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.


5 Responses to “Aamir Khan, groundwater and drought proofing”

  1. ARIJIT DAS July 24, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Good one. I liked the arguments. We need to see most realistic options rather then the best one.

  2. Manish Chaurasiya July 24, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    Quite holistic piece and thanks for taking the pain of explaining the real conditions. One more thing about the cropping pattern: The excessive and unbalanced sowing of some crops like sugarcane every year has been leading towards the unsustainable use of groundwater table, which has been on a decline at a very rapid and alarming rate, specifically in the indo-gangatic belt, this has to be dealt with.

    Manish Chaurasiya
    PRM 31

  3. ChuiyerChu July 24, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

    Hooray! Thank you for knocking Amir Khan off his pedestal! We are responsible in the first place for placing him there. The problem is when we equate great acting with being an expert on all issues that matter. The real villain here is the government for getting its focus wrong on irrigation – electricity pricing – food subsidies – fuel subsidies. The other villain is the inability of donors / international academic institutions / civil society to influence policy.

  4. Deepti Trivedi July 25, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

    Hi Aditi, This is your first piece that I have read. I saw half the episode of Satyamev Jayate and was really impressed. Then I talked to my dad and he said that his so called experts had no idea what they were talking about and the problems today are much more severe. He also mentioned about the times that he ate wheat rotis in his village only for diwali and when there was a guest at home. Anyhow, we talked only for a few minutes. But your blog is the one that made me realize the real issues here. Thanks a lot.

    • aditimukherji July 26, 2012 at 12:06 am #

      Thanks so much Deepti for reading my post, am honored. And yes,your Dad gets it totally, but sadly so many of our so called experts don’t. Romanticizing the past is also a very common thing for most people, many think that past was better without really checking the numbers like life expectancy, child and maternal mortality, calorie consumptions etc etc. I was reading this book by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking fast and slow. He says, so often what we believe intuitively, because it makes sense and supports the general believe system may be wrong, because System I (our lazy mind, if i understood him right) is just too lazy to scrutinize contrasting facts. But if we let it doubt, then System II (our more rational mind) kicks in and helps us create a more nuanced understanding. So, in our good old days, we took care of our tanks and all our current problem is because we longer do, is an easy thing to believe. But we skeptics say, but but, wait a minute, 100 years ago, we weren’t 1 billion people, were we? So can the tanks still feed us?

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