By: Chandri Raghava Reddy, Professor,
Department of Sociology University of Hyderabad
In the last Rabi season (January– May 2018) a farmer from Medak district of Telangana cultivating paddy in two acres preferred to hire a combine harvester by paying Rs. 1800 per hour despite having four family members who could have completed harvesting their field without paying a rupee. This baffles any economist who is blind to the ‘social’ of today’s emerging agriculture reality. As a sociologist when I tried to make sense of his action, three points emerged. First, a combine harvester would complete all the works related to paddy harvesting viz. cutting, threshing, winnowing, etc. in about an hour per acre. Thus the farmer could complete the task in a matter of two to three hours. When compared to this, manual paddy harvesting takes at least ten days for the family of four, apart from hiring a tractor for threshing. Second, given the experiences with weather uncertainties the farmer wanted to complete the task as early as possible and escape ‘unhurt’. Third, the costs of hiring combine harvester were realized by the family of the farmer by going for wage labour. This experience brings forth the critical element in any academic discourse i.e. agency and also highlights the pitfalls of academic explanations which ignore the emerging realities. As a result, many scholars tend to place the empirical reality in a rigid theoretical framework thus providing a contrived explanation. This article is in response to an article titled ‘A white elephant in the making’ by Biksham Gujja appeared in these columns on 02-08-2018.
Agriculture is the most vulnerable occupation, and ironically, a majority of the country’s population in India is engaged with. The high vulnerability of agriculture is due to factors like rains, floods, dry spells, etc. beyond human control and other man made uncertainties associated with cultivation. The modern welfare state strives towards removal of uncertainties and attempts to minimize the vulnerabilities in cultivation through necessary interventions. After the formation of Telangana state the government set priorities right on addressing the issues related to farmers in the region who became more and more vulnerable over the decades due to neglect in the integrated state. The problems of Telangana farmers are peculiar and could be addressed by a perspective that is evolved from within and definitely not dominated by command region’s experiences.
The uncertainties Telangana farmers have been facing for long have been, erratic, inadequate and poor quality of power supply; untimely and inadequate supply of inputs like seeds and fertilizers; non-remunerative prices, unregulated markets; and dwindling groundwater. The Telangana government has tried to address the issue of power supply within a very short time ending the years of dangerous night commuting by farmers to the fields. Appropriate market interventions ensured adequate supply of seeds and fertilizers and remunerative prices to crops like paddy and maize. The most important uncertainty to be addressed is the issue of water to irrigate fields, directly or indirectly. The Mission Kakatiya, though envisaged to increase the storage capacity of the tanks, fares poorly when there is no adequate rainfall. As village tank becomes central to the hopes of farmers of a village for the fact that it recharges groundwater substantially, thus maintaining sufficient water in the tank round the year becomes critical. Apart from directly irrigating 18.25 lakhs of acres the Kaleshwaram project aims to recharge groundwater by filling tanks and other water bodies.
The benefits of such an effort are longterm and difficult to evaluate through cost-benefit analysis in mere economics terms. For example, how cost-benefit can be calculated if farmers’ choices of crops to cultivate widens as a result of increased access to irrigation water through 24 hour power supply and heightened groundwater table resulting in greater discharge of bore well. We have to consider the fact every season thousands of bore wells are dug in every mandal across the state to source more ground water by farmers in desperation. If each bore well costs not less than a lakh rupees, and by stabilizing the ground water through Kaleshwaram Project by which farmers need not go for new bore well, one can imagine the cost benefits accrued to the farmers. Cost benefit analyses are vital for planned state initiatives but such analyses can also sometimes reveal half-truths. The modern welfare state can seldom afford to stick to economists’ predicaments of cost benefit analysis when millions of farmers are under agrarian distress. Thus public good is not associated with profits or break-evens of private enterprise driven by financial returns. The Kaleshwaram project has to be seen in that perspective.
Kaleshwaram Project is a complex system barrages, pump houses, tunnels and canals, to move water over some very difficult terrain to irrigate 18.25 lakh acres. The additional benefit built into the project is water availability for 25 % of 18.82 lakh acres of ayacut under existing irrigation systems of SRSP, Nizamsagar, Singur and SRSP Flood Flow canal. Telangana Govt recently announced another flagship program of linking of minor irrigation tanks with all major, medium and lift irrigation projects including Kaleshwaram Project. Irrigation department assessed that there are more than 5000 chains of tanks which cover more than 25000 tanks across Telangana State. The article raises the concerns of cost-benefits of the project and unfortunately, it presents a simple linear understanding of agriculture ignoring the social complexities. Also, there are several other pieces of the puzzle that are omitted from mention in the report. The author wonders if 180 TMC water is enough for 26 lakh acres for any meaningful irrigation, whether crop yields have been grossly inflated from the current levels for projecting highly favorable benefits/outcomes and if social and ecological costs have been neglected in the DPR.
The irrigation experts suggest that it is possible to cultivate 13000 acres with one TMC of water. They quote the instance of Nizamsagar project where, in the last Rabi (2018) season, the irrigation engineers could ensure water for irrigating rice crop by adopting on-off and Tail to Head water supply system successfully. The arguments against Kaleswaram project also ignore the new seed varieties developed by crop breeders which are of short duration thus reducing the irrigation days. This can increase the extent of cultivation from 13000 acres to 15000 acres with one TMC of water. Further, the irrigation engineers suggest that in Omkareshwar Project in Madhya Pradesh 15000 acres to 20000 acres duty is achieved through the introduction of Piped Irrigation System. In fact a pilot project with Piped Irrigation System is being implemented in Kaleshwaram Project in Nizamabad district.
It has been amply demonstrated that in the regions where surface water is provided through canals resulted in the recharge of groundwater. For most of Telangana farms are electrified and rely on groundwater substantial increase in groundwater will be a boon for cultivation. This is actually a long time process wherein a continuous supply of water to village tanks and other water bodies for at least three to four years would replenish the groundwater significantly. Not just that, simultaneously, an agricultural development plan has to be in place to help guide farmers on cropping patterns for each season taking market intelligence into account on the projected demand for crops. The endeavor should aim at providing information on crop cultivation and markets. As feared by the author, in the case of chilly, it is true that markets still operate at the most disadvantageous way to farmers. Same is the case with all other crops. But that should not call for casting aspersions on the project as such. No doubt, state must initiate steps for creating infrastructure for storage, marketing and credit linkage, and setting up of food processing industries. However, developing irrigation infrastructure to stabilize irrigation in command areas and groundwater table is different from that of market interventions. Obviously, inadequacies in the market institution should not justify the misreading of irrigation projects.
Increase in yields as a result of promised irrigation is another question raised by the author in the article. Agronomists definitely agree with the fact that timely irrigation boosts yield efficiency. Moreover, augmented groundwater availability through the project would surely help farmers cultivating using bore wells to increase yields. As mentioned previously, basic water needs for crops are guaranteed through irrigation provided by the Kaleshwaram project, the unseen benefits of improved groundwater table because of percolation from canals and village tanks must be taken into account while analyzing the benefits of the project. In fact, the present long dry spell (since mid July till date, in most parts of Telangana) is triggering anxieties among farmers who cultivate under borewell irrigation. Imagine, by now, had the village tanks been full, farmers would not have to be worried about weather tantrums.
The apprehensions expressed over increased crop yields and potential returns to farmers once Kaleshwaram begins delivering water to farmers are welcome but the problem with the article is that it takes the linear approach in analysis the complex issue of agriculture. For sure, DPRs, given the technicalities, seldom reflect the complex reality which is more to do with the social.
It is true that for many intellectuals who are not used to seeing projects being built at a lightning speed, compared to the past history of decades of now-on now-off construction of projects, the pace of construction of the Kaleshwaram Project system may come as a shock and thus they may become apprehensive. But projecting such apprehensions in a conclusive manner disregarding several factors associated with the project is a cause of concern. A holistic understanding with Telangana perspective is what farmers in the region expect from analysts. What becomes obvious is that the author and the other critics of Kaleshwaram Project are deliberately ignoring the larger socio-economic benefits of Kaleshwaram project, for example, development of fisheries, inland water ways, tourism, biodiversity, etc. Terming Kaleswaram Project as a White Elephant by the author, thus, looks like a narrow presentation of facts while ignoring the social and environmental implications of the project for good of the people of Telangana.