Home Irrigation and Electricity: Escaping from the Trap that it is Caught in

Irrigation and Electricity: Escaping from the Trap that it is Caught in

by Sreekumar N
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 Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

What has the topic “Irrigation and Electricity” got to do in an issue featuring “Water”? Quite a lot, in my opinion.To begin with, more than 80% of the total water use in India is for irrigation, with the next biggest consumer (drinking water) using around 7%. But why bring in “electricity”? Not because I am an electrical engineer or work on energy policy, but because electricity is one of the major drivers of irrigation, though there are other drivers too. One can never understand any issue without looking at all the major dimensions (in more technical language, state variables!). Just as irrigation is a major dimension of the water conundrum, it is impossible to understand irrigation without also looking at electricity and in fact, a few more variables. So please read on.

Why is ‘irrigation and electricity’ important to an engineer?

Growth in irrigation has catalysed the significant increase in food production after independence. Not many would know that groundwater irrigation plays a major role compared to the grander canals and historic tanks. Tank and canal-based irrigation dominated till about 1975, when groundwater-based irrigation overtook them to support the highest irrigated area. Since tank-based irrigation slowed down and canal-based irrigation grew at a slow rate, today groundwater-based irrigation supports twice the area irrigated by canals and tanks put together. While I endorse promoting rain-fed agriculture, reviving community tanks and selective use of canals, it is important to realise that groundwater-based irrigation holds the key to food security in this country.

And what powers groundwater irrigation? Estimates of numbers have to be taken with a pinch of salt, but what is reported is this. There are around 2.8 crore pump sets in India, and nearly 2 crore run on electricity and rest on diesel. A very small number are manual/animal operated or, more recently, solar powered. The annual growth rate of electricity-based pumps is around 3-6%. It is clear that electricity-operated irrigation pumps are the drivers of groundwater-based irrigation. Electricity consumption by these pumps is around 20% of the total consumption in the country, a close third after industry (42%) and domestic (24%) consumption. It is also to be noted that the percentage of agriculture consumption is as high as 30-40% in some states.

It is clear that electricity-operated irrigation pumps are the drivers of groundwater-based irrigation. Electricity consumption by these pumps is around 20% of the total consumption in the country, a close third after industry (42%) and domestic (24%) consumption.

There should be no complaints about such high consumption, since it meets the important need of irrigation, closely linked to food security and livelihood of farmers. But the catch is in the multiple traps that this area has gotten into, due to the short-sighted actions of different actors who work at cross purposes to each other, often contributing to positive feedback loops. If one wants a metaphor to describe the trap, I would choose a traffic jam. Those on the move – trucks, buses, cars, autos, two-wheelers, cycles, animals or pedestrians – act in their own immediate self-interest, which is to get as much ahead as they can. The regulator – be it the traffic police or signal – often has no credibility, authority or innovative ideas to break the logjam. The planners are caught in the wishful thinking that a wider road, flyover or footbridge will solve all problems forever, or they are forever experimenting with new traffic rules, re-routing of traffic or re-allocating road space. Traffic jams often grow in size and complexity, caught in a positive feedback loop. Today, ‘irrigation and electricity’ is caught in a similar trap with no one having clear ideas on how to break the trap. Like all real-life problems, this issue has many dimensions in addition to the technical dimension and it is a worthy challenge for any of us to work on.

The multi-dimensional trap

There are many dimensions to the trap that irrigation and electricity is caught in. I describe three – electricity, water and poverty. It becomes evident that all actors – farmers, electricity companies, state governments and society at large – are unhappy with each other and the trap they find themselves in.

Electricity Dimension

 Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

As noted before, groundwater pumping using electricity is the most prevalent mode of irrigation. Electricity tariff for
agriculture is low and is free in some states. This leads to multiple problems. Farmers tend to overuse water since electricity is cheap, leading to depletion of groundwater. Farmers also do not invest in efficient pump sets, thus increasing the electricity consumption. For every unit of energy supplied to a farmer, electricity companies lose around ₹4-5. Therefore high consumption by farmers leads to higher financial losses for electricity companies. This makes the electricity companies neglect the quality of supply to the farmers, which means that there are frequent power failures and long time to restore supply.

What do the farmers do? Since power can come and go any time, many farmers bypass the protection mechanisms provided for the pump set. This and the low voltages or frequent power failures lead to burnouts of motors. Farmers often leave the pump on and there is over irrigation; many install higher capacity motors than what was sanctioned and purchase low quality pump sets. To reduce the impact of consumption by farmers, as a matter of policy, farmers are given limited hours of supply (7-10 hours, often during night), when demand from other consumers is low. This is quite inconvenient for the farmers and worse, there are complaints of deaths due to snake bites or shocks while visiting the field for irrigation. All these make farmers unhappy with the state of affairs.

 It becomes evident that all actors – farmers, electricity companies, state governments and society at large – are unhappy with each other and the trap they find themselves in.

This is the electricity trap. Both the electricity companies and farmers are unhappy with each other and do not cooperate to break the logjam. Both try to take short-term advantage of the situation. Electricity companies neglect the quality of supply to farmers, ration new connections to pump sets and make no attempt to do field surveys to assess the actual number of live connections. State governments are expected to compensate the electricity companies for the financial loss in supplying electricity to farmers. Since most agriculture pumps are not metered, electricity companies exaggerate the consumption estimates, since that helps to claim higher compensation and also to project lower energy losses. Farmers also take shortcuts and all these complicate the problem, in a positive feedback loop.

Water Dimension

As mentioned in the previous section, cheap electricity leads to greater extraction of water. With deepening depth of wells, the quality of water suffers. Considering cheap availability of water and aided by price signals, farmers opt for water-intensive crops (sugarcane or rice) even in dry areas. There is competitive digging of bore wells, with each well going deeper than the other, hoping for better water yield. In most places where groundwater is scarce, this trend depletes the water table. Farmers end up spending a lot of money in digging and repairing wells or pumps, though expenditure on electricity is low.

The replenishable groundwater resources have been estimated and the entire country has been classified by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) into categories, namely: over-exploited, critical, semi critical and safe blocks, based on the net groundwater stock situation. According to CGWB, the number of over-exploited and critical blocks in India has increased significantly. Their total was 4% in year 1995, but has grown to 19% now. For many states with high percentage of critical districts/blocks, such as the Punjab and Rajasthan, annual draft of groundwater for the state as a whole, 90% of which is for agriculture, is much more than the annual replenishment of groundwater.

Poverty Dimension

 Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

Image has been sourced from <https://unsplash.com/>

Agrarian distress and farmer suicides are very much in the news. In the past two decades, there have been around 15,000 farmer suicides every year, sometimes as high as 18,000 per year. This works out to around 15% of all suicides and sometimes as high as 18%. Most suicides are due to high debts, caused by crop failure, repeated bore well digging, etc.

It is to be noted that nearly 85% of the land holdings are marginal or small (less than 2 hectares) and these farmers own 63% of the wells. Small farmers are typically in a tight financial situation (with limited access to low interest credit and high discount rates) and will not be keen to invest in efficiency or pump protection devices. State governments provide subsidy for power supply, irrigation, etc., but our studies show that a high amount of this subsidy is unfortunately cornered by big farmers, due to the faulty design in subsidy policy. Another shocking point to note is that around 10,000 people die every year due to electricity shocks, most of them in rural areas, and most of them farmers. This is due to poor enforcement of safety norms by the electricity companies, poor quality of supply and risk taking by the people. In these times of growing penetration of high technology and plans for smart cities, this is indeed a matter of shame.

Is this then a story of hopelessness? NO!

It is clear that ‘Irrigation and Electricity’ is caught in an ever-tightening trap due to neglect and half-hearted single dimensional efforts. The situation is indeed grim, but it is heartening to see that there are many people doing many things to improve the situation. A concerted, sensitive effort with an integrated, consensus-building approach can surely solve the problem. To illustrate this, I mention some of the initiatives under way and my suggestions on how to improve on them.

Another shocking point to note is that around 10,000 people die every year due to electricity shocks, most of them in rural areas, and most of them farmers.

In the area of electricity, there are measures like separating agriculture feeder from rural feeder; replacing inefficient pump sets with efficient ones or a ‘super pump’, which is efficient as well as fail-safe; installing capacitors on pump sets; and introducing electronic metering at Distribution Transformer level for calculating consumption. These are welcome and their implementation can be improved with public consultation and dialogue. Government has plans to introduce solar power to supply agriculture, which can ensure quality electricity during the day time. There are plans to install 1 lakh solar pumps in this year and the target is to have 10 lakhs by 2021. Solar pumps are a good idea, especially in areas where water is available very near the ground and where the electricity grid coverage is low. But for the majority part of India, we have been suggesting solar-powered agriculture feeders as a more cost-effective and sustainable option.

What is needed is to evolve an integrated approach including the dimensions of water use, land use, review of other inputs into agriculture (pesticides, fertilisers, seeds, etc.), improving the pricing and marketing of agriculture produce, easing credit

In the area of water use, there are many initiatives at the ground level by way of community-led watershed development; efficient sprinkler or drip irrigation systems; bore well recharging; repairing traditional tanks; introducing new methods of cultivation like SRI which reduces water usage; encouraging crop rotation; promoting organic farming; etc.

What is needed is to evolve an integrated approach including the dimensions of water use, land use, review of other inputs into agriculture (pesticides, fertilisers, seeds, etc.), improving the loose pricing and marketing of agricultural produce, easing credit availability, improving the quality of electricity supply and increasing efficiency of electricity use. This can lead to reduction in water and electricity use, while ensuring sufficient sustainable safe food production. And this is possible through dialogue involving farmers, electricity companies, Irrigation and Agriculture departments, researchers and policy makers. All have a lot to learn from each other to understand the state variables and on how to escape from the trap.

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