Archive | September, 2012

On winning the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application

27 Sep

Exactly a month ago, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, the Chairman of the World Food Prize called to say that I have won the Inaugural Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. Right after that, a colleague who knew Dr. Borlaug from his days at CIMMYT sent me an email saying “receiving an award named for Norm Borlaug is something to be very, very proud of”. And yes, I am very proud, and humbled at the same time. I will receive this award on 17th of October, 2012 at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa. As the father of Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug is much loved and respected in India. So, this news was covered by almost all major newspapers. While much of this work is written up as journal articles and book chapters, a lot of people have also requested me to write about my work in a simple and accessible way. Here it is:

I started working on groundwater and irrigation issues in 2001 when I joined the IWMI-Tata Program in Anand, Gujarat. As a part of that work, Tushaar Shah and I designed a survey of groundwater users in South Asia and the survey results surprised me. I realized that groundwater economies in eastern India were very different from the dominant discourse of scarcity and over-exploitation elsewhere in the country. This made me curious and I wanted to understand the role of groundwater in agrarian economies of eastern India better. So, when I went to Cambridge, I decided to work on policy and institutional issues in access to groundwater in West Bengal. After my PhD, I joined IWMI, Sri Lanka as a post-doctoral fellow and continued this work. Since then, we at IWMI have been tracking a few hundred farmer households in Bengal with surveys in 2004, 2007 and 2010. We are planning a fourth round of survey in 2013. What were our major findings?

We found that, after showing high growth in mid 1980s and early 1990s, West Bengal’s agricultural economy had slowed down with adverse impact on farmers’ incomes and livelihoods. In recent years, it barely registered 1% annual growth. Groundwater economy contracted too. For example, according to the Minor Irrigation Census, number of groundwater wells declined from by over 100,000 from 2001 to 2007 – entirely unprecedented in India. This is a paradox given that the same minor irrigation census shows that in 80% of the villages, groundwater is available within less than 10 m and that groundwater levels recover sufficiently after the monsoon season due to high rainfall (1500-3000 mm per year) and alluvial nature of the aquifer. Yet, farmers found it difficult to pump water from aquifers for their crops. Why was this so?

This was so because farmers were facing high energy costs for pumping groundwater, given their dependence on diesel pumps and that fact that diesel prices have been increasing quite rapidly since early 2000s. In West Bengal, only 17% of all pumps are electrified, against a national average of over 60%. In states like Punjab, Haryana, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh etc., over 70-90% pumps are electrified. Electrification of pumps would have been an easy solution, especially since West Bengal has been an electricity surplus state for a long time now.

However, we found that farmers faced two main difficulties in connecting their pumps to the electricity grid. First was the Groundwater Act of 2005 which required all farmers to procure a permit from the groundwater authority before they could apply for an electric connection. This process of getting a permit was fraught with red tape and corruption and often led to harassment of farmers at the hands of unscrupulous officials. And then, even if a farmer managed to get a permit from the groundwater authorities he then had to pay full capital cost of electrification of tubewell. This included cost of wires, poles and transformers and often came to Rs. 1.5 lakhs and more – much beyond the capacity of small and marginal farmers owning less than half a hectare of land.

We presented our research findings to the Planning Commission and with the help of Dr. Mihir Shah, Member, Water Resources; we took our results and recommendations to the top decision makers in the state. We suggested removal of permits system in all blocks where groundwater situation is safe. We also suggested rationalization of capital costs of initial electrification, but at the same time recommended that metered tariffs for use of electricity must continue. We also suggested that MGNREGA funds should be used in a targeted manner for excavation of ponds in districts with alluvial aquifers for better groundwater recharge. The government accepted most of these suggestions. On 9th November, 2011, vide an administrative order, the Secretary Water Resources (WRIDD) changed the law whereby farmers residing in safe blocks and wanting to install pumps with less than 5 HP would no longer require a permit from groundwater department. Similarly, the electricity utility (WBSEDCL) has also come out with a circular saying that farmers would have a pay a one-time fixed cost for electrification and this cost will be around Rs. 10,000 or so. They will of course then continue to pay metered tariff.  Here, let me emphasize, that West Bengal has one of the best agricultural electricity governance regimes in India. Unlike other states where farmers get free and unmetered electricity, in Bengal, electric pumps are metered and farmers pay quite high electricity tariffs for pumping groundwater. This gives them incentive to make efficient use of groundwater and electricity.

With both these policy changes in place, it is expected that farmers will have easier access to groundwater, will be able to intensify their cropping systems, earn better livelihoods and emerge out of poverty. Together these have the potential to drastically change the nature of agriculture in West Bengal and usher in a second Green Revolution. The state has 7 million land holdings, of which 5.6 million are less than 1 ha size and belong to small and marginal farmers. Thus, if implemented well, the possible implications for increasing agricultural output and poverty reduction are huge. I also think that these policies are also replicable in much of eastern Indian states of Bihar and Assam with similar hydro-geological conditions.

Selected press coverage: Times of India, Telegraph, Hindustan Times, Economic Times and Dainik Jagaran.

A silent revolution? Agricultural groundwater use in Ferghana Valley

24 Sep

And now, field notes from Central Asia. This is based on fieldwork in Ferghana Province of Uzbekistan in August 2010. I wanted to understand various aspects of agricultural groundwater use. Conventional wisdom is that private groundwater extraction is prohibitively expensive, especially when compared to free canal water and hence private investment in groundwater would be conspicuous by its absence. But my brief fieldwork showed that a lot of investments were indeed taking place in the private domain. Excerpts from my field notes:

“We found three types of private groundwater extraction mechanisms on farmers’ fields. Of these, open shallow dug wells (Type I) and shallow tubewells (Type II) tap shallow groundwater at depths of not more than 8 to 10 m. These operate with either electricity (preferred) or petrol pumps. Most of these pumps are made in China and are small, portable and as cheap as USD 25 to USD 30 per piece. Total investment for this kind of shallow dugwells and tubewells ranges between USD 100 and USD 400. The third technology is that of deep electric tubewells (Type III) which are usually 120-180 meters deep and tap aquifers at depths of 70 to 90 m. These are fitted with high capacity electric submersible pumps that yield 12 to 20 litres of water per second. Capital cost of investment is high and estimated at USD 20,000 per tubewell. There is no public finance for these tubewells and farmers invest their own savings.

Type I and Type II technologies are used by kitchen garden owners and their preferred crops are grapes, tomatoes and cucumber – the latter two are usually grown in green houses. We found shallow tubewells (Type II) to be more widespread than shallow dugwells (Type I). Shallow dugwells were mostly found in somewhat rocky terrain of Ozbekistan district of Ferghana Province, while shallow tubewells were found all throughout Oltariq and Ferghana districts of Ferghana Province. As per one estimate, almost 50% of kitchen garden owners in Oltariq district have shallow tubewells. As per another estimate, around 25% of all agricultural land in Ferghana Province is under kitchen garden. While we do not yet have a robust estimate of the number of shallow wells and tubewells in the region, our preliminary field visits suggests that they are more common than generally thought.

These groundwater extraction mechanisms are essentially very shallow structures, use small capacity pumps (less than 1 l/s discharge) and do not need a separate electricity connection – they are always connected to the household electricity grid and monthly electricity bills averages between USD 7.00 to USD 10.00. Hours of pumping varies from less than 50 hours to 250-300 hours in a year. Grape is the preferred crop and kitchen garden size varies from 0.10 ha to 0.25 ha. While these shallow wells and tubewells do not account for the bulk of pumped volume of groundwater, they do have a large impact in terms of livelihoods benefits. The most oft quoted reason for farmers’ adoption of shallow wells and tubewells is that it gives them assured and reliable water supply, which canal water does not always give.

Type III technology (electric deep tubewells) is almost always owned by orchard farmers with land holding varying from 4 ha to upto 40 ha, or more. These are almost exact replicas of government deep tubewells and may cost anything between USD 15,000 to USD 25,000 for installation. These are fitted with large capacity pumps (20 KV to 45 KV) and receive electricity bills of upto USD 500 or more per month. They operate for 2000 to 4000 hours in a year and serve anything from 4 ha to 70 ha of land. Crops grown are peaches, apricots, grapes, apples and flowers. Farmers with land under cotton and wheat seldom invest in these deep tubewells. These deep tubewells are more widespread than generally believed. In one village called Eske Arab in Oltariq district of Ferghana we found 25 farmers who owned deep tubewells. A government official had earlier told us that there would be a maximum of 100 private tubewells in whole of Ferghana Province. However, given that there were 25 reported from just one village in one district of Ferghana province, our guess is that these numbers would far exceed 100.

Then there are government irrigation wells and drainage wells. These provide irrigation to a substantial number of farmers and kitchen garden owners. There are some 2500 of these in Ferghana Province and is an important source of irrigation. These are operated by government employed tubewell operators cum electricians and farmers get water for free. These are mostly used to grow cotton and wheat. We talked to a few farmers who depend on these public tubewells for irrigation and they seemed content with the quality of service received. The condition of most of these public tubewells was satisfactory.

To sum up, shallow groundwater extraction mechanisms are adopted by kitchen garden owners, while deep tubewells are adopted by farmers who grow orchard crops (and not cotton and wheat) and farmers who grow cotton and wheat depend on government owned deep tubewells. All these categories of farmers and farms also draw water from canal, so most of groundwater use in this region, is in reality, conjunctive use. This short fieldwork covering 3 districts in Ferghana Province shows that private investment in groundwater may be more widespread than is generally known. This is not surprising and has indeed been the case in most countries where groundwater use has peaked over the years, but has largely remained outside the ambit of public knowledge and discourse. This is precisely why Llamas et al. (2008) has termed the slow but sure ascent of groundwater use as a “silent revolution”.

Fieldnotes from Ethiopian Highlands…

24 Sep

In April 2008, I had done a brief spell of fieldwork in the Ethiopian Highlands. Specifically, I had visited two micro water sheds of Kanat and Magera located in Amhara National Regional State of Ethiopia. These water sheds were 100 km or so away from the town of Bahir dar – the capital of Amhara State and home to Lake Tana – the source of White Nile. I wanted to understand the constraints that farmers faced vis-à-vis access to water and other agricultural inputs. Other than writing detailed field notes, I had not done anything much with that. Today, while searching for some documents, I came across my field notes and thought I will post it on my blog as a reminder of ideas I had a long time ago, but ideas I did not pursue. Perhaps, one day, I will. Here are excerpts from my field notes:

“My first impression while driving through the Ethiopian highlands was that the sloping lands were intensively cultivated, with every plot of land being ploughed and kept ready for the onset of the rains. The hill slopes looked almost completely devoid of vegetation. Is this kind of intensive, but subsistence cultivation in the highlands a response to high population density? Also, are denuded hill slopes a recent phenomenon or have the hill slopes been always denuded? It seemed to me somewhat difficult to comprehend that farmers with their subsistent mode of farming would have led to such massive deforestation. I don’t know the answers, but I am pretty sure all these must have been studied. I just need to look up.

While the rains are expected in end of May-early July, we found that every patch of arable land has been ploughed and kept ready for planting. It also turned out that farmers plough their land at least 6-8 times before the advent of rains (in India, it is usual to plough only once or twice) using wooden plough and bullocks. Availability of bullock and plough is a constraint and rental markets exist for these.  Such high frequency of ploughing, we were told, was to capture as much rainwater as possible and retain it as soil moisture. We also found that fields were strewn with rocks and boulders of various size and shape. We were told that farmers prefer their fields to be like this because this ensures rainfall is effectively captured and prevents soil leaching. Are these correct agronomic practices? Again, I don’t know.

We found that farmers grow a variety of crops such as teff, wheat, maize, barley, rye and potato. Of these, only potato receives irrigation as well as fertilizer (or manure if a farmer can’t afford fertilizer). Springs are traditional sources of irrigation in the region. We were told that the agricultural extension officials have been promoting certain varieties of high yielding potatoes and that farmers are enthusiastic about cultivating those. Potato has emerged as the single most important cash crop. Yield of potato was about 200 quintals (1 quintal = 100 kg) per hectare of land. Potatoes are usually sold to village cooperative and sometimes even to private traders. Does it mean, if a crop (potato in this case) that offers cash income to the farmers is promoted, it is likely it would be adopted along with all kinds of improved practices that go with it? The role of extension workers seems important; we were told that they distribute better seeds to the farmers on a regular basis. To me, an interesting question was: are there more crops likes these in other parts of Ethiopia which respond to market demand?

Besides absence of reliable sources of irrigation (apart from springs, which anyway dry up in the non-rainy season), the main constraint here seemed to be high fertilizer price. The cost of urea is USD 60/quintal and that of DAP is USD 80/quintal. This is 6 to 8 times more expensive than in India. There are no private dealers of fertilizers; its supply is entirely controlled by the government. Fertilizers are imported right before the cropping season and farmers buy fertilizer from the cooperatives and pay in cash. An interesting feature of the village cooperative seemed to be that all the transactions were in cash and according to most people we talked to, cooperatives were at best functioning sub-optimally and yet remained the only source of fertilizer and corrugated aluminum sheets (which are in high demand for roofing). Why are fertilizer prices so high and what can be done to make fertilizer affordable to the farmers in Ethiopia? There is an interesting paper by Duflo, Kremer and Robinson (2008) on returns to fertilizer use in Kenya and the best ways to target farmers to achieve high fertilizer use.

The average size of the farm is 0.75 ha and farm sizes ranges from 0.25 ha to 1.25 ha. Even after land re-distribution, incidence of landlessness remains high. We found widespread prevalence of sharecropping arrangements for land, labour, farm inputs and even arrangements for sharing bullock and plough. We were told that sharecropping is extremely common and almost 50-60% of the plots might be under one form of sharecropping arrangement or the other.  The most common arrangement seemed to be where the owner of the land provided the land, the bullock and the plough and half the cost of fertilizer and seed, while the sharecropper (mostly landless labourer) provided labour, and half the cost of fertilizer and seed and they shared the output equally. This means that share of land owner who provides land and that of the sharecropper, who provides labour are equal. Various permutation and combinations of arrangements exists. Cost of hiring labour was found to be in the range of 15 to 20 birr per day (USD 1.5 to 2.0) and work hours were reported to be 6 am to 5 pm. One meal and local alcoholic beverage is included. Prima facie, it seems that share of landowner and sharecropper is equal and this is quite different from India. This possibly reflects the scarcity value of land over labour in India. But this does not seem to be happening in rural Ethiopia. Is it because, labor is equally scarce?

Questions I am keen to explore are: How prevalent are sharecropping arrangements in rural Ethiopia and how does share of land, labour, water and machine change across space and time? Is it likely, that with high population growth, the share of labour will get squeezed while that of land will increase? What will happen if there are technological interventions and the size of the whole pie (agricultural surplus) increases? How will that surplus be shared?

Finally, on a rather encouraging note, we found that the government of Ethiopia has invested in a number of new agricultural extension colleges with the aim of creating some 50,000 plus agricultural extension workers by 2015. These investments were done with aid from the Chinese government.”