As we leave behind the smooth, straight drive of NH 89 and take a dirt path that whirls around a few miles of undulating desert grassland, we end at a large patch of emerald green which looks outlandish. “The reason for such a spectacle in these harsh conditions lies close to the ground,” says Ravinder Chhabra, my local guide in Bikaner. We meet farm owner Sunil Bishnoi, a bespectacled man with a reticent demeanour. “In the last three years, I have seen an income rise of five times from this farm. From wheat, mustard and green fodder, I have now shifted to vegetables which are sent to markets of Punjab and Haryana,” he says. This transformation has come thanks to the installation of drip irrigation systems, which are a network of pipes, valves and emitters that supply water in drops to the root zone of the plants. This saves water, a precious resource in arid areas of Rajasthan.
Currently, drip irrigation is only practised in 2.85 percent of the total irrigated area in the country. In Rajasthan, it is slowly taking root riding piggyback on solar water pumps which are increasingly being used as an energy source for irrigation. A farmer availing a solar pump subsidy is required to irrigate at least 0.5 hectare of his farm using a drip system.
In Sri Ganganagar district--also called the granary of Rajasthan--10,292 hectares were brought under drip irrigation in 2013-14. There are farmers who have taken to it in a big way. Chhabra’s joint family farm of around 30 hectares is irrigated through drip irrigation which helps them earn around Rs 4 lakh per hectare every year. In contrast, his neighbour earns only around Rs 20,000 per hectare.
He says, “The difference lies in the crop. While I grow off-season vegetables using drip irrigation and low tunnels, my neighbour grows conventional crops,”. The October to June crop cycle helps the north Rajasthan farmer outwit neighbouring states in the production of vegetables. “We have shorter, less foggy winter which means better growth of vegetables and lesser occurrence of weeds and pests as compared to Punjab. The only advantage they had was more water which drip irrigation has neutralised,” Chhabra claims. Studies have shown that selective irrigation through drip also boosts up production as fertilizers mixed in water reach the root zone allowing rapid uptake of nutrients by plants thereby minimising losses.
The sprinkler effect
Drip irrigation is trying to emulate the success story another water-saving irrigation system--sprinklers--have been able to script in the desert state. Sprinklers spray water uniformly over the field imitating a rainfall. Though less efficient than drip, its popularity can be attributed to the failure of surface irrigation on undulating land, which is abundant in Rajasthan. Sprinklers were the first irrigation system which had pipes to carry water over the crests and troughs thus doing away with the need for surface levelling. This proved to be a boon for many farmers.
Though less efficient than drip, the popularity of sprinklers can be attributed to the failure of surface irrigation on undulating land which is abundant in Rajasthan. Sprinklers were the first irrigation system which had pipes to carry water over the crests and troughs thus doing away with need for surface levelling.
Since 1990-91, government programmes have patronised sprinkler irrigation. In 1997-98, the area under sprinklers was 7.27 per cent which jumped to 25.99 per cent in 2004-05. No wonder Rajasthan has the highest area (2,95,500 hectare) irrigated by sprinklers. “The demand of sprinklers had several private players setting up shop in Rajasthan which helped in promoting newer technologies like drip irrigation and solar water pumps, as well,” says Dr A K Purohit, former Director of Extension Education at Swami Keshwanand Rajasthan Agricultural University. More often than not, these private agencies help farmers negotiate the process involved in availing a government subsidy.
Water needs saving
Rajasthan comprises 10.4 percent of India’s landmass and 5.5 percent of the total population but has only one percent of the nation's water resources. The state's per capita availability of water of 857 m3 is far below the national average of 2,384 m3. Groundwater is either saline or declining at a fast rate. A region/district-wise analysis shows that in 1960, tube wells and wells irrigated 58.5 percent area which shot up to 72.72 percent in 2003-04. In 1984, 100 percent blocks were in the “safe‟ category but by 2009, the figure tanked to less than 13 percent. Around 70 percent blocks are overexploited in the state today.
In such a scenario, micro irrigation is a necessity as its water use efficiency is 70-90 percent as compared to 35-40 percent in conventional surface irrigation. According to a 2014 study, farmers in Rajasthan who took to this reported increase in irrigated area using the same amount of water, hike in income and reduction in consumption of fertilizers as these can be mixed in water and supplied directly to the plants.
Micro irrigation is also essential if Rajasthan wants to continue to reap benefits of the Indira Gandhi canal that gets its supply from Punjab. The inflow has been reducing over the years and the Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojna, the authority which manages the canal network, undertook a pilot project on sprinkler irrigation in 2012-13. The results were encouraging because despite a 26 percent reduction in water supplied, the area under cultivation rose by 250 percent. “The efficiency of the canal system rose to 65 percent from a mere 19 percent earlier and it is only bound to rise further in the future,” says Vinay Kataria, the executive engineer at IGNP, Bikaner.
Despite a 26 percent reduction in water supplied, the area under cultivation rose by 250 percent thanks to the introduction of sprinkler irrigation.
Farmers in the canal command area are being encouraged to make small tanks (diggis) in their farms to save canal water for future irrigation using sprinklers or drip system. “The supply has reduced so it’s advisable that farmers store water whenever their turn comes instead of using it up for flood irrigation”, says Jai Narain Beniwal, Deputy Director (Agriculture) of Hanumangarh district, where around 6,600 diggis have been constructed under a government subsidy programme.
Sun shows the way
Besides water, energy is also scarce in Rajasthan. In 2009-10, the state used 39.4 percent of its total available energy for irrigation. This was almost double of the national average of 20.98 percent. About 70 percent irrigation is done through wells or tube-wells energised mainly by grid-power or diesel generators. Moreover, many farms are not electrified because extension of the electric grid is not feasible in far-flung areas. The waiting time to get an electricity connection for a farm ranges from 3-4 years thus making diesel as a costly but the most accessible option. In such a scenario, solar energy is turning out to be a boon for many as Rajasthan not only gets 315 sunny days in a year but also the daily amount of sunlight it gets is very high (6-7 kWh/m2).
The state government gave a boost to solar water pumps through a subsidy of 86 percent on the capital cost which was gradually reduced to stand at 70 percent in 2014-15. The scheme was scaled up from a mere target of 50 in 2010-11 to 10,000 in 2013-14. Though the growth remains restricted to just a few districts of north eastern Rajasthan, the numbers have helped the state achieve the distinction of running the world’s largest solar pump programme.
This expansion has also led to the adoption of drip irrigation as farmers availing a government subsidy on solar pumps have to use drip on 0.5-0.75 hectare depending on the capacity of the pump. From 582 hectares in 2000-01, the area under drip irrigation rose to 28,400 hectare in 2012-13. Om Prakash Godela, a farmer in Sri Ganganagar, grows off-season vegetables in a greenhouse irrigated through drip systems and powered by a solar water pump. He has experienced a rise of 30 percent in annual income. In addition, the solar set up also supplies power to his lights and fans at home thus reducing his electricity bill.
Will the progress sustain?
The next challenge is to expand the benefits of micro irrigation among small farmers. Despite having the largest area under sprinkler irrigation, Rajasthan has achieved just 14.3 percent of the potential area. Big farmers who can afford the adoption of technology and ensure upkeep of their systems have been the main gainers until now.
Another task at hand is to increase the area under more efficient drip and mini sprinklers. Over 75 percent sprinklers systems put to use are portable which are less efficient than mini and micro sprinklers. For instance, in Sri Ganganagar, mini sprinklers make up just one fourth of total sprinklers allotted under the government programme. In Bikaner, only 15 percent of the total sprinkler beneficiaries asked for the mini versions. "Though mini sprinklers are more efficient, they cost eight times more than the bigger, portable sprinklers. The latter have also been around for longer period of time and hence are more popular", Chhabra offers.
On the other hand, the area under drip irrigation is installed also just 2.3 percent of the potential area despite its promotion through solar water pumps. However, it seems the Rajasthan government is not up to these challenges as it has reduced the subsidy.
Until 2014-15, the subsidy share on drip irrigation was 70 per cent of the total amount and a farmer was to pay Rs 32,000 per hectare. Beginning this year, the subsidy has been substantially reduced to 35-45 per cent.
There are also doubts about the actual coverage of drip irrigation as many farmers get a drip system installed just to meet the eligibility norm for a solar water pump. “The compulsory drip clause is not as good as it looks on paper. Though area under drip irrigation has increased in government files, many farmers abandon the system after awhile. Instead of forcing it down on people, the government should have been popularising drip through trainings and workshops so that the adoption is for long term”, Chhabra asserts. Hopefully, as the farmers face increased water shortage, they will shift to such technologies--with or without subsidies.