Head Above Water


Scientist Aditi Mukherji, winner of the first Norman Borlaug award for field research, talks about the crucial difference that water management can make in Bengal.

It was during the daily curricular grind at Kolkata's Presidency College from 1994-97 that Aditi Mukherji (then Deb Roy) came to appreciate how closely geography is interlinked with the economies of the land. A couple of years later, when she started working on groundwater and irrigation, she came up against a puzzling question: "why were farmers in West Bengal not making intensive use of groundwater even when it was available at depths of 10 feet or less, while their counterparts in Punjab and Gujarat drew water from depths of hundreds of feet and yet supported a thriving agriculture?"

Water resources in West Bengal have traditionally been richer than other parts of India. Yet, Bengal's agricultural produce is far below states like Punjab and Haryana. When Mukherji began her field work, she came across a paradox. "Excessive restriction on access to groundwater in a state of relative water abundance but land scarcity, like Bengal, can keep farmers in perpetual poverty. Farmers with very small land holdings in Bengal need to grow two to three crops in a year and groundwater provides reliable, all-year-round irrigation. However, with dependence on diesel pumps and high cost of diesel, farmers were reverting to single-cropping, even though water was available in plenty," says Mukherji, 35, a senior researcher at the Delhi office of International Water Management Institute.

Mukherji, who did her PhD in geography from Cambridge University, UK, realised that electrification of pumps was the answer, but there were several roadblocks. The state's Groundwater Act of 2005 required all farmers get a permit from the groundwater authority before they applied for an electric connection. "This process was fraught with red tape and corruption. Even if a farmer managed to get a permit, he had to pay the full capital cost of electrification of a tubewell. This included cost of wires, poles and transformers and would come to Rs1.5 lakh and more — much beyond the capacity of most small and marginal farmers in the state," says Mukherji.

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