Watering down concern

  • 30/01/1997

groundwater depletion and land degradation have become an integral part of irrigated agriculture in India. While the command areas of canals suffer from waterlogging and soil salinity, the increased exploitation of groundwater for irrigation has led to its depletion and damage due to factors like the ingress of sea water. In his book, B D Dhawan, of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, critically assesses claims and counter-claims regarding groundwater depletion and land degradation due to irrigation.

Reports of receding water-tables have been pouring in from across the country. For instance, in the state of Punjab, over 650,000 tubewells water more than two-thirds of the 3.3-million-ha crop area. According to Dhawan, the extensive use of groundwater may have helped check waterlogging in the Bhakra canal area but its reserves stand depleted.

Waterlogging and salinity affect six out of the 24 million ha under canal cultivation in India. It has been estimated that a remedial investment of Rs 6,000 crore is necessary to reclaim land affected by waterlogging and salinity. The cost of doing so may seem steep but if one were to compare restoration and irrigation charges, the former would cost about Rs 10,000 per hectare of degraded land and the latter, Rs 40,000.

While international donors insist on an allocation of six per cent of the total budget of new irrigation projects for preventive measures to check waterlogging, the government has not paid adequate attention to the threat irrigation itself poses to sustainable agriculture in the country. Dhawan, who has already authored nine books on various aspects of irrigation in the country laments the lack of proper research and documentation on this vital front. Even when data on degraded land is compiled by agencies like the Central Water Commission, they are far from reality, thanks to the manipulation by data compilers.

The book also discusses the link between virtually free supply of electricity for irrigation and groundwater depletion; the preference for paddy cultivation and inherent weaknesses in the government's agriculture and irrigation policy. The author however, seems to have little of his own to offer on the technical aspects of waterlogging and soil salinity except for a summary of seminar papers. Also, a discerning reader would not miss the frequent references to the author's other titles.

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