Towards a Resilient Future: Uncovering the potential of smart and sustainable irrigation

By Rahul Kapur, Partner and Head Management Consulting, Grant Thornton Bharat LLP

Agriculture has remained the bright spot of the Indian economy despite the Covid-19 crisis. The share of agriculture in the gross domestic product clocked close to 20 per cent during financial year 2020-21, the first time it has done so in two decades. The resilien­ce of India’s agricultural sector has been due to its growing food production. India is currently home to 18 per cent of the world’s population. According to the World Bank, the country’s population is estimated to rise to 1.6 billion by 2030. The growing population will create a gr­ea­ter need to increase food production. With India having only 4 per cent of the world’s usea­ble water resources, this will become increasingly strenuous over the coming years.

Irrigation constitutes a considerable share of around 91 per cent of water withdrawal in India, surpassing the global average. In comparison to China, Brazil and the US, India uses two to three times as much water to produce a single unit of a major crop. Additionally, India’s re­liance on an erratic monsoon exacerbates the pressure on agriculture. Considering that In­dia’s water demand will exceed its supply by two times by 2030, irrigation in India is both a victim and a cause of water stress. Given these challenges, the Indian government has put the irrigation sector in the spotlight. Over the past few years, the irrigation sector has gained tre­mendous momentum with the implementation of various government schemes and projects. Micro-irrigation is one such area that has rightly occupied a prominent place in the governme­nt policy discourse. Micro-irrigation techniques such as drip and sprinkler irrigation have been gaining ground among progressive farmers to tackle the twin challenges of water shortage and improving crop yield.

Key highlights of micro-irrigation and PMKSY

Micro-irrigation has been shown to have a positive impact on farmers’ income through re­du­ced consumption of water and electricity. Fur­ther, micro-irrigation has enabled fertigation, leading to balanced nutrient application and, in turn, reduced fertiliser requirements. Its cost-benefit analysis by Grant Thornton (GT) indicates that the benefits to farmers outweigh the cost of ins­tallation, and it facilitates an average increase of 42 per cent in farmers’ overall income.

Though the government has introduced ample initiatives since 1992 for micro-irrigation, the real thrust came in 2015 with the integration of micro-irrigation into the flagship scheme, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY). The PMKSY is an output-driven um­brella programme that has been envisaged to in­crea­se irrigation potential through various components such as “Har Khet Ko Pani” and “Per Drop More Crop” (PDMC). The PDMC com­pone­nt specifically aims to reduce overconsumption of water at the farm level in order to maximise productivity through micro-irrigation technologies such as drip and sprinkler irrigation syste­ms. This component is meant to facilitate in­vest­ment in irrigation facilities and the development of smart irrigation and other technologies related to precision agriculture. Preci­si­on irrigation methods are water management sol­utions suitable not only for water-scarce re­gio­ns but also for water-abundant regions.

Smart irrigation-based technologies

The use of sensors and automated irrigation practices can allow farmers to monitor crops from anywhere. Further, disruptive technologi­es such as nanotechnology-based irrigation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, satellite imaging, and robotics can be used to track multiple data points in order to help farmers identify irrigation needs based on location and weather condition. Weather, soil and hydration data can be gathered by sensors mounted on farming equipment and sent to a central smart farm platform for predictive farming decisions. The use of irrigation drones is another emerging trend that can be brought to the fore to implement smart irrigation in India. These drones are equipped with hyperspectral or thermal sensors, which enable them to detect dry field areas that require irrigation. Further, smart pump systems that can meet the needs of drip and sprinkler systems in farms, for which pressure can be managed using internet of things sensors, can also boost productivity.

Pressing challenges

Though irrigation in India is at the cusp of transformation, with micro-irrigation now be­ing seen as the only way ahead for sustainable agriculture, the sector is still mired in multiple challenges. According to GT’s estimates, mic­ro-irrigation penetration in India stands at 19 per cent, which is much lower than in countri­es such as Israel (90 per cent), Russia (78 per cent), Sp­ain (75 per cent), the US (58 per cent) and Bra­zil (52 per cent). The widening gap between irrigation potential created and irrigation potential utilised is a major roadblock facing India’s irrigation sector. Further, the targets set under the PDMC scheme for micro-irrigation have not been met in the last five years. Currently, only about 13.7 million hectares of area is covered under micro-irrigation, translating to about an 81 per cent gap in micro-irrigation in India.

The absence of end-to-end automation of operations and the paucity of easy financing mechanisms for farmers are some of the key reasons for the sluggish performance of micro-irrigation in India. The lack of awareness amo­ng farmers, insufficient water availability at the farm level and scarcity of electric power further add to the low uptake of micro-irrigation in In­dia. Moreover, smart technologies can create a long-term impact only when adopted at a scale. These technologies must be convenient and easily accessible for small and marginal farmers to use them. Currently, most Indian farmers rely on traditional irrigation techniques that are water intensive. They have limited acc­ess to information on weather patterns, soil health, crop protection, and sophisticated technologies. Reportedly, only about 2 per cent of farmers use mobile applications for farming-related activities and real-time alerts. Increa­sing digital literacy at the ground level can thus be a springboard for farmers to kick-start their smart irrigation journey.

The way forward

Micro-irrigation will remain the backbone for successful water use efficiency initiatives in India. However, the way forward is fusing smart irrigation methods with micro-irrigation techniques. Government policy-push efforts have to be merged with fast-tracked, climate-resilient initiatives. The use of solar water pumps and the creation of water harvesting storage structures are such initiatives, which can also be cost-effective. Advocating for water management as a culture in smallholder farming will be significant in leapfrogging growth. The en­tire eco­system thus needs to transition towards an integrated approach, wherein the indigenous irrigation knowledge of farmers is blended with smart irrigation practices, including the use of disruptive technologies.

A wave of agri-tech start-ups, such as Fly­Bird, Intech Harness, Kritsnam Technolo­gi­es, AgSmartic, Fasal, Avanijal, AgriRain, etc., are play­­ing a prominent role in this space. They are providing intelligent solutions to farmers using real-time data on irrigation. However, a sizeable amount of the data needed for these agri-tech solutions is spread across multiple government organisations. To ensure the adoption of scalable technology, a supportive environment nee­ds to be provided by the government that allo­ws this wide volume of data to be acc­essed by multiple players in a secure and open manner. To this end, the government has started taking steps to transition from on-ground pilot projects to mass-scale implementation. To provide an impetus to digital technology in agriculture, the government has launched the Di­gital Agricul­ture Mission 2021-2025. The mission gives high importance to AI, geographic in­formation system technology and remote sen­sing, among other solutions.

Further, a sustainable public-private partnership model will go a long way in bringing various stakeholders together. It will help the private sector provide solutions to accelerate the integration of technologies in irrigation. The private sector should also play a bigger role in educating farmers and other stakeholders on the use of technologies. There is significant room to improve the pace of technological ad­option in rural India, which necessitates better planning on the part of businesses vis-à-vis their go-to-market st­rategies. Strategic collaborations that can de­liver solutions to far­mers as a complete bundle, rather than in a fragmentary manner, are another pivotal consideration for wide-scale implem­e­ntation of di­gital solutions. For example, a solution catering to fertigation can be dovetailed with a focus on crop protection.