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.

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One Response to “On winning the Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application”

  1. Diwan singh May 17, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    This order by Secretary, water Resources and reducing the capital cost of elec. connection is a laudable achievement. Its very important that a farmer is able to survive with his agricultural income- particularly, relief to small farmers is highly significant. Such achievements underlines the value of a good subject and reserach.

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