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Intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use

  • 27th April, 2021

(MAINS GS 3 : Agriculture: Major cropping patterns in various parts of the country, different types of irrigation and irrigation systems storage, transport and marketing of agricultural produce and issues and related constraints; e-technology in the aid of farmers) 


  • India is the second-largest producer of wheat in the world, with over 30 million hectares in the country dedicated to producing this crop.
  • But with severe groundwater depletion, the cropping intensity or the amount of land planted in the winter season may decrease by up to 20% by 2025.
  • Some of the important winter crops are wheat, barley, mustard and peas.

The key findings:

  • The international team studied India’s three main irrigation types on winter cropped areas: dug wells, tube wells, canals, and also analysed the groundwater data from the Central Ground Water Board. 
  • They found that 13% of the villages in which farmers plant a winter crop are located in critically water-depleted regions. 
  • The team writes that these villages may lose 68% of their cropped area in future if access to all groundwater irrigation is lost. 
  • The results suggest that these losses will largely occur in northwest and central India. 

Alternative sources:

  • A recent study  looked at canals to understand if they can be promoted as an alternative irrigation source and as an adaptation strategy to falling groundwater tables.
  •  But the results showed that “switching to canal irrigation has limited adaptation potential at the national scale. 
  • Even if all regions that are currently using depleted groundwater for irrigation will switch to using canal irrigation, cropping intensity may decline by 7% nationally.

Unsuited soils:

  • Experts from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, New Delhi, explains more about the problems wheat farmers face in our country. 
  • According to them, there are several first-generation (productivity) and second-generation (sustainability) problems. 
  • In the green revolution era, policy-supported environment led to a large increase in rice cultivation in northwestern India mainly in Punjab and Haryana which are ecologically less suitable for rice cultivation due to predominantly light soils.
  •  This policy-supported intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use for irrigation and in turn groundwater scarcity. 
  • There was also post-harvest residue burning to make way for the timely sowing of wheat. 

Poor infrastructure:

  • There are enough groundwater resources supported with higher monsoon rainfall in eastern Indian states like Bihar. 
  • But due to lack of enough irrigation infrastructure, farmers are not able to make use of natural resources there.
  • Thus, the country needs better policies in eastern India to expand irrigation and increase agricultural productivity. This will also release some pressure from northwestern Indian states. 


For less groundwater depletion and sustainable agriculture, India needs to adopt water-saving technologies like a sprinkler, drip irrigation along with less water intensive crops especially in areas of limited groundwater resources. 


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