On groundwater and equity in India

30 Jan

When much is being written about ill effects of intensive groundwater use and how all the benefits accrue  to the rich farmers and dis-benefits to the poor, because the rich own a major share of India’s wells and tubewells and poor are always forced to buy water from them at exorbitant prices, I thought, I will have another look at the data. What I see does not surprise me, because I always knew that our small and marginal farmers own a dis-proportionate share of our groundwater structures relative to their land holding and also make more intensive use of groundwater than their richer counterparts. But these findings may come as surprise to a lot of doomsday predictors and naysayers. I make three propositions and then check what our Agricultural Census says. The latest Agricultural Census that I found online is for 2005-06, though a friend told me that 2010-11 is available on Indiastat website.

Proposition 1: Distribution of wells and tubewells is much less inequitable than distribution of land

Land and water are basic means of production. Through owning a disproportionately large number of wells and tubewells, our small and marginal farmers can to some extent (though not entirely), counter the inequity in land ownership. Table 1 shows that there are roughly 100 million farm holdings in India. Of these, 64.1% of the holdings are marginal holdings of less than 1 ha. These marginal farmers, who are 64% of India’s farmers, own and operate only 19.9% of India’s operated land of 132 million ha. However, these same marginal farmers own and operate 46.3% of India’s 15.7 million wells and tubewells in 2005-06. So, compared to distribution of land holding, distribution of irrigation assets is far more equitable.

Table 1:

Class size of farmers % of holding to total number of land holdings % of area owned and operated by each category to total operated area % Wells and tubewells owned by each category to total wells and tubewells
Marginal (<  1 ha)

64.1

19.9

46.3

Small (1 to 2 ha)

18.7

20.7

20.4

Semi-Medium (2-4 ha)

11.2

24.1

17.1

Medium (4-10 ha)

5.1

23.1

12.6

Large (>10 ha)

0.9

11.5

3.7

All *

100.84 million holdings

132.06 million ha

15.68 million wells and tubewells

*Figures in last row are in absolute numbers while the rest are in %. Source: Agricultural Census, 2005-06

Proposition 2: Small and marginal farmers irrigate a larger share of their land

Data shows that small and marginal farmers irrigate a larger share of their land than large farmers and my work shows that often, access to groundwater makes this possible. This again relates to their small landholding and the imperative to grow multiple crops in a year to eke out a living, or in other words to keep their body and soul together. Table 2 shows area under irrigation in different categories of farms. It further sub-divides the area by source of that irrigation (canal, groundwater and tanks and other sources). Marginal farmers, on an average, irrigate more than half of their holding, while large farmers irrigate only 28% of their holdings and leave the rest unirrigated. For all categories of farmers, groundwater is the main source of irrigation and percentage contribution of three sources (canal, groundwater and tanks and others) remain more or less the same across categories.

Table 2: Irrigation status and source of irrigation by farm size category

Class size of farmers % of area receiving irrigation to total land holding % of area under canal irrigation % area under groundwater irrigation % area under tanks and other sources
Marginal (<  1 ha)

52.3

14.4

29.2

8.7

Small (1 to 2 ha)

42.8

11.2

25.8

5.8

Semi-Medium (2-4 ha)

40.5

10.4

25.6

4.5

Medium (4-10 ha)

38.4

10.8

24.2

3.3

Large (>10 ha)

27.9

8.8

16.7

2.4

All *

41.4

11.2

24.8

5.0

Irrigated area in million ha

54.26 m ha (net irrigated area)

14.84 m ha

32.78 m ha

6.64 m ha

Source: Agricultural Census, 2005-06

Proposition 3: There are more wells and tubewells per hectare of land on marginal and small farms

This is somehow related to my propositions 1 and 2 and stems from a greater need for intensification for small and marginal farmers.  Table 3 shows that every 100 ha of marginal sized land holding has 25 wells and tubewells, while every hectare of large sized farm has only 3.2 wells and tubewells. No wonder, small and marginal farmers irrigate much more intensively than their larger counterparts.

Table 3: Well and tubewell density by size class of land holding

Class size of farmers Number of wells and tubewells per 100 ha of operated area
 

Electric tubewells/100 ha

Diesel tubewells/100 ha

Total tubewells/100 ha

Marginal (<  1 ha)

17.0

8.0

25.0

Small (1 to 2 ha)

7.8

3.9

11.7

Semi-Medium (2-4 ha)

6.1

2.5

8.5

Medium (4-10 ha)

4.6

1.6

6.2

Large (>10 ha)

2.3

0.9

3.2

All

7.7

3.4

11.1

Source: Agricultural Census 2005-06

Now, next time anyone glibly repeats the received wisdom that groundwater wells in India are a domain of the rich and they exploit other poor gullible, helpless farmers, I will ask him/her to look at data again and separate facts from fiction!

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