Archive | July, 2012

Villages without agriculture? The curious case of Bihar

26 Jul

‘Villages without agriculture’ is a term my friend from JNU, Rajnish, coined to describe his native village of Narharpur in Bihar. He was saying that agrarian distress in Bihar villages is so high that majority of people have diversified their sources of income. Share of agricultural income to total income is often quite small and it has a lot of do with the overall low profitability from agriculture.

We were in Rajnish’s village at that time and planning to commission a survey on groundwater economy in three neighboring villages.  Before a survey, we decided to do a complete house-listing of all households in our three study villages in Vaishali district. The idea was to use this census results for further sampling. The preliminary results of the census are just in and yes, agricultural incomes are indeed a relatively small share of total income. Our villages are perhaps not entirely representative, being only 40 km away from the state capital of Patna. So, what I say here may just not be true for rest of Bihar. With that caveat in mind, and that the results are only first cut, this is what we found.

We found that of the 5006 households in these three villages, 1972 households (or 40%) do not report any income from agriculture at all. Of the rest 60% of villagers who reported some income from agriculture, only 25% reported it as their most important source of income. With majority owning less than 20 kathas (1 bigha) of land, this is not surprising. Another 35% households said that daily wage earning was their main income source. We do not know if that daily wage income was from farm or non-farm sector, but proximity to towns of Hazipur and Patna makes non-farm wage income more probable. Another 17% of all households said that remittances were their main source of income. Not surprising again, given every third household reported that at least one family member had migrated to another place for a job.  I need to check what secondary data says, but prima facie, it looks like these villages are indeed ‘villages without agriculture’ or more like, ‘villages without much of agriculture’.

We will start our detailed survey soon where we will interview some 600 farmers. We are hoping to understand the current state of agriculture in much greater detail. We also want to see what role assured irrigation, especially groundwater irrigation, can play in rejuvenating Bihar’s agriculture.


Aamir Khan, groundwater and drought proofing

23 Jul

Yesterday I missed Aamir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate. But, popular as this program is, I came to know in no time that this episode was on water. Then I wished I had watched it. It’s just as well that Aamir also writes a guest column in Hindu. So today, I got the gist of what this program was about. And then, I was happy that I had spared myself the frustration of watching something that not only had nothing new to offer, but had not tried to understand the problem in all its multiple dimensions.  Too much for a water scientist to take, I reckon.

Well, let’s take the argument that during good old days before the British Raj, we knew how to take care of our water bodies and that there were several thousand tanks which provided us with both drinking and irrigation water, and that communities came together to maintain those tanks and that everything worked perfectly! A careful look at history tells us that things were very different from this romantic portrayal of the past. David Mosse, a professor of Sociology at SOAS in his well-written and extensively researched book   The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India tells us how contested the maintenance of these water bodies actually was even in those” good old days” and how most tanks were in state of constant disrepair. That famines and food shortages were widespread in those days is too commonplace a knowledge to be repeated here.  Yet, these tanks persisted over time and till 1970s, simply because there were no alternative sources of water. Nor were there appropriate farm technologies to feed a burgeoning population. And then, Green Revolution happened. To all those who think that Green Revolution was a bad idea, I often ask: are endemic hunger, starvation and dependence on foreign food aid better ideas? But let me not digress and go to my next topic — groundwater.

Tushaar Shah, in his book (and a book which should be a must read for all those interested in water and food in South Asia) Taming the Anarchy: Groundwater Governance in South Asia relates decline in tanks with increase in tubewell irrigation and the necessity for assured all year round irrigation. In the 1970s, several things happened. Green Revolution technologies allowed for never before breakthrough in crop productivity – but to reap the benefits, one had to irrigate and irrigate on time. None of the surface water sources like traditional tanks and modern canals allowed that kind of assured and timely irrigation. Farmers came to depend more and more on groundwater. This was around the same time when pumping technologies became cheap and farmers could afford to invest in tubewells. From a time in the 1950s, when less than 3 million hectare was irrigated using groundwater, now 30 million hectares is under groundwater irrigation. India is also the single largest user of groundwater in the world. That India produced a record 257 million metric tonnes of food grains in 2011-12 is largely attributable to assured irrigation that groundwater provides.

This brings me to my third topic of drought and the role that groundwater plays in drought proofing. This EPW paper describes it rather well. Drought proofing is particularly relevant for a year like this when a drought is imminent and our pundits and politicians alike are a worried lot. Most worried, of course, are the farmers.  But those farmers who have access to groundwater are less worried than others.  Let’s take the example of 2009 – which was a similar drought year.  Rainfall deficit in Punjab and Bihar was comparable – around 35-40%. Yet, area under kharif paddy declined in Bihar by a whopping 54% and it barely declined by less than 1% in Punjab. Why? Farmers in Punjab had access to groundwater – an access that their government guarantees, while farmers in Bihar have none! Indeed, just today, Punjab has demanded central assistance of Rs. 800 crores to buy 1000 MW of electricity from the central pool to provide more electricity to their farmers and also compensate them for diesel use. I can almost bet that minimum support price(MSP) for paddy will go up steeply in the coming season given high diesel costs incurred by Punjab farmers this year.  So, whatever Aamir and his experts say, I am not convinced that our traditional tanks would have seen us through this kind of drought. Tanks, simply, were not meant to cater to the kind of intensive farming that our growing population needs today.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for rainwater harvesting and revival of traditional tanks and water bodies. I am all for reviving our dying wisdom and I am even willing to ignore that in spite of such wisdom, we let several million people starve to death in the famines of our glorious past! It’s just that I think it will not solve our problem. And our problem is feeding 1 billion plus people. For this we need to grow more crops and growing more crops will need assured irrigation – especially in years when monsoon plays truant as it has done this year. Groundwater provides that assured source of irrigation – it is the hero of this piece. Again don’t get me wrong. Groundwater use is unsustainable in many – but not in all places and it needs to be managed well. I have no arguments with that either. Indeed, I hope to write several pieces on groundwater management on this blog soon.

This brings me to my final point. Do not make villain out of groundwater use and of farmers who ‘over-exploit’ groundwater – the borewell Reddy’s of Aamir Khan! They do so, because you and I demand to be fed and fed with rice and wheat (not un-irrigated coarse cereals, mind you) and that too at cheap prices. The real villains, in my opinion, are those who waste this food, either by leaving food uneaten on their plate or by letting it rot in godowns. My conservative estimate is that at least 3 to 5 million metric tonnes of food get wasted in India every year due to improper storage. And that is a real crime in a country where 230 million people go to bed hungry every day.

One week of blogging

20 Jul

It’s been exactly a week since I started blogging. I have enjoyed writing each and every post. I hope my readers have enjoyed reading them too. I want to thank them all for such huge support. I have had 418 hits so far and people from 16 countries have read my posts. What more can a blogger — that too a first time blogger, want? So, once again, thank you all!

Of prawns and shrimps

19 Jul

I am not a fish expert. But like any other Bengali worth her salt, I love eating fish. And chingri (a generic term for prawn and shrimp in Bangla) is my favorite ‘fish’. As an avid chingri fan, I know that there are several varieties of chingri such as golda and bagda. However, I was blissfully ignorant of the water management implications of growing golda vs. bagda until I started working in coastal Bangladesh. Golda is a freshwater prawn, while bagda is a brackish water shrimp. Yes, prawns and shrimps, my friends at World Fish Center told me, are two different things!

Before large scale shrimp (bagda) cultivation started in the 1980s, it was usual for polder sluice gates to be opened during monsoon season when fresh water could enter and flush out excess salinity from the soil. During the rest of the year, when salinity in coastal rivers went up, gates would remain closed. This allowed farmers to cultivate paddy crop during the rainy season and at best another less water consuming crop like sesame in the rabi season. Lack of water and high natural salinity build-up in the soil precluded any summer crop. However, commercial bagda cultivation changed the rules of the game. Now, bagda farmers want to bring brackish water inside the polder throughout the year. Shrimps thrive in brackish water, but nothing else does. This particularly affects paddy farmers – who almost always tend to be poor. Bagda farmers, on the other hand, tend to be wealthy – and indeed many of them are absentee-landlords and industrialists who have leased in land from local farmers for shrimp cultivation. Once shrimp cultivation comes in, natural vegetation dies, leaving behind miles and miles of shrimp farms uninterrupted by trees, crops and even livestock. Drilling of pipes in polders to bring in saline water also weakens the infrastructure, making it even  more damage-prone during cyclones.

In view of negative environmental impacts, several local NGOs like Nijera Kori and BELA have tried to discourage farmers from cultivating shrimp and shift to fresh water prawns instead. But, they have had limited success so far. We wanted to investigate why and realized that answer lies in economics. We compared costs and benefits of growing shrimps vs. prawns and  found that benefits from growing shrimp is so much higher than any other crop combination that it is almost impossible to convince farmers to do otherwise.

What can we do once we understand and accept this economic as well as environmental reality? I found two interesting things that are happening on the ground.  International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have developed a number of salt tolerant rice varieties which farmers can grow on shrimp farms during rainy season. Even though productivity of such varieties is low, it still takes care of family’s food security needs. World Fish and Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute on the other hand, are experimenting with bagda varieties that can grow in either very low saline environment or in fresh water to ensure that bagda farming can be done with minimal environmental damage.

The solution, I reckon, will lie in innovative ideas as above that understand farmers’ livelihood compulsions and gives them alternative and more sustainable choices. And I for one, will think twice before eating shrimps.


Making groundwater public property is a bad public policy choice

18 Jul

Today’s Times of India has published a news article on its front page, lauding a government proposal to make groundwater public property and engaging village communities in its management. The link is here.While this sounds reasonable in theory, there are several reasons why this is a poorly thought out idea.

First, it makes the assumption that once in public domain, groundwater will be better managed in the greater public interest. But where is the evidence for this? The newspaper, in another related article, said that this is being done in several villages in Andhra Pradesh.  I believe, they are referring to Andhra  Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems Project (or APFMGS in short). While APFMGS was indeed successful in involving farmers in managing groundwater through proper water accounting and demand management, but  our recent field visits show that this success was  limited to the duration of the project and has fizzled out since then. Not surprising , this is often the fate of most projects, especially projects aimed at ‘demand-management’ as opposed to ‘supply-augmentation’.

Second, this proposal also says that village panchayats should be involved in groundwater management. For those who think that village panchayats are capable of doing this, or will do a fair job of it, must indeed be living in Gandhian utopia of Gram Swaraj  than Ambedkar’s reality of villages as center of oppression against the poor and the lower castes. I ask again, where is the evidence that involving village panchayats in management of such a precious resource — a resource on which lives  of millions of farmers depend, will be any better than the status quo? Or that such one-off initiatives can be sustained? Indeed, if anything, there is a lot of evidence to show that performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been dismal all throughout out India.

Third, there are other countries in the world like Mexico and Spain which have made groundwater public property years ago and have since then tried to manage it through laws and regulations. Ours and others assessment of these initiatives clearly demonstrates the implementation challenges. And these are countries with five times our per capita GDP, less than 1/10th  our numbers of wells and tubewells and several times better implementation capabilities. Here are links to papers from Spain and Mexico  highlighting the challenges and limited successes so far.

Fourth, several states in India have tried  implementing groundwater laws. This has almost always led to corruption and rent seeking. Our work in West Bengal shows that officials in charge of giving permits to farmers acted arbitrarily  and were often accused of seeking bribes. Ramamohan’s work in Andhra Pradesh also highlights similar problems.

Our contention is that as an idea, this is not bad. But given the implementation challenges, the net result of making groundwater a public property may not be any better than the current regime. And if more government control becomes a channel for bribes and corruption, then the very people that this move aims to protect, will be even worse off than they are now. So, if such ‘direct’ regulations do not work, what does? Global evidence of managing groundwater shows that indirect measures often work better than direct interventions. In the context of India, the most important lever for managing groundwater is through managing the energy-irrigation nexus. It could be  done either through rationing or pricing of electricity. Various states in India are indeed trying to do this and they would need support in their endeavor. Making groundwater a public property will hardly help — it is neither here, nor there!

Metering in West Bengal: Of economics and politics

16 Jul

In those good old days (that is good old days for the Bengalis!), there was a saying that what Bengal does today; India does tomorrow. But thanks to decades of bad governance, this is not true anymore. Indeed, there is hardly anything that India can learn from Bengal – except perhaps how to manage agricultural electricity supply. In my previous post, I had written about how in the 1970s and 80s, all states in India had decided to remove meters from irrigation tubewells. Most of these states, including West Bengal, then started charging farmers a fixed fee for electricity use. This policy made sense at that time because tubewells were few and far between and the cost of meter reading was higher than the revenue generated from it. Besides, an unintended benefit was the proliferation of informal groundwater markets which then became the main conduit through which poor and marginal farmers got access to irrigation.

However, unmetered electricity supply precipitated a crisis in the electricity sector. By early 2000s it was widely recognized that agricultural tubewells – which now stood close to 10-12 million, needed to be metered for the sake of proper energy accounting. Energy accounting is the Achilles heel of India’s power sector. But by then, there were strong farmers lobbies and vested interest within the electricity departments which resisted any attempt at metering. The Electricity Act of 2003 made metering mandatory, but to no avail. West Bengal is the only state which has been able to meter agricultural tubewells. It started its metering program in 2007 and by now almost 90% of all tubewells in the state are metered. A 3ie funded project helped us evaluate the impact of metering of tubewells on groundwater use. Here is the link.

Why was West Bengal able to meter tubewells when other states failed? The answer, our research shows, lies in the domain of both economics and politics. The electricity utility in West Bengal, by continually raising flat tariff had made it so high, that by 2007, most farmers realized that electricity bill under a metered tariff will be much cheaper than the flat tariffs they were paying. In contrast, the other states had kept their flat tariffs so low (or even free) that farmers saw absolutely no benefit in switching over to metered tariff. And that West Bengal had all but 100,000 electric tubewells, as against 1.1 million in Punjab also helped. But then, why was Bengal able to raise flat tariff over the years, while other states could not? The answer lies in the politics of groundwater. West Bengal, unlike Gujarat or Punjab, never had a strong farmers lobby agitating for access to groundwater. This was because the way the Left Front government had co-opted the only farmers group in the state – the Krishak Sabha. The contrast is clear if we compare Gujarat’s Bharatiya Kisan Sabha with Bengal’s Krishak Sabha – something I did a few years ago. Here is the link.

The upshot is that West Bengal now has a reasonably good agricultural electricity governance regime – a regime that other states might as well emulate if they want to avert the crisis that they have been plunged into. Once again, Bengal sets the precedence. Yay!

Electricity use in agriculture: Deliberaterly messy data

14 Jul

Yesterday I wrote about inconsistent data on pumps and tubewells in India. That inconsistency, I think, stems from sheer apathy and lack of coordination among data collection agencies. It’s frustrating, but not quite as frustrating as dealing with agricultural electricity consumption data which is not only messy, but made messy on purpose. Indeed, two policies are responsible for the deliberate misreporting of electricity consumption in agriculture. One is the indirect subsidy payment regime in which the state government reimburses the electricity distribution company (DISCOM) an amount equivalent to the electricity that they supplied to the farmers. Second, the policy decision taken some 25-30 years ago to remove meters from all agricultural tubewells means that no one, not even the DISCOM, really knows the amount of agricultural electricity consumption. The electricity company has all the incentive in the world to claim a higher subsidy than they actually provided to the farmers and in the absence of metering, it is not easy to pin them down.

This is where the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs) come in. Their role, among other things, is to examine the veracity of subsidy claims of the DISCOMs.  In Punjab, the utility and the SERC have been engaged in a game of cat and mouse since the early 2000s – the regulators constantly upbraid the utility for submitting exaggerated claims and reduce it by 5 to 15% every year, while the utility keeps trying to justify its claims. Punjab SERC pretty much forced the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) to install meters on 10% of agricultural tubewells and now use these meter readings to approve any subsidy claims.  Karnataka SERC, on the other hand, does not seem to be able to convince its DISCOMs to do a better job of energy accounting. Here, most DISCOMs grossly exaggerate the number of electric pumps and therefore, end up claiming a much higher subsidy for providing electricity to farmers than they actually do. SERCs have not yet been able to get the DISCOMs to do a decent job of tubewell census – let alone sample metering.

While all SERCs have the same mandate as per the Electricity Act of 2003, some SERCs do a better job than others. Why this is so is an interesting research question. Regulatory capture by the state comes readily to my mind as an explanation. But this needs more systematic analysis — something I intend to do in the future.