Unless Maharashtra fixes this, droughts will worsen
Given his aggressive plans to jumpstart India’s flagging road-building programme, it is not surprising that roads minister Nitin Gadkari—a leading Maharashtra politician as well—should suggest that his home state spend more money on creating irrigation cover in response to the ongoing drought conditions. If the state had more dams, its capacity to store more water would rise, as would the irrigation potential—just 18% of the gross cropped area in the state is irrigated right now, making this its top priority. Problem is, as an analysis by agriculture economist Ashok Gulati points out, Maharashtra is one of India’s most spendthrift states when it comes to irrigation—at 1,845, it has the most dams in the country, and has compounded this with extremely bad usage practices. Over the Xth and XIth Plan period, it spent R118,000 crore (at FY15 prices) to create 8.9 lakh hectares of irrigation potential—that makes it a whopping R13 lakh per hectare and an even higher R20 lakh for the irrigation used since over a third of the potential remains unutilised. Compare this with Gujarat which spent R47,000 crore to create 22.5 lakh hectares of potential—that’s R 2 lakh per acre in terms of potential created and R2.7 lakh in terms of the irrigation actually used. Any plan that envisages increased irrigation expenditure in Maharashtra has to take this huge leakage into account—it is because of this that the state had a huge irrigation scam some years ago.
Immediately, of course, the attempt should be to at least make full use of the capacity created since this will raise irrigation levels by a third. Doing that, however, requires more than just building more irrigation canals and is directly linked to the state’s faulty agriculture practices. Take a dam that creates 1million hectares of potential irrigation, of which 7 lakh is in sector A which has enough irrigation canals and 3 lakh in sector B which is downstream of sector A and has no canals. Building canals in B is a good idea, but if all the water is used up in sector A, there is no water for B, with or without canals. With the bulk of the water in Maharashtra used up by sugarcane—as FE pointed out earlier, the water used in all the IPL matches in the state would have consumed the same amount of water used by just 3 tonnes of sugar while the state produces 8-9 million tonnes every year. With no water left for other crops, less than 3% of cotton in Maharashtra is irrigated as compared to around 57% in Gujarat—that’s why Gujarat’s yield is 689 kg per hectare versus Maharashtra’s 296 and that’s also why more cotton farmers commit suicide in Maharashtra than in Gujarat. So, even if Maharashtra is to build more dams and ensure there aren’t the kind of leakages there were earlier, there has to be a policy to reduce water usage in sugarcane and increase it in other crops like cotton.