agricultural water management

Misaligned cropping patterns Vs water resources

By: Staff Reporter
A June 2018 study published by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) suggests that analysing land productivity of a region and yield of a crop is not sufficient to calculate the efficiency with which water is being used for cultivation. It is also important to analyse whether irrigation water being applied to the crop is resulting in adequate output and if cropping patterns are aligned with water endowments of a region.
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Sustainable development and preservation of India’s natural resources necessitate that attention is paid to water usage in agriculture sector. This is especially important in light of the fact that over 78 per cent of freshwater reserves are diverted towards agriculture and agricultural productivity in India is often susceptible to frequency and intensity of rainfalls and droughts (Gulati, 2018). Efficient utilisation of resources and focusing not only on increasing productivity per unit of land, but also per unit of water is the need of the hour. As NABARD has studied, cropping patterns in different regions of the country are misaligned with water resource availability. Improving efficient usage of water and productivity requires both to be addressed through policy and planning initiatives.

NABARD’s Methodology

Earlier studies have gauged the efficiency in use of water for agriculture and undertook analysis of the quantity of output generated/produce in relation to the total consumptive water usage (TCWU). The term ‘physical water productivity’ (PWP) was used to define this efficiency–represented as the ratio of total crop production to TCWU, where TCWU is the sum of water that evaporates from surface and the water used by a crop in the course of growth. The 2018 NABARD study adopts an approach wherein it studies irrigation water productivity (IWP) in addition to the above measures (Sharma et al, 2018).

IWP has been defined as crop output obtained with actual irrigation, which may be higher or lower than TCWU. In the pan India study, NABARD noted that in general, irrigation efficiency of surface irrigation system (30-65 per cent) as well as groundwater irrigation (60-75 per cent) is low. Thus in reality the volume of irrigation water applied appears to be much greater than the actual requirement of the crop.

Using the above parameters, the study undertook a state-wise analysis of ten crops in India—rice/paddy, wheat, maize, chickpea, pigeon pea, groundnut, rapeseed-mustard, sugarcane, cotton and potato—to map their water productivity. Rice, sugarcane and wheat, being the primary crops grown the country, were at the foreground of the study. The report assumes a direct convertibility from water to produce and rules out the interaction between water and
other inputs.

The Irregularities in Cropping Patterns of Rice

Punjab, where the land productivity for rice was recorded as the highest, at 4 tonnes per hectare (t/ha), exhibited a PWP as high as 0.57 kg/cu m. IWP, however, was relatively low at 0.22 kg/cu m. Similarly, Haryana with a land productivity of 3.5 t/ha and PWP of 0.4 kg/ cu m fared poorly with its IWP performance being the same as that
of Punjab.

On the other hand, states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand displayed higher IWP for rice, at 0.68 kg/cu m and 0.75 kg/cu m respectively. However, both have low irrigation coverage –Chhattisgarh has 32 per cent coverage while Jharkhand, with the highest IWP in the country has a mere 3 per cent coverage, which subsequently lowers land productivity.

Eastern states of India were found to have a much higher yield per unit of applied irrigation as compared to the drier states such as Punjab. The fact that Punjab and Haryana uses larger quantities of water for irrigation exacerbates the problem of water availability. Coupled with this, free electricity policy in agriculture has led to unjustified and excessive exploitation of groundwater. But as is noted in the Report, productivity continues to be high because of constant availability of irrigation and access to markets stemming from assured procurement policy, thus helping farmers continue rice cultivation despite sustainability issues. There is an urgent need to address this at policy and planning level.

Sugarcane Farming in Water Stressed Areas

In the case of sugarcane, Tamil Nadu reports both the highest level of land productivity at 105.3 t/ha and PWP at 14.01 kg/cu m.  Irrigation water requirements for sugarcane vary regionally due to different climatic conditions. States in the northern sub-tropical regions have higher rainfall, cooler winters and shorter growing season, bringing down the irrigation water requirements. IWP for sugarcane was higher in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and each unit of applied irrigation water in these states produced higher output as compared to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

The four peninsular states, on the other hand, are water-stressed and productivity for each unit of applied irrigation water is much lower than that of states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. IWP in Andhra Pradesh, for instance is one-fourth than that of Bihar. Among these Bihar receives higher rainfall than Andhra Pradesh or Uttar Pradesh.

Lower levels of land productivity in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand were found to be a result of sparse irrigation coverage. High land productivity in the tropical states coincided with low IWP, indicating a mismatch between sugarcane cropping pattern and water resource availability.

The complexities of wheat production

The findings for wheat, the third major crop under study were different than that of rice and sugarcane. The cultivation of rice is widespread, but wheat cultivation and production is limited to northern, north-western and central districts of India, which had 260 lakh ha of land under cultivation and produced a total of 787 lakh tonne wheat. The study grouped these districts in five clusters after arranging them in the ascending order of production, each cluster contributing to 20 per cent of the total production. 131 districts covering 7.5 million ha (or 28.9 per cent of wheat cultivation area) were found to have the lowest average yield of 2.1 t/ha. The largest production of wheat, as seen in Figure 3, was found in 15 major districts, producing 16.3 million tonnes with an average productivity of 4.3 t/ha. PWP in wheat producing districts was aggregated for the state levels.

PWP was found to be highest in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. The top 15 wheat producing districts, mentioned earlier were located in these states.

As regards IWP, the lowest performing states were Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. However, it was pointed out that IWP in these states could be brought close to the levels of Punjab and Haryana through on-farm water management policies including good farm ponds, provision of adequate power for tube wells, improvement in the canal distribution network and sprinkler irrigation, all of which could improve both yield and IWP.

Just as the findings for IWP and PWP of wheat had differed from that of sugarcane and rice, so did the suggestions. In the both the earlier crops, the suggestions and requirements were similar– re-alignment of cropping patterns with available water resource endowments across states.

However, in the case of wheat, the problems are different. Unlike rice, although the wheat crops respond favourably to irrigation, it cannot withstand excessive moisture. Also, it needs ample water availability during its growing phase, the absence of which can lower crop yields.  In Punjab, for instance, where cropped area is under rice-wheat rotation, water-intensive kharif rice crop affected the groundwater status and availability of it for rabi wheat crop. As earlier stated, Punjab used an excess of irrigation water than required for the rice crop. The stress on water resources in rice cultivation therefore, not only leads to depletion of the water table in the State, but also reduces the potential output of the wheat crop despite high IWP. In states like Bihar the problem is different, with wheat sowing often delayed due to late harvesting of the paddy crop.

How wheat benefits from irrigation is evident from the large yield gaps between irrigated and rain fed crop. As shown in Table 1, in Punjab for instance, the average irrigated yield was more than twice than that of average unirrigated yield. Similarly, in Bihar, with farmers desisting from the use of irrigation because of the high cost of diesel-based pumps, coupled with low levels of mechanisation and improved agricultural practices, the yields were low.

Based on varying and complex findings, the Report concluded that provision of irrigation is essential, especially in low performing states in term of yield, which could be increased to 2.2 times to that of the present level.

The Report, however, is not without faults. As Prof R S Deshpande, Honorary Visiting Professor at Institute for Social and Economic Change, providing a critical appraisal of the report remarked to G’nY that, “The Report misses a theoretical underpinning. While it focuses on ‘more crop every drop’ slogan, and rightfully so, theoretically production maximisation happens only after an optimal composition of inputs is used. One cannot exclude the intro-input interactions that are most important. For example, if in two situations, where water application is equal but in one situation fertiliser inputs are high and in the other, field manure has been used, the resultant productivity will be different and the water productivity will differ not because of differential use of water but the interaction of two critical inputs. One cannot make a sweeping assumption that other than water all inputs have little contribution towards productivity of a crop.”


The Report outlines that with 48 per cent of the total cropped area being brought under irrigation, there is a need to evaluate how efficiently the water is being used. Paddy and sugarcane alone occupy one-fourth of the gross cropped area and consume over 60 per cent of the total irrigation water supplied to agriculture. The low IWP in the major states producing these crops means that an inequitable share of irrigation water is being diverted to these crops, away from regions that are better suited for production, bringing down the water table in water-stressed regions (where IWP is lower) and hampering both water resources and potential production output.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, this evaluation is a step in the right direction to address the significant misalignment in cropping patterns of rice, wheat and sugarcane. Especially in the case of sugarcane and rice, the inverse relation between land productivity and IWP makes this clearly visible. This needs to be combined with price policy reforms such as effective pricing of water and electricity in agriculture, improved procurement policies for crop outputs and shift from price policy approach of heavily subsidising inputs to income policy approach of directly giving money into the accounts of the farmers on per hectare basis.


Gulati A., 2018. Towards sustainable, productive and profitable agriculture: Case of Rice and Sugarcane, Working Paper No. 358, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, [Accessed from:]

Sharma R.B., Gulati A., Mohan G., Manchanda S., Ray I., Amarasinghe U., 2018. Water Productivity Mapping of Major Indian Crops, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development.

Preservation of India’s natural resources necessitate that attention is paid to water management in agriculture sector. This is especially important in light of the fact that over 78 per cent of freshwater reserves are diverted towards agriculture in India.

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