Modern Method: Micro-irrigation emerges as an efficient water management solution

India currently accounts for 18 per cent of the world’s population and it is projected to reach approximately 1.4 billion by 2025 and 1.62 billion by 2050. As the population grows, there will be an increased demand for food, which is expected to rise from 334 million metric tonnes (mmt) to 444 mmt in 2025 and further to 463 mmt in 2050. Mass food production needs to be substantially increa­sed to meet this growing demand, which will impose additional strain on India’s agriculture. Con­sequently, a significant amount of water will be required for irrigation. However, India only has access to 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater resources, with the majority of it being used for irrigation. Moreover, the availability of water is projected to decrease from 675 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2025 to 637 bcm in 2050.

Water use efficiencies under various irrigation systems

There is a need to adopt modern irrigation methods to increase productivity of the irrigated land and improve the efficiency of water, energy and fertiliser utilisation. In the case of conventional irrigation methods such as canals, wells and surface irrigation, water use efficiency ranges from 50 to 60 per cent, 60 to 70 per cent and 40 to 70 per cent, respectively. Compared to conventional methods, micro irrigation provides a significantly higher application efficiency of 85 ot 90 per cent. It has emerged as one of the essential solutions for efficient water management in agriculture. This method enables precise and regulated delivery of water and nutrients directly to crop roots, resulting in improved water use effici­ency. It also allows targeted fertigation, ensuring optimal nutrient supply to crops in terms of fertilisers.

Micro-irrigation system

Micro-irrigation is the slow delivery of continuous drips and subsurface sprays of water abo­ve or below the soil surface. The application of this system is best suited to water-sca­rce and hilly areas. This system offers numerous benefits such as improved water use efficiency, re­du­­­ced labour, fertiliser and energy use, re­du­ced crop failure, improved tolerance to salinity, improved crop quality and quantity, and increased yield.

There are two types of micro-irrigation systems – drip irrigation and sprinkler irrigation. In the drip irrigation system, water is sourced from a well and lifted by using a pump. It passes through components such as a sand separator hydro-cyclone and a head unit with filters and a pressure gauge. The water is then distributed through main lines to the field unit, where it is delivered to crop roots through drippers and emitters. It is of three types – on-line drip irrigation, in-line drip irrigation and gravity drip irrigation. In contrast, sprinkler irrigation can be classified into micro-sprinkler, mini sp­rinkler and raingun irrigation systems. It involves lifting water from a source, such as a well and transferring it to fields through pipes and valves, where it is released through sprinkler nozzles. The flow of water is regulated by a control valve in this.

Adoption of micro-irrigation

The government has been actively promoting micro-irrigation through various centrally sponsored schemes, aimed at enhancing agricultural efficiency. These include the Accelera­t­ed Irrigation Benefit Programme; Integrated Sc­heme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Mai­ze; Centrally Sponsored Scheme on Micro-Irri­gation; National Mission on Micro-Irrigation; National Mi­s­sion on Sustainable Agriculture focusing on farm water management; and the Pradhan Man­tri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) under the Per Drop More Crop (PDMC) initiative, among others. Over the years, these schemes have provided immense support to micro-irrigation, resulting in around 14.5 million hectares (mha) being covered under micro-irrigation in India.

The PMKSY-PDMC, launched in 2015, ser­ves as the flagship scheme for covering larger areas under micro-irrigation. The potential are­as that can be covered in the future include 27.6 mha for cereals, 7.6 mha for pulses, 4.9 mha for oilseeds, 8.8 mha for cotton, 6 mha for vegetables, 2.4 mha for spices and condime­nts, 1 mha for flowers, medicinal and aromatic plants; 4.3 mha for sugarcane, 3.9 mha for fruits; and 3 mha for coconut, plantation crops and oil palm.

Private sector participation

The implementation of micro-irrigation schem­es and increased land coverage under micro-irrigation have not only boosted agricultural efficiency but also contributed to the growth of large-scale micro-irrigation industry in India. The number of registered micro-irrigation companies under the government schemes has witnessed remarkable growth, increasing from 69 in 2005-06 to 340 by 2022-23. This expansion is indicative of the rising demand for micro-irrigation systems and technologies in the country.

The private sector has emerged as a major driving force in the promotion and adoption of micro-irrigation practices. Leading industry players such as Automat Industries, Finolex In­d­ustries, Jain Irrigation Systems and Harvel Agua India have played pivotal roles in advancing micro-irrigation practices in the country.

Recommendations and the way forward

Agriculture in India faces critical challenges su­ch as high dependency on monsoons, unpredictable weather patterns, decreasing farm sizes, diminishing arable land, increased pest attacks and low per hectare yield, among others. To overcome these challenges, the government has been taking several measures by implementing various schemes and programmes. However, there needs to be a collaborative effort between the central and state governments to overcome all these challenges.

To effectively promote micro-irrigation technologies, it is crucial to involve water use associations at the state level. A representative of the Command Area Development and Water Management (CADWM) programme should be involved in identifying potential districts where community irrigation pilots can be run. Mo­re­over, beneficiaries under the CADWM projects should be identified and trained by the respective states. Another focus area should be to identify major crops suitable for different regions, particularly those practised by progressive farmers who can serve as examples by converting their fields into demonstration plots.

Additionally, to ensure efficient implementation, the entire micro-irrigation process sh­ould be digitalised and transparent, by leveraging technologies such as internet of things and geotagging. Further, micro-irrigation system suppliers should develop a roadmap for accelerated adoption of the scheme, along with the state implementing agency. Crop practices, irrigation schedules and preventive mea­sures for diseases and pests should also be made easily accessible at strategic locations within those villages. Special purpose vehicles at the state level will facilitate focused implementation and dep­loy­ment of skilled manpower. Making drip irrigation mandatory for sugarcane cultivation on a na­tionwide scale is also advisable and future crop focus should include cotton, fruits, vegetables and other water-intensive crops, while also considering oilseeds and pulses. Detailed guidelines incorporating automation for micro-irrigation in canal command areas should also be formulated. Furthermore, to reduce the financial burden on farmers and the government, loans to micro-irrigation companies should be classified under priority sector lending, thereby reducing equipment costs and the subsidy bill. Micro-irrigation suppliers should develop region-wise and crop-specific packages that provide equipment and guidelines tailored to the specific requirements of each area and crop. To disseminate best practices and foster knowledge exchange, organising workshops and conferences at the state, regional, national and international levels is vital. These events will serve as platforms for sharing experiences, showcasing successful case studies and promoting the adoption of micro-irrigation practices.

Based on a presentation by Rohit Lall, Joint Project Director, National Committee on Precision Agriculture and Horticulture, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, at a recent India Infrastructure conference