agriculture

The status of ground water: Extraction exceeds recharge

Yesterday, Members of Parliament in Lok Sabha discussed the situation of drought and drinking water crisis in many states.  During the course of the discussion, some MPs also raised the issue of ground water depletion.  Last month, the Bombay High Court passed an order to shift IPL matches scheduled for the month of May out of the state of Maharashtra.  The court cited an acute water shortage in some parts of the state for its decision. In light of water shortages and depletion of water resources, this blog post addresses some frequently asked questions on the extraction and use of ground water in the country. Q: What is the status of ground water extraction in the country? A: The rate at which ground water is extracted has seen a gradual increase over time.  In 2004, for every 100 units of ground water that was recharged and added to the water table, 58 units were extracted for consumption.  This increased to 62 in 2011.[1]  Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, saw the most extraction.  For every 100 units of ground water recharged, 137 were extracted. In the recent past, availability of ground water per person has reduced by 15%.  In India, the net annual ground water availability is 398 billion cubic metre.[2]  Due to the increasing population in the country, the national per capita annual availability of ground water has reduced from 1,816 cubic metre in 2001 to 1,544 cubic metre in 2011. Rainfall accounts for 68% recharge to ground water, and the share of other resources, such as canal seepage, return flow from irrigation, recharge from tanks, ponds and water conservation structures taken together is 32%. Q: Who owns ground water? A: The Easement Act, 1882, provides every landowner with the right to collect and dispose, within his own limits, all water under the land and on the surface.[9] The consequence of this law is that the owner of a piece of land can dig wells and extract water based on availability and his discretion.[10]  Additionally, landowners are not legally liable for any damage caused to  water resources as a result of over-extraction.  The lack of regulation for over-extraction of this resource further worsens the situation and has made private ownership of ground water common in most urban and rural areas. Q: Who uses ground water the most? What are the purposes for which it is used? A: 89% of ground water extracted is used in the irrigation sector, making it the highest category user in the country.[3]  This is followed by ground water for domestic use which is 9% of the extracted groundwater.  Industrial use of ground water is 2%.  50% of urban water requirements and 85% of rural domestic water requirements are also fulfilled by ground water. IMAGEThe main means of irrigation in the country are canals, tanks and wells, including tube-wells.  Of all these sources, ground water constitutes the largest share. It provides about 61.6% of water for irrigation, followed by canals with 24.5%. Over the years, there has been a decrease in surface water use and a continuous increase in ground water utilisation for irrigation, as can be seen in the figure alongside. [4]   Q: Why does agriculture rely most on ground water? A: At present, India uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to China and United States.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, power subsidies for agriculture has played a major role in the decline of water levels in India.  Since power is a main component of the cost of ground water extraction, the availability of cheap/subsidised power in many states has resulted in greater extraction of this resource.[5]  Moreover, electricity supply is not metered and a flat tariff is charged depending on the horsepower of the pump.  Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for 23 crops, the effective price support is for wheat and rice.[6]  This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of wheat and paddy, which are water intensive crops and depend heavily on ground water for their growth. It has been recommended that the over extraction of ground water should be minimized by regulating the use of electricity for its extraction.[7]  Separate electric feeders for pumping ground water for agricultural use could address the issue.  Rationed water use in agriculture by fixing quantitative ceilings on per hectare use of both water and electricity has also been suggested.[8]  Diversification in cropping pattern through better price support for pulses and oilseeds will help reduce the agricultural dependence on ground water.[6]     [1] Water and Related Statistics, April 2015, Central Water Commission, http://www.cwc.gov.in/main/downloads/Water%20&%20Related%20Statistics%202015.pdf. [2] Central Ground Water Board website, FAQs, http://www.cgwb.gov.in/faq.html. [3] Annual Report 2013-14, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, http://wrmin.nic.in/writereaddata/AR_2013-14.pdf. [4] Agricultural Statistics at a glance, 2014, Ministry of Agriculture; PRS. [5] Report of the Export Group on Ground Water Management and Ownership, Planning Commission, September 2007, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_grndwat.pdf. [6] Report of the High-Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of Food Corporation of India, January 2015, http://www.fci.gov.in/app/webroot/upload/News/Report%20of%20the%20High%20Level%20Committee%20on%20Reorienting%20the%20Role%20and%20Restructuring%20of%20FCI_English_1.pdf. [7] The National Water Policy, 2012, Ministry of Water Resources, http://wrmin.nic.in/writereaddata/NationalWaterPolicy/NWP2012Eng6495132651.pdf. [8] Price Policy for Kharif Crops- the Marketing Season 2015-16, March 2015, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, http://cacp.dacnet.nic.in/ViewReports.aspx?Input=2&PageId=39&KeyId=547. [9] Section 7 (g), Indian Easement Act, 1882. [10] Legal regime governing ground water, Sujith Koonan, Water Law for the Twenty-First Century-National and International Aspects of Water Law Reform in India, 2010.

EU bans imports of Alphonso mangoes: Is India's biosecurity mechanism rigorous enough?

Recent news reports indicate that the European Union (EU) has banned imports of Alphonso mangoes and four vegetables from India due to the presence of harmful pests and a lack of certification before export.  The ban will be effective between May 1, 2014 and December 2015.  It has been suggested that the ban could impact the export of nearly 16 million mangoes from India, the market for which is worth nearly £6 million a year in a country like the United Kingdom. In this context, it may be useful to examine the regulation of agricultural biosecurity in India, particularly with respect to imports and exports of such agricultural produce. Currently, two laws, the Destructive Insects and Pests Act, 1914 and the Livestock Importation Act, 1898, regulate the import and export of plants and animals with a view to control pests and diseases.  Under the laws, the authorities ensure that infectious diseases and pests do not cause widespread damage to the environment, crops, agricultural produce and human beings, i.e. the agricultural biosecurity of a country.  Common examples of pests and diseases have been the Banana bunchy top virus which stunts banana plants and stops production of fruit while another is the Avian Influenza, which caused extensive death of poultry and led to human deaths as well. Under the existing Acts, different government departments and government-approved bodies are responsible for regulating imports and certifying exports to ensure that there are no threats to agricultural biosecurity.  The Department of Agriculture keeps a check on pests and diseases arising from plants and related produce, such as mangoes and vegetables, while the Department of Animal Husbandry monitors diseases relating to animals and meat products.  The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) certifies exports of different commodities related to plants and animals.  Various government committees have highlighted the ineffectiveness of the existing system due to its piecemeal approach and have recommended an integrated system to handle biosecurity issues.  It has also been suggested that the existing laws have not kept up with developments in agriculture and are inadequate to deal with the emergence of trans-boundary diseases that pose threats to human, animal and plant safety. The Agricultural Biosecurity Bill, 2013, pending in Parliament seeks to replace these laws and establish a national authority, the Agricultural Biosecurity Authority of India (ABAI), to regulate biosecurity issues related to plants and animals.  ABAI shall be responsible for: (i) regulating the import and export of plants, animals and related products, (ii) implementing quarantine measures in case of the existence of pests, (iii) regulating the inter-state spread of pests and diseases relating to plants and animals, and (iv) undertaking regular surveillance of pests and diseases.  Under the Bill, exports of plants, animals and related products will only be allowed once ABAI has issued a sanitary or phytosanitary certificate in accordance with the destination country’s requirements. The penalty for exporting goods without adequate certification from ABAI is imprisonment upto two years and and a fine of Rs 2 lakh. The proposed ABAI will also meet India’s obligations to promote research and prevent pests and diseases under the International Plant Protection Convention and the Office International des Epizooties. A PRS analysis of various aspects of the Bill can be found here. The Bill will lapse with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.  It remains to be seen how the incoming government in the 16th Lok Sabha will approach biosecurity issues to prevent incidents like the EU ban on imports of Indian fruits and vegetables in the future.

Are genetically modified crops safe enough?

A recent news report stated that the Planning Commission has advocated putting in place a “proper regulatory mechanism” before permitting the use of genetic modification in Indian crops.  A recent Standing Committee report on genetically modified (GM) crops found shortcomings in the regulatory framework for such crops.  The current framework is regulated primarily by two bodies: the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) and the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM).  Given the inadequacy of the regulatory framework, the Standing Committee recommended that all research and development activities on transgenic crops be carried out only in containment (in laboratories) and that ongoing field trials in all states be discontinued.  The blog provides a brief background on GM crops, their regulation in India and the key recommendations of the Standing Committee. What is GM technology? GM crops are usually developed through the insertion or deletion of genes from plant cells.  Bt technology is a type of genetic modification in crops.  It was introduced in India with Bt cotton.  The debate around GM crops has revolved around issues of economic efficacy, human health, consumer choice and farmers’ rights.  Some advantages of Bt technology are that it increases crop yield, decreases the use of pesticides, and improves quality of crops.  However, the technology has also been known to cause crop loss due to resistance developed by pests and destruction of local crop varieties, impacting biodiversity. Approval process for commercial release of GM crops

  1. Initially, the company developing the GM crop undertakes several biosafety assessments including, environmental, food, and feed safety assessments in containment.
  2. This is followed by Bio-safety Research Trials which require prior approval of the regulators, the GEAC and the RCGM.
  3. Approval for environmental release is accorded by the GEAC after considering the findings of bio-safety studies.
  4. Finally, commercial release is permitted only for those GM crops found to be safe for humans and the environment.

Committee’s recommendations for strengthening the regulatory process The Standing Committee report found several shortcomings in the regulatory framework, some of which are as follows:

  • State governments are not mandatorily consulted for conducting open field trials on GM crops.  Several states such as Kerala and Bihar have opposed field trials for GM crops.  The Committee recommended that mandatory consultation with state governments be built into the regulatory process.
  • The key regulators, the GEAC and the RCGM, suffer from poor organisational set-up and infrastructure.  The Committee recommended that the regulatory framework be given statutory backing so that there is no scope for ambiguity or complacency on the part of the authorities responsible for the oversight of GM organisms.  It urged the government to introduce the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill.
  • There is evidence that the GEAC has not complied with international treaties.  These include the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.  It recommended that legislation relating to liability and redress for damage arising from living modified organisms be enacted.
  • Some international scientists have raised doubts about the safety of Bt Brinjal and the way tests were conducted.  To remedy this situation, the Committee recognised the need for an overarching legislation on biosafety to ensure that biotechnology is introduced without compromising the safety of biodiversity, human and livestock health, and environmental protection.

Note that over the last few sessions of Parliament, the government has listed the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill for introduction; however the Bill has not been introduced yet.  The Bill sets up an independent authority for the regulation of GM crops. For a PRS summary of the report and access to the full report, see here and here.