different crops needing different amounts of water at different times. Farmers need just-in-time water on demand. Groundwater and wells can provide that, but not canal systems.

So, the government’s strategy must shift from giant dams and canals to aquifer management and joint use of surface water and aquifers. This will increase rural prosperity.

Except in eastern India, uncontrolled pumping is destroying aquifers. Traditional dug-wells for drinking water have run dry, shallow tubewells of small farmers have run dry, and only the deep tubewells of rich farmers reach the falling water table. Possibly participatory conservation by farmers might work. But most politicians think it too risky electorally to confront farmers and reform this system. Yet, without reform many aquifers will collapse.

In his forthcoming book Taming the Anarchy: Groundwater Governance in South Asia, Tushaar Shah of the International Water Management Institute, suggests ways to overcome the problem. I will not bore you with the myriad possibilities, just highlight two strategies: reforming rural power along the lines of Gujarat’s Jyotigram, and finding ways to combine surface and groundwater.

Competition between political parties has driven rural power rates towards zero. Chandrababu Naidu’s defeat in 2004 was widely ascribed to his charging farmers for power. Yet, Narendra Modi also charged farmers, cut off connections for non-payment, and yet won a big victory in 2007.

Power reforms can win votes if properly designed.

Where power is free, it is viewed by State Electricity Boards (SEBs) as a political gimmick, not a commercial matter. So, they neglect rural distribution, supplying low-voltage power that burns out farmers’ pumps and SEB transformers (which are not replaced for months, leaving villages in darkness). Power is supplied erratically for a few hours, mostly at night. Hence, villages cannot develop manufacturing or service industries that need power in the day. So, both agriculture and non-farm activities remain caught in a low-productivity trap.

Gujarat’s Jyotigram has separate electric feeder lines for each village, a heavy-duty one for tubewells and a light-duty one for domestic use and small-scale manufacturing and services. This dual-feeder system requires high upfront investment. But it enables SEBs to ration power intelligently. Villages get power 24/7 for non-agricultural purposes, enhancing domestic and commercial possibilities. But tubewell power is rationed for eight hours, providing enough water for crops but saving aquifers from over-pumping. Villagers are willing to pay, and the Gujarat SEB is one of the few profitable ones.

Shah suggests an improvement: power supply should be adjusted for seasonal demand. It could be provided continuously in the 30-40 days of maximum moisture stress, but for only three-four hours at night on other days.

Power plants have idle capacity at night, so generating cost equals just fuel cost. Hence, even the low rural power rate in Gujarat looks economic to the SEB, which now views rural power as a potential profit centre, not a bottomless pit. Naturally, such an SEB will seek to maintain and expand rural power, while SEBs in free-power states will neglect it.

Although groundwater irrigates three-four times as much land as canals, SEBs typically have no agricultural orientation: they are attuned to industrial needs. Jyotigram shows how reforms can help power engineers develop an agricultural focus, and respond to farm needs.

A second innovation favoured by Shah is to harness the existing 10 million dug-wells in hard-rock areas of the west and south for recharging. In alluvial soils in the Gangetic plain, water channeled into wells seeps into the earth below, leaving no water in the well. But hard-rock areas have limited seepage, so wells can store water channeled from canals or rains. This can then provide farmers with just-in-time water, crucial for high-value farming.

Experts have long urged farmers to create ponds on their land to store water. This does not work in alluvial soil where water seeps away. It can work in hard-rock areas of the west and south. These areas, says Shah, already have 10 million dug-wells that can be harnessed. Check dams in hard-rock areas can also store water, but lose more through evaporation because of their large surface. Water from check dams can be pumped into existing wells, reducing evaporation.

In Rajasthan, the government has subsidised farmers to build farm ponds. When canal water is released periodically, farmers use it to fill these ponds, storing water for just-in-time irrigation at the exact time a farmer needs it. Shah claims that this experiment has produced dramatic improvements in land and water productivity.

Many other such innovations are possible, too numerous to relate in this column. Suffice to say that we need a totally new irrigation policy. Major irrigation systems already under construction should be completed. But after that, the policy focus must shift from big canals suitable for 19th century agriculture to power reform and just-in-time water for 21st century agriculture.

What do you think?