NAWANSHAR, Punjab, India – On the way to Mandeep Sekhon’s wheat and rice farm, a 8-hectare (20-acre) expanse of irrigated paddies, the road swings past continuous fields of winter wheat, the first shoots of green peeking from the stubble of last summer’s rice.
Early on a December afternoon, 32-year-old Sekhon displays the principal source of India’s farm plenty and its illogic – two streams of pure water that pour from the mouths of his farm’s irrigation wells. The wells run 24 hours a day, whether the soil is dry or not. As Sekhon watched, Desraj Khai, the farm’s 57-year-old superintendent, clawed gaps in the walls of a narrow channel with a stout wooden rod, directing one stream of water to paddies green with young wheat. The other stream poured into a concrete cistern near Sekhon’s house and barn, then drained without supervision into a copse of aspen.
Both wells operate with electric pumps. And as is the case with all of the other rice and wheat farms in India, the state government provides the water and the power for free. “It’s like anything else that’s free,” Sekhon remarks as he gazes at the free-flowing water. “If you don’t have to pay for it you don’t pay much attention to how much you use. Human nature, you know.”
Last week Circle of Blue posted the second article in our Choke Point: India project, our report on the endemic mismanagement of India’s water, energy, and food resources. By overseeing its resources as social welfare policy to assist the poor, providing free water and power to farmers, India is encouraging corruption, enormous waste, pollution, and water depletion.
On the frantic and dangerous highways that tie Punjab together, honking horns and tires shrieking under the strain of tight turns command attention. But on the dirt roads that lead to villages, pumps and flowing water form much of this region’s soundtrack.
Yet other than the splash and rush of moving water there is there is little about the underlying confrontation between India’s rising demand for energy, its surplus food production, and uncertain water supply that soothes.
Electricity is in such short supply that the state utility sets schedules for its customers. Over in Naraingarh, a few kilometers away, Ashoka Gupta and his brother, Vinod Gupta, both in their 50s, own and manage the
Even with regular hours offered at competitive wages in region where decent jobs are scarce, the Gupta’s say it is hard to keep employees. “Night work,” says Ashok Gupta. “They don’t like it. But it’s all that we can do.”
Punjab’s homes are supplied with electricity in late afternoon, evening, and most mornings. Farmers get power during the night and intermittently during the day.
When power goes off diesel fueled generators provide electricity needed to run the pumps on Sekhon’s farm. Power outages are so embedded in the Indian way of life that any farmer, or anybody else for that matter who can afford it, purchases and operates a diesel generator. The steadily growing number of generators, which more people can afford as middle class incomes rise, are a principal reason that India’s petroleum consumption has climbed over 40 percent since 2000, to 3.2 million barrels per day, 70 percent of which is imported, according to the International Energy Agency. More than 40 percent of India’s petroleum is consumed as diesel fuel, according to the Ministry of Energy.
Of Punjab’s 4.3 million hectares (10.6) of cropland, 85 percent is irrigated with groundwater, according to the Ministry of Water Resources. Since the mid-1960s, the farmers of Punjab have installed over 1.2 million wells to irrigate their fields. The number of new wells increases an average of 20,000 a year in Punjab.
Even in Haryana, where snowmelt is collected in reservoirs and irrigation water flows to farms through an extensive network of canals, farmers still rely on groundwater and over 100,000 wells.
In the two states, the effect on groundwater levels is dramatic. Decades ago, according to farmers and government agriculture authorities, groundwater was reachable within 10 meters (32.8 feet) from the surface. In June 1989, under 15 percent of the groundwater beneath Punjab’s farmland was deeper than 10 meters. By June 2008, according to state government figures, 61 percent was deeper than 10 meters, and in much of the region the water table had sunk to more than 60 meters (196 feet.)
The decline in water tables is just as dire in other big farm states. The groundwater table in Rajasthan, Gujarat, parts of Andhra Pradesh and western Madhya Pradesh have fallen below 300 meters. Climate change, according to state meteorological assessments, has made drought a yearly phenomenon. A quarter of Rajasthan’s wells run dry every year. In the entire Indus basin, which includes Punjab and Haryana, groundwater pumping is estimated to exceed recharge by 50 percent.
Sekhon and his family are well aware of the falling water table. Four years ago they spent over 300,000 rupees each ($10,000) to replace their existing 50-meter wells with 100-meter wells driven by more powerful pumps. It’s a trend in Punjab and Haryana that also requires more electricity. During planting and cultivating seasons, as much as half of the electricity used in Punjab is consumed by electric irrigation pumps, according to the state utility.
In Haryana, 35 percent of all electricity is consumed in pumping water for agriculture, said J.K. Juneja, chief of engineering and planning for HVPNL, which operates the state transmission grid. Blackouts and power supply interruptions are damaging the state’s ability to attract new business and industry. Haryana, said Juneja, has spent more than $7 billion since 2007 to add 5,000 megawatts of new electrical generating capacity, more than tripling the electric capacity to 7,000 megawatts, much of it now fueled by coal.
Still, due in part to falling water tables and increasing numbers of irrigation wells, Haryana will need to keep building power plants – 10,000 more megawatts of generating capacity by 2017, said Juneja. Will Haryana have the financial means to build the equivalent of 10 new power plants? Juneja raised his arms, palms up, and said, “I don’t know. But we need electricity. Other states have the same problem.”
And what’s that problem? Actually there are two. Uncollected fees and uncertain fuel supplies. Because farmers don’t pay for power, the state utility is perennially in deficit, relying on the national government for financial assistance, and unable to build new transmission lines to modernize an electrical power grid that wastes almost as much electricity as it transports, according to national figures.
Almost all of the new power plants built in India in the last five years, and planned for the next 10, are fueled by coal. India is building the equivalent of 20 big new power plants annually. It mined 600 million metric tons of coal last year, according to the Ministry of Energy; 70 percent used to generate electricity.
Demand for coal, though, was more than 700 million metric tons. Regional newspapers reported that new coal-fired plants were not put into operation, or had reduced power output because of a shortage of fuel.
On December 8 last year, near the village of Ratta Khera in southern Punjab, a team of rescuers pulled an eight-year-old male leopard out of a 22-foot-deep water well. The leopard, injured, had apparently slipped, fallen to the bottom, and didn’t have the space to leap out.
The simple story, widely reported, is an apt metaphor for this region and a nation full of spirit and strength, yet abiding by a slippery path and fully capable of being trapped by narrowing circumstances of its own making.
It’s not that India’s water reserves are low. They aren’t. Rainfall is ample in much of the country. The glaciers of the Himalayan foothills and mountains of the north feed rain and snowmelt to over a dozen major river systems. India’s annual renewable water reserves total 1,608 billion cubic meters a year, ranking it ninth in water supply among the world’s nations, according to the CIA Wordbook. India’s farmland resources also are ample.
The country has ample land. Its supply of arable farmland spans183 million hectares (452 million acres), second only to the United States.
And for a nation of 1.2 billion people that demographers predict will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous, India’s demand for grain is surprisingly modest. Most Indians don’t eat soybean and corn-consuming beef or pork. Last year India’s farmers harvested 227 million metric tons of wheat, rice, and other food grains. Farmers in China, where 1.3 billion people live who’ve developed appetites for meat and dairy products, last year produced 571 million metric tons.
Yet almost solely as a result of farm policy that ensures a glut of food, India is wasting energy, draining its treasury, threatening its water supply, and impeding its development. Adjusting policy to respect the market as much as it does the welfare of farmers will help solve India’s water, energy, food chokepoint. Big changes, though, are not likely to happen, say government authorities. Roughly 700 million Indians live on farms, according to the most recent census, and most are adults who vote.
It’s been almost half a century since western crop scientists introduced the farmers of northern India’s Punjab to the tools of the Green Revolution — hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and chlorine-based weed and insect killers. Before the mid-1960s, when chemicals and modern seeds weren’t available, growers here produced an elegant feast of native fruits, grains, and vegetables. By the late 1970s, rice and wheat had supplanted native agriculture and grain harvests dominated farm productivity. In the 1980s Punjab and neighboring Haryana combined, became the largest wheat and rice producers in India, and by the 21st century accounted for more than a third of the nation’s grain crop.
Such productivity has invited intense scrutiny in and outside India. Agriculture economists and political leaders note, for instance, that not only did this region’s growers relieve the risk of starvation that gripped India through much of the 20th century, they provided so much food that the nation’s population, now more than 1.2 billion, more than doubled since 1970. But environmental scientists and public health specialists worry that the industrial farm practices have led to rampant water pollution, soil depletion, and grain harvests so large that surplus rice, stacked in burlap sacks like tiers of piled coal, bursts from dozens of government depots and private processing mills all across Punjab and the neighboring state of Haryana.
Massive harvests, in fact, aren’t a periodic event in Punjab. They’ve become endemic, the result of mixing energy, water, politics and policy into a potent formula of waste and inefficiency that endangers India’s environment and impedes its economic development. In no other nation on earth are the ingredients of an urgent energy-food-water choke point as confounding as they are in India.
The broad outlines of India’s paradox are defined by the country’s insistence on removing as much risk from the grain producing economy as possible. Water is free to farmers. Electricity is free. Seed, fertilizer, and farm chemicals are subsidized. And India guarantees that it will purchase at generous prices, and mill at no cost to producers, every kernel of wheat and almost every grain of rice raised in the country.
“The basic question is how long it can go on,” said Rajeev Bansal, executive engineer of the Haryana Irrigation Department. “It’s policy that is focused on helping the poorest. That makes sense. But it’s also not sustainable.”
That is becoming ever more plain in the country’s prime food growing states in northern India, and in its energy states in central and eastern India. Because so much of India’s grain is irrigated with groundwater that requires millions of electricity-consuming pumps, food abundance is depleting groundwater reserves. The pumps – more than 20 million operate nationwide – suck up the nation’s scarce electricity while prompting a massive national program to increase coal production and the construction of coal-fired power plants. In 1960, according to the Ministry of Statistics, India had 3,000 irrigation wells.
Neither coal production nor electrical generation, though, keep pace with demand for electricity, which is rising nearly 10 percent annually. And as India adds 20,000 megawatts of new generating capacity annually – equivalent to 20 very big power plants — most of it is produced with coal-fired generators.
The country is now the fourth largest producer of climate-changing emissions, generating over 2 billion metric tons of carbon annually, according to figures from the United Nations. That, in turn, adds to climate change, which is producing erratic rain and snowfall in India’s grain producing states, reducing moisture and water available to recharge vital aquifers. Farmers here in Punjab, as a result are drilling deeper wells, and adding more powerful pumps that consume more electricity.
— Keith Schneider