Agriculture is itself an energy conversion process, namely the conversion of solar energy through photosynthesis to food energy for humans and feeds for animals.
Primitive agriculture involved little more than scattering seeds on the land and accepting the scanty yields that resulted. Modern agriculture requires an energy input at all stages of agricultural production such as direct use of energy in farm machinery, water management, irrigation, cultivation, and harvesting.
Post-harvest energy use includes energy for food processing, storage, and transport to markets. In addition, there are many indirect or sequestered energy inputs used in agriculture in the form of mineral fertilizers and chemical pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides.
India’s production of food grains has been increasing every year, and India is among the top producers of several crops such as wheat, rice, pulses, sugarcane and cotton. It is the highest producer of milk and second highest producer of fruits and vegetables. In 2013, India contributed 25% to the world’s pulses production, the highest for any one country, 22% to the rice production and 13% to the wheat production. It also accounted for about 25% of the total quantity of cotton produced, besides being the second highest exporter of cotton for the past several years.
However, the agricultural yield (quantity of a crop produced per unit of land) is found to be lower in the case of most crops, as compared to other top producing countries such as China, Brazil and the United States.
Key issues affecting agricultural productivity include the decreasing sizes of agricultural land holdings, continued dependence on the monsoon, inadequate access to irrigation, imbalanced use of soil nutrients resulting in loss of fertility of soil, uneven access to modern technology in different parts of the country, lack of access to formal agricultural credit, limited procurement of food grains by government agencies, and failure to provide remunerative prices to farmers.
Some of the recommendations made by committees and expert bodies over the years include bringing in agricultural land leasing laws, shifting to micro-irrigation techniques to improve efficiency of water use, improving access to quality seeds by engaging with the private sector, and introducing a national agricultural market to allow the trading of agricultural produce online.
Due to the rapid growth in groundwater irrigated areas, there has been a sharp growth in electricity use in the agriculture sector, especially since the 1980s. Electricity consumption of agriculture rose from 3,465 Million Units (MU) in 1969 to 1,87,493 MU in 2016. At one time, agriculture use constituted almost 27% of the total electricity consumption, though the share has fallen considerably after that, even as it has increased in absolute value.
Since agricultural electricity consumption has been subsidized—either directly or through cross-subsidies—this has created demands on the finances of the power sector and the state governments.
Further, in a large number of cases, agricultural connections are unmetered, leading to several problems in estimating the consumption, hiding of technical and commercial losses like theft behind agricultural consumption, lack of accountability in the system, etc.
Due to this situation, cheap or free and unmetered agricultural consumption is seen as a key culprit responsible for many of the long-standing problems of the power sector like the financial health of electricity distribution companies, poor power quality of supply to agricultural consumers, and the impact of cross-subsidies on other categories of consumers.
Electricity distribution companies (DISCOMs) have been reeling under massive financial losses for a long time. The central government has implemented three bailout packages in the last 15 years to relieve their financial stress.
Thus, it is no surprise that electricity distribution is characterized as the weakest link in the power sector. This in turn is largely seen as a result of subsidized electricity supply to certain categories, major among them being agriculture. This subsidy is covered either by consumers of other categories who are charged higher tariffs (cross-subsidy), or by grants from the state governments (direct subsidy).
Since the 1970s, agriculture in many Indian states has been receiving electricity with low tariffs. In some cases, electricity is supplied for free. Much of this supply is unmetered. Subsidized supply has played a key role in the growth of groundwater irrigation and agricultural production in the country during the green revolution and after.
But in recent years, studies have emphasized the negative impacts of subsidized electricity supply not only on DISCOMs but also on state governments and cross-subsidizing consumers who also finance this subsidy. Free or subsidised electricity supply is seen as the primary cause of unsustainable groundwater extraction as well as the poor quality of electricity supply to rural consumers.
Problems with Electricity in Agriculture
Almost all the electricity that is used in the agriculture sector is used for pumping. Similarly, more than 85% of the total energy used for groundwater irrigation, or more accurately, pumped irrigation comes from electricity.
Power to agriculture is subsidized, but the hours of supply to agriculture, and hence rural supplyhours are significantly lesser than that for urban consumers. Many states now have a system of rostering of supply, where power supply alternates between day time on a few days and night time on others. Agriculture does not receive more than 10 hours of electricity supply a day in a majorityof the states.
Farmers receive fewer than scheduled hours of supply which are often erratic and with frequent interruptions and voltage fluctuations, causing farmers to incur avoidable expenditure on pump repairs due to motor burnouts. Transformer burnouts are a common occurrence, and there are long delays in getting the transformers repaired. Unreliability of supply makes farmers invest in higher capacity electric pumps as well as diesel pump-sets.
The safety of farmers is also an important issue. Irrigating fields during the night can be risky and hazardous, especially for women and old farmers. This is so not only because of the danger due to creatures such as snakes but also electric shock accidents. Accidents during pump-set operation, while coming into contact with low hanging conductors, and while attempting to repair failed transformers are common.
As per the data provided by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of deaths due to electricity accidents was nearly 10,000 in 2015, mostly occurring in rural areas, and this number has been increasing every year by 5-6% in the last two decades (NCRB, 2016).
A major critique of subsidized electricity to agriculture is that it leads to unregulated pumping of groundwater as the marginal cost of pumping is very less, or zero. This leads to over-extraction of groundwater and falling groundwater levels.
The cropping pattern adopted by farmers is a major determinant of irrigation requirements and hence water withdrawals. One of the important considerations in this regard is the cultivation of crops that are unsuitable to the agro-climatic and eco-climatic characteristics of a region or season. Such crops often require very high inputs of water over and above rainfall, which is supplied by canal waters or groundwater. Some examples of this phenomenon are sugarcane farming in water-stressed areas of Maharashtra, or rice farming in Punjab
Steps for Improvement of Energy Sector in Agriculture
The Government of India launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) scheme in 2019 to improve irrigation access and farmers’ income through solar-powered irrigation.
Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana
To achieve convergence of investments in irrigation at the field level.
To enhance the recharge of aquifers and introduce sustainable water conservation practices.
To promote extension activities relating to water harvesting, water management and crop alignment for farmers and grass root level field functionaries.
National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture
National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA) has been formulated for enhancing agricultural productivity especially in rainfed areas focusing on integrated farming, water use efficiency, soil health management, and synergizing resource conservation.
Shift in Irrigation Sources & Incentives for shifts in cropping patterns.