Sunday, September 2, 2012

Borlaug Award For Study Of Groundwater Use In West Bengal

It's good to see the vital role groundwater plays in Indian agriculture gain recognition. Aditi Mukherji with the International Water Management Institute has been awarded the Norman Borlaug award given by the World Food Prize Foundation for her work on access and usage of groundwater in agriculture in West Bengal.

From the Times of India interview with Aditi Mukherji:

West Bengal has one of the best agricultural electricity governance regimes in India. The majority of electricity pumps are metered and farmers pay high electricity bills, which in my opinion is a good thing. It sends the right price signal.

The real constraint was getting an electricity connection. We suggested removal of permits system in all blocks where the groundwater situation is safe. We also suggested rationalization of capital costs of initial electrification, but also recommended that metered tariffs must continue. The government has accepted most of these suggestions. In addition, it is deploying NREGA funds for excavation of ponds. That will help in groundwater recharge.

The prerequisite for a successful policy change in terms of immediate benefit to farmers as well as judicious use of groundwater was already in place in West Bengal. By prerequisite I mean good electricity governance. In the interview Ms. Mukherji mentions that Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have 80% of pumps electrified, a high percentage achieved due to past populist policies of handing out free electricity to farmers. The consequence has been rampant over exploitation of groundwater (largely by richer farmers). To avoid over extraction of groundwater,  West Bengal had set up a blanket restrictive permit policy even for areas within the state that had abundant groundwater. This perversely affected poor and marginal farmers in West Bengal who would have benefited from access to groundwater.

She suggests her recommendations could also be extended to the eastern states of Assam and Bihar. Geological conditions there are right for making such a policy work in favor of small farmers. Aquifers are alluvial over large parts. Groundwater is easier to find and is available at shallow depths.

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