Managing the water-energy-food nexus in India: Insights from three states

15 Apr

Water-energy-food nexus is on top of the global policy agenda these days. What does this nexus mean for India? In India, it means, how do we manage electricity and groundwater without causing a lot of collateral damage to our farmers? There are no easy answers. Here are some of my thoughts where I draw evidence from my previous work in West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka.

India is the world’s largest groundwater user. By far the most important factor explaining this is the regime of power subsidies that India has evolved to support agricultural growth. As a result, agriculture, groundwater and electricity sectors in much of India are now bound in an invidious nexus of mutual dependence where the growth of one sector (agriculture) is being supported by unsustainable trends in the other two sectors (groundwater and electricity), so much so that even growth in agriculture is now threatened. Interestingly, all three components of the nexus – groundwater, electricity and agriculture are state subjects according to the Constitution of India. Hence it is the state governments, rather than the central government, which can formulate policies for tackling this nexus. Not surprisingly, different states in India have adopted different ways of managing this nexus.

Let’s take the case of West Bengal – an eastern state of India endowed with alluvial aquifers and high rainfall and recharge. Here till 2007, farmers had to pay a flat rate for electricity consumption – a rate, which was non-trivial and quite high when compared to other states where farmers get electricity subsidy. Due to a number of favorable political factors the government of West Bengal (see Mukherji, 2006) was able to meter all electric tube wells and charge a metered tariff which is equivalent to the cost of supply of electricity. This did away with the need for electricity subsidy. Thus, a strong price signal was sent to the farmers to make efficient use of electricity and groundwater and break the invidious nexus. However, the consequences were not so equitable — the small and marginal water buying farmers lost out as some of our previous studies showed (Mukherji et al. 2009). The recent plans of the government of West Bengal to give more electricity connection to farmers may help in reducing the negative impacts of metering by introducing competition in informal water markets.

Punjab, the heart of Green Revolution and the bread basket of India is located in the north-western part of the country. This is a semi-arid state, endowed with alluvial aquifer – an aquifer that has been over-exploited for over 30 years now. The Punjab government gives free electricity to farmers for groundwater pumping, but the amount of this electricity is strictly rationed through separation of feeders into agricultural and non-agricultural feeders. There is a strong political resistance to metering and hence rationing came up as the second best option. Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission (PSERC) was set up in 2000. Since then, it has encouraged the electricity utility to do better energy accounting, lower their technical losses and to improve quality of power to farmers through installation of High Voltage Distribution Systems (HVDS). Here, the main policy lever for controlling groundwater use has been rationing of electricity, thereby forcing farmers to invest in efficiency enhancing measures such as use of energy efficient pumps and laser levelers.

Karnataka, a drought prone, hard rock state in Southern India provides another contrast to Punjab and West Bengal. Agriculture here is precariously dependent on groundwater and aquifers with limited storage capacity have been depleted. Here too, like Punjab, the government has taken upon a scheme to separate agricultural and non-agricultural feeders and ration electricity to agriculture, but the design of this scheme is such that it has defeated the very purpose of rationing. For instance, in segregated agricultural feeders, three-phase electricity is provided for 6 hours, but single phase electricity is provided for another 10-12 hours. This enables farmers to withdraw groundwater using a single phase electric pump. Similarly, cases of power theft and illegal tube wells are rampant and the Karnataka State Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC) has not been able to do much about it, in spite of its good intentions, purportedly due to strong farmers lobby and unwillingness of the state government to take decisions deemed to be anti-farmer.

To sum up, I present examples from three states in India—states which have used very different approaches for managing this nexus—ranging from economics text book solution in West Bengal, to second best solution in Punjab, to utter anarchy in Karnataka. This underlines the importance of politics and governance in managing water-food –energy nexus in India.

Additional readings:
Mukherji A. 2013. ‘Water-Food-Energy nexus in the context of groundwater use in India: Experience from three Indian states’, paper presented at Expert Group Meeting on Improving Access to Water Sanitation and Energy Services in Asia and the Pacific by addressing the Water-Food Energy nexus, 20-22 March 2013, Bangkok, Thailand

Shah, T; Giordano, M; Mukherji, A. 2012. Political economy of the energy-groundwater nexus in India: exploring issues and assessing policy options. Hydrogeology Journal, 20(5):933-941.

Mukherji, A., B. Das, N. Majumdar, N.C. Nayak, R.R. Sethi and B.R. Sharma (2009), Metering of agricultural power supply in West Bengal, India: Who gains and who loses? Energy Policy: 37 (12): 5530-5539.

Mukherji, A. (2006), Political ecology of groundwater: The contrasting case of water abundant West Bengal and water scarce Gujarat, India, Hydrogeology Journal 14(3):392-406.


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