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Energy scarcity, and not delayed monsoon, is to blame for late paddy transplantation in Nepal

13 Jul

This year, monsoon has played truant. According to the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, rainfall deficit in the western and far western region of Nepal for the month of June is around 50%, while the Indian Meteorological Department estimates rainfall deficit in India at ­­­43%. Scientists reckon that El Nino effect is to blame. El Nino is the weather phenomena caused by the warming of the sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean. It occurs irregularly every two to seven years and is associated with weaker monsoon. 2002 and 2009 were El Nino years during which monsoon rainfall was below normal, causing drought and decline in crop production in many parts of South Asia. South Asia Climate Outlook Forum (SASCOF), which prepares monsoon outlook for South Asia every year, indicated that this year monsoon is likely to be below normal.

Poor monsoon is terrible news for our region’s agriculture given the limited irrigation facilities and heavy reliance on rain-fed farming. The slow pace of paddy transplantation in Nepal is making headlines, while the price rise and hoarding is making news in India. If monsoon rains do not catch up soon, it will have serious implications on food security, food prices and overall economic growth in the region. There is not much we could have done about the delayed monsoon, but were there ways in which its negative impact on agriculture could have been reduced?

Farmers need energy and irrigation infrastructure to grow food for the country

Yes, negative impacts on agriculture could have been partly averted by concerted investments in irrigation and energy infrastructure, both in the hills and in the Terai. By irrigation, we do not necessarily mean large scale surface irrigation costing millions of dollars, but even small scale irrigation using groundwater could have worked miracles at this time. Indeed there are roughly 120,000 farmer-owned shallow tubewells dotting the Terai and farmers use them for life saving irrigation and for growing high-value crops like vegetables. But they all run on diesel and given the high cost of diesel, it does not make a lot of economic sense for farmers to transplant paddy using diesel pumps. Instead, farmers choose to wait for the arrival of monsoon and by doing so, risk severe reduction in yields. Delayed transplantation affects not only paddy production, but also impacts the rest of the cropping cycle. What is happening right now in Nepal is starkly reminiscent of what happened in Bihar during the 2009 drought. Bihar, like much of Nepal, has poor irrigation infrastructure. It had a deficit rainfall of 40% that year and the area sown with paddy plummeted by 50%, leading to severe loss in farmers’ income. However, in Punjab, with similar rainfall deficit, there was hardly any decline in cropped area simply because farmers had access to irrigation – both through canals and electricity operated groundwater pumps.

In places like the Terai, where groundwater is available in plenty and at very shallow depths, it is indeed distressing to see fields left fallow due to late arrival of monsoon, or for that matter, fields left fallow during the summer season, when a second or a third crop could have been easily grown. Similar is the case in the mid hills, where perennial rivers flow at valley bottoms, but water cannot be lifted from the rivers to irrigate fields on hill slopes.

Energy scarcity and not water scarcity is the real issue

The Terai and the mid hills do not really face a physical scarcity of water per se, even when monsoons fail once in a while, like it may this year. Water is available, either a few feet below the ground in abundantly recharged aquifers, or flowing through the river valleys. Yet, farmers cannot use this plentiful water because they lack access to affordable and reliable sources of energy to lift that water. While the impact of power shortage on urban residents and industries is much discussed, farmers’ plight due to energy scarcity rarely makes headlines.

Just imagine for a moment that most of those 120,000 or so shallow tubewells in the Terai were connected to the electricity grid or solar panels and were getting reliable electricity supply for at least six hours a day. Or that there were several hundreds of small electricity or solar powered lift irrigation systems in the mid hills of Nepal. Then, would farmers still postpone paddy transplantation owing to the delay in monsoon? They most likely would not, because electricity is far more affordable than diesel and the cost of keeping land fallow are much higher.

This very important link between water, energy and agriculture is not well understood. True, the electricity being generated now is not enough for the population in general, not just farmers, but rarely is agricultural electricity deemed important enough to make it to policy documents and future electricity demand forecasts. This needs to change immediately if we want our farmers to cope with the vagaries of monsoon.

Give solar pumps a chance

Nepal is now making its long-term hydropower plans. This is the right time to think about other renewable sources of energy that can be developed and deployed quickly for the benefit of farmers. One such option is solar powered pumps. In the past decade, costs of solar panels have come down sharply, and it is now possible to install 1 HP solar pumps for a little over Rs. 200,000 and no further recurring costs. Higher capacity pumps are also available in the market, albeit at higher prices. These pumps are suitable for one-acre farms and for providing irrigation during the most critical period in paddy transplantation.

Thus, while worrying about the late arrival of monsoon is completely justified, let us not forget that most of the negative consequences of such delay could have been largely avoided if farmers had access to energy.

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The puzzle of agrarian growth and stagnation in the GMB basin

16 Nov

The story of agrarian growth and stagnation in the Ganga-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin (encompassing Bihar, West Bengal and Bangladesh) is a puzzle that keeps intriguing me. Pieces just don’t fall in place to yield one neat explanation. Perhaps, there are no neat explanations. Or perhaps, I am not looking at the right place. Who knows?

In the 1980s, for the first time, a century long agrarian stagnation in Bengal and Bihar drew attention of a host of scholars. Majority view opined that it was a regressive agrarian structure — a result of exploitative Zamindari system that held this region back, leading to a paradox of “hunger in a fertile land” as Boyce (1987) put it in a nutshell, in this seminal book Agrarian Impasse in Bengal: Agricultural Growth in Bangladesh and West Bengal. Around that time, West Bengal undertook relatively successful land reforms and agriculture did indeed turn around convincing many that land reforms was that much needed trigger. Agricultural growth in West Bengal, shot up in 1980s and remained high until mid-1990s. Since then, it has plummeted and is currently, one of the lowest in India. My own work points to energy squeeze as a reason for this stagnation.

In Bangladesh, however, events took a different turn. Without the political will for land reforms, Bangladesh decided to embark on a path of intensive groundwater use. For this, they did away with spacing norms for tubewells and also liberalised pump imports way back in 1987.  Very soon, Bangladesh, got literally flooded with millions of cheap Chinese pumps. Now the country has 15 lakhs shallow tubewells and low lift pumps (as compared to only 5 lakh pumps in West Bengal) and majority of these pumps run on diesel. Intensive groundwater use led to massive increase in area under summer ‘boro‘ paddy and consistently high agricultural growth — a growth that is unimpeded to this day.

In Bihar, land reforms never took off, but groundwater irrigation did take off, with private investments by small and marginal farmers, only to slow down in recent years. My hunch is that energy squeeze is implicated again.  However, agricultural growth rates in Bihar has always been low, even with private investments in yield enhancing inputs like fertilizers, HYV seeds and irrigation — especially shallow tubewells. Why?

Now, this is the puzzle I am grappling with. If land reforms was indeed that trigger, how come Bangladesh’s agriculture continues to grow even without it and how come West Bengal’s agriculture stagnated even after land reforms? Now, if groundwater irrigation was the trigger, how come, agriculture never grew in Bihar and has stagnated in West Bengal since late 1990s, in spite of a spurt in private investments in groundwater? Here, my thesis of energy-squeeze looks particularly attractive– physical access to groundwater not withstanding, it is the high energy costs of pumping that  makes it economically nonviable to irrigate remunerative, but high water consuming crops.

But wait, what about Bangladesh again? With over 95% of all pumps running on diesel, how come farmers there never faced or reacted to the kind of energy squeeze that farmers in West Bengal and Bihar faced and reacted to? I don’t have neat explanations, except that four things are different in Bangladesh: paddy productivity is 30-50% higher in Bangladesh than in West Bengal or Bihar; relative diesel to paddy price ratio is more favorable in Bangladesh than in either West Bengal or Bihar; irrigation requirement for boro crop is lower in Bangladesh than in West Bengal due to higher rainfall and late recession of floods and finally, with access to land and water (pumps) in the hands of a few richer peasants, those who actually take irrigation decisions, do not face the kind of credit constraints that very small and marginal farmers face in West Bengal and Bihar. All these four factors partially explain why energy-squeeze is less of an issue in Bangladesh than in eastern India.

Not neat or complete explanations, no where near it. And so, my quest continues…

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”.

Regulatory Commission or Captured Regulation?

27 Aug

During last month’s blackout in India, my husband and I were happily vacationing in the Himalayas. Of course, there was no electricity, but then, we weren’t expecting any either up there in the pristine hills. So we were oblivious of all the drama surrounding grid failure down in the plains.  On our return, our tax consultant told us that last date of tax filing has been extended by a month, thanks to a massive grid failure on the 31st July when no one could file their returns.  What an unintended happy consequence of a mess that is India’s power sector!

It was precisely to manage this mess that Electricity Act of 2003 stipulated that independent electricity regulatory authority be set up in every state. And most states complied. Just after the recent power crisis, I noticed that many newspapers were blaming ineffective regulation by these very regulatory authorities as one of the reasons that pushed our power systems on the brink on those fateful nights in late July. And, I believe, rightly so.

As a part of a project on energy-irrigation nexus, we have been looking at the role that these electricity regulatory authorities have played in streamlining methods for calculation of agricultural electricity supply. This is one of their many roles. Agricultural electricity is an Achilles heel of our power sector – not so much because electricity is free or subsidized, but because meters were removed from tubewells decades ago with the result that no one had a clue about agricultural electricity consumption. Then, as a part of the sector reforms program in the 1990s, former state electricity boards were unbundled and asked to work on commercial profit making principles. They were also told that should they provide free or subsidized electricity to the farmers at the behest of the state government, they would be compensated for the same by the government. Now, imagine a situation where Electricity Company does not know how much electricity goes to agriculture and on top of that government commits to compensate them for all the electricity they provide to the farmers. What will they do? Indeed, what will anyone do under the circumstance? They will inflate their estimate of electricity supplied to farmers in order to claim larger subsidy from the government. And this is where the regulatory commissions come in. They are supposed to provide checks and balances and ensure that the electricity utilities do not claim inflated amounts of subsidy in the name of the farmers.

And how well are the electricity regulatory authorities functioning in this regard? We found that Punjab SERC has taken its mandate more seriously than most. They have over the last 10 years almost forced the state electricity utility to do a better job of energy accounting through fixing of 10% sample meters on tubewells, third party audits, commissioning studies for estimation of correct estimation methodologies etc. Karnataka SERC seems to have floundered, with the result that agricultural energy consumption estimation methodologies are very problematic. And some states like Madhya Pradesh does not even have proper records available online for us to understand its current state of affairs.

Why is there such variation in performance of regulatory commissions when all of them have the same mandate? I am told by many experts that this is a classic case of regulatory capture. Most of these commissions are headed by retired Power Secretaries. To me the conflict of interest is so glaringly clear that I am surprised that no one thought about barring ex-bureaucrats from assuming such regulatory roles immediately after retirement. Looks like the recently launched and much discussed Shunglu Commission Report has done precisely this. To quote:

“It is also recommended that an individual having worked in any capacity with the state government during immediately preceding five years should not be eligible for appointment as a Regulator in that state. Similarly, the Regulator should not take up further employment with the concerned state government on relinquishing office.” (Chapter 4:105).

Will this recommendation be accepted? I doubt it. After all, when has the ruling elite (and our bureaucrats are the elites of the elite) agreed to reduce their own power?

Making groundwater public property is a bad public policy choice

18 Jul

Today’s Times of India has published a news article on its front page, lauding a government proposal to make groundwater public property and engaging village communities in its management. The link is here.While this sounds reasonable in theory, there are several reasons why this is a poorly thought out idea.

First, it makes the assumption that once in public domain, groundwater will be better managed in the greater public interest. But where is the evidence for this? The newspaper, in another related article, said that this is being done in several villages in Andhra Pradesh.  I believe, they are referring to Andhra  Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater Systems Project (or APFMGS in short). While APFMGS was indeed successful in involving farmers in managing groundwater through proper water accounting and demand management, but  our recent field visits show that this success was  limited to the duration of the project and has fizzled out since then. Not surprising , this is often the fate of most projects, especially projects aimed at ‘demand-management’ as opposed to ‘supply-augmentation’.

Second, this proposal also says that village panchayats should be involved in groundwater management. For those who think that village panchayats are capable of doing this, or will do a fair job of it, must indeed be living in Gandhian utopia of Gram Swaraj  than Ambedkar’s reality of villages as center of oppression against the poor and the lower castes. I ask again, where is the evidence that involving village panchayats in management of such a precious resource — a resource on which lives  of millions of farmers depend, will be any better than the status quo? Or that such one-off initiatives can be sustained? Indeed, if anything, there is a lot of evidence to show that performance of Panchayati Raj Institutions has been dismal all throughout out India.

Third, there are other countries in the world like Mexico and Spain which have made groundwater public property years ago and have since then tried to manage it through laws and regulations. Ours and others assessment of these initiatives clearly demonstrates the implementation challenges. And these are countries with five times our per capita GDP, less than 1/10th  our numbers of wells and tubewells and several times better implementation capabilities. Here are links to papers from Spain and Mexico  highlighting the challenges and limited successes so far.

Fourth, several states in India have tried  implementing groundwater laws. This has almost always led to corruption and rent seeking. Our work in West Bengal shows that officials in charge of giving permits to farmers acted arbitrarily  and were often accused of seeking bribes. Ramamohan’s work in Andhra Pradesh also highlights similar problems.

Our contention is that as an idea, this is not bad. But given the implementation challenges, the net result of making groundwater a public property may not be any better than the current regime. And if more government control becomes a channel for bribes and corruption, then the very people that this move aims to protect, will be even worse off than they are now. So, if such ‘direct’ regulations do not work, what does? Global evidence of managing groundwater shows that indirect measures often work better than direct interventions. In the context of India, the most important lever for managing groundwater is through managing the energy-irrigation nexus. It could be  done either through rationing or pricing of electricity. Various states in India are indeed trying to do this and they would need support in their endeavor. Making groundwater a public property will hardly help — it is neither here, nor there!

Metering in West Bengal: Of economics and politics

16 Jul

In those good old days (that is good old days for the Bengalis!), there was a saying that what Bengal does today; India does tomorrow. But thanks to decades of bad governance, this is not true anymore. Indeed, there is hardly anything that India can learn from Bengal – except perhaps how to manage agricultural electricity supply. In my previous post, I had written about how in the 1970s and 80s, all states in India had decided to remove meters from irrigation tubewells. Most of these states, including West Bengal, then started charging farmers a fixed fee for electricity use. This policy made sense at that time because tubewells were few and far between and the cost of meter reading was higher than the revenue generated from it. Besides, an unintended benefit was the proliferation of informal groundwater markets which then became the main conduit through which poor and marginal farmers got access to irrigation.

However, unmetered electricity supply precipitated a crisis in the electricity sector. By early 2000s it was widely recognized that agricultural tubewells – which now stood close to 10-12 million, needed to be metered for the sake of proper energy accounting. Energy accounting is the Achilles heel of India’s power sector. But by then, there were strong farmers lobbies and vested interest within the electricity departments which resisted any attempt at metering. The Electricity Act of 2003 made metering mandatory, but to no avail. West Bengal is the only state which has been able to meter agricultural tubewells. It started its metering program in 2007 and by now almost 90% of all tubewells in the state are metered. A 3ie funded project helped us evaluate the impact of metering of tubewells on groundwater use. Here is the link.

Why was West Bengal able to meter tubewells when other states failed? The answer, our research shows, lies in the domain of both economics and politics. The electricity utility in West Bengal, by continually raising flat tariff had made it so high, that by 2007, most farmers realized that electricity bill under a metered tariff will be much cheaper than the flat tariffs they were paying. In contrast, the other states had kept their flat tariffs so low (or even free) that farmers saw absolutely no benefit in switching over to metered tariff. And that West Bengal had all but 100,000 electric tubewells, as against 1.1 million in Punjab also helped. But then, why was Bengal able to raise flat tariff over the years, while other states could not? The answer lies in the politics of groundwater. West Bengal, unlike Gujarat or Punjab, never had a strong farmers lobby agitating for access to groundwater. This was because the way the Left Front government had co-opted the only farmers group in the state – the Krishak Sabha. The contrast is clear if we compare Gujarat’s Bharatiya Kisan Sabha with Bengal’s Krishak Sabha – something I did a few years ago. Here is the link.

The upshot is that West Bengal now has a reasonably good agricultural electricity governance regime – a regime that other states might as well emulate if they want to avert the crisis that they have been plunged into. Once again, Bengal sets the precedence. Yay!