The first Norman Borlaug award, instituted by the Rockefeller Foundation in the memory of the Nobel laureate who fathered the green revolution, was given to a young scholar from India. Aditi Mukherji, a social scientist with the International Water Management Institute, New Delhi, was selected from among several candidates for her research on the usage of groundwater resources in West Bengal which led to policy changes benefitting lakhs of farmers. The 36-year-old scholar studied at JNU, IIT Bombay and finished her PhD from Cambridge University on ‘Groundwater markets in West Bengal’. In an interview with Trithesh Nandan, Mukherji says that farmers in eastern India do not need to blindly follow in the footsteps of the same green revolution which depleted water tables in Punjab and western parts of India. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your research work.
The research for which I got the award was a bigger project. I have been working on West Bengal groundwater users and irrigation projects since 2001. When I started working with Tushar Shah, an expert on the subject, I surveyed 4,000 users of groundwater, a main supplier for irrigation in South Asia. In India, I saw difference between the use of groundwater in Bengal and other parts of the eastern India and the rest of India. The farmers in eastern India use very little groundwater, though it is very easily available there, just 10-15 feet below the surface. It is not that the eastern Indian farmers do not need groundwater for irrigation. Here the land holdings are small, so farmers grow two to three crops in a year. For the summer crop, they need a good source of irrigation as there are not enough canal water projects. In West Bengal, there was a lot of demand for groundwater and we found the farmers were using much less due to restrictive policies, compared with farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. That led to my research trail.
Can you tell us how farmers of West Bengal face a restrictive policy?
West Bengal had more restricted policies on groundwater than any other part of India. The state has a total of 5.19 lakh groundwater extracting mechanisms and out of this only 1.09 lakh run on electricity pumps and the rest run on either diesel or kerosene. It was fine if the policy was made in the 1980s when the diesel price was Rs 3 per litre. In 2000, the diesel price was around Rs 32 and now almost Rs 50 a litre. You don’t need such restrictive policy. Because of the high cost of electricity connectivity, Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per farmer, they were not able to intensify farming activities. From 1981 to the early 1990s, the state had the highest food grain production among 17 major states of India. But it significantly slowed down from the mid-1990s.
The logical conclusion was to provide electricity connection to farmers. The West Bengal government has already been giving electricity to the national grid.
In an electricity surplus state, what prevented the government from providing electricity to farmers? Also, the groundwater law – the West Bengal Groundwater Resources (Management, Control and Regulation) Act (2005) – required farmers to take permission from the groundwater department to apply for electricity connections. We found the law was implemented very arbitrarily. There was a lot of rent-seeking and corruption. Permits were hardly given. Basically, officials were harassing farmers one way or the other.
And what were the barriers for farmers?
Firstly, unless you got the permit, the farmers could not apply for an electricity connection. Secondly, the farmers had to pay full cost of poles, wires to get connected from the tube wells to the electricity grids. It came around Rs1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh per farmer. Marginal farmers couldn’t afford such high costs.
What were your findings?
The cost of cultivation escalated when farmers used diesel pumps rather than those running on electricity. The diesel pump costs almost five times the electricity pump. For an hour with diesel pump, you have to pay Rs 50 while electricity pump consumes three units in an hour and if it costs Rs 5 per unit, it’s just Rs 15. The farmers were not growing any crop that required more water because of the costs involved with electric connectivity. The state receives a lot of rainfall, so the recharge of groundwater is high. And yet, less and less farmers had access to groundwater. This resulted in sprouting of an informal groundwater market where poor farmers purchased irrigation water from neighbours with diesel- or electricity-driven pumps. One of the purposes of the study was also to find out the extent of the informal groundwater market. My research came to the conclusion that the farmers can make intensive use of groundwater for irrigation. What was stopping them was the electricity connectivity.
You mean to say that there is no electricity subsidy for the farmers of West Bengal.
Yes, there is no subsidy involved in the state. So, the economic instrument is controlling the irrigation pattern in West Bengal. It is not like Punjab which sets a bad example for policymakers. While we suggested use of groundwater, at the same time we had warned that the state should not become Punjab. The archaic permit system should be removed and high capital cost for electricity connection should come down. These were two major findings. Now, the state government accepted the findings and decided to give connection to farmers based on a one-time flat fee.
What is the flat fee that government has imposed?
It is now Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000 depending on the horsepower of the pump. Once the farmers get the electricity, they pay tariff through the meters installed. Giving electricity for free is very unsustainable, like it happened in Punjab. West Bengal is a very good example as the farmers pay full cost of electricity.
But if you allow farmers to extract groundwater for irrigation, as your research suggests, the water tables will go down in the state 20 years from now.
I don’t think West Bengal will ever face the situation of Punjab because of very different hydrogeological and rainfall conditions. Punjab receives 400 mm of rainfall while West Bengal receives 1,500 to 2,000 mm. Due to that, water recharge happens quickly in the state. Yes, in some pockets of West Bengal, the groundwater might go down. But, what is needed is a very close monitoring of the use of groundwater.
The law says that in the blocks where there is safe groundwater condition, you can go for electrification. If the groundwater dips and falls in semi-critical or critical categories, the activity should be stopped or the number of hours for electricity supply should be reduced.
But do you think the government will be able to do this, considering the politics of populist measures?
What happens in Punjab is that farmers don’t have to pay for electricity. It is a populist measure. The only thing the state can do is to reduce the number of hours of electricity supply to farmers. Unlike in Punjab, you don’t find a very strong farmers’ lobby in West Bengal. The state has already high electricity tariff compared to other states. There are two things – the state has very strict electricity regime and the farmers’ lobby is not that powerful. The state has very high rainfall, abundant aquifers and high recharge. There are many positive things in West Bengal.
As the country is thinking of a second green revolution, can West Bengal go for such a thing?
I think farming can get intensified in the entire eastern India – Bihar, Assam and West Bengal. In western parts, we already have exploited a lot of our resources. There is a lot of scope for the second green revolution but the real constraint is energy. It is not that the farmers do not know technology like high-yielding varieties or use the right kind of fertilisers. My research shows that the main constraint is the access to water.
Based on your recommendations, what kind of policy changes the state government has gone for?
The government made two changes. They have removed the groundwater permit restrictions. We presented our findings in July last year and by November they amended the groundwater law. Farmers who live in safe blocks don’t need any permission from the groundwater department. They can go to the electricity department and get the connection. Earlier, farmers had to pay full cost of it and now farmers have to pay a fixed connection fee.
The electricity connection rule changed during the last phase of the CPM regime in 2010. The change in groundwater law happened during the new government.
Did government approach you?
I presented my work in one of the conferences on global water partnership in Colombo in February 2010. Planning commission member Mihir Shah was present in the conference. When Mamata Banerjee came to power in May 2011, her government sought the planning commission’s advice for a change in water policy. Shah was aware of my work. He invited me to be part of the team that went to West Bengal. We presented the findings to the chief secretary, water resources minister and secretary of the same department besides secretary (agriculture) and secretary (planning). The change was notified by the secretary, water resources.
How much time did it take to change policy after you presented your findings?
We presented our findings in July and the notification for the changes in the groundwater law came out in November.
With the changes made, do you think the agriculture scenario in the state will improve?
The agriculture growth had slowed down in the state for the last two decades. But with the new policy, I see major benefits in terms of farmers’ earning going up. However, it has to be researched.
I know more farmers are applying for electricity connection but it is not clear to me how fast the electrification process is moving. That’s something we are hoping to follow up. On the anecdotal evidence, the electricity department says that they are giving connections at a faster rate. But the farmers sometime call me and tell me that officials simply refuse them connections on the pretext that they don’t know the new rule. So the implementation issues are still there. I can understand it is a new policy. In years to come, things might change.
How many districts and villages you visited for your research?
Overall, I have worked in 16 out of 19 districts and a formal survey was done in 60 villages between 2004 and 2010. Besides, we had focus group discussions in 100 villages. The 2007 survey covered 15 villages in five districts and interviewed 155 respondents.
What would be lessons for other states like Bihar?
Bihar has the electricity generation problem. The state needs alternative sources of electricity. The problem of eastern India is that farmers don’t have cost-effective ways of drawing water. That is the main paradox India has.