Field Work in Uttar Pradesh – First Impressions

India is home to over 1.2 billion people, 200 million of which live in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Despite this enormous population, agriculture is the biggest consumer of water in the state, with over 90% of all water used for irrigation.  The remaining 10% is taken up by the domestic, industry and energy sectors. Agricultural water use in India has seen a dramatic rise over the last 60 years, mainly due to the many technical advances heralded by the green revolution, along with the governments’ famous five year plans. Rural electrification has played an important role in providing water access to farmers, particularly in the sections of the Gangetic and Indus basins centred around Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. This has allowed farmers to become more independent, no longer needing to rely on the intermittent and unreliable supply of water provided by the canals. This has also allowed land further away from the canals catchment to be cultivated. Uttar Pradeshs’ cultivated land has increased dramatically, largely as a result of farmers’ adoption of tube wells as a source of irrigation; a method which, since 1950, has increased from approximately 5 million hectares to almost 14 million in 2010.

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Figure 1: Location map of the study area including districts visited during field work

While some information on a state and district level exists, little is known on a smaller scale. The main goal of my field work in India is to collect information on a village and farm scale, and build a dataset on how farmers use their water; where do they get it from, how do they use it and what are the main problems they face in order to irrigate their crops. This information will then be used to quantify the volume of water consumed by agriculture, how this has changed, what the drivers of this change are and importantly to help generate solutions for future water management. This will be greatly helped by developing an understanding of the spatial heterogeneity of water use.

My work has primarily focused on the districts of Sitapur, Jalaun and Hamirpur; all located in the central and south central regions of Uttar Pradesh.  These districts were picked specifically for the sources from which they obtain their irrigation water.  Jalaun is the highest user of canal water in the state, Sitapur is the second highest user of water from tubewells in Uttar Pradesh and one of its biggest grain producers, and according to data  from the States statistical abstract;, farmers in Hamirpur use a relatively even mix of canal, tubewell and other methods to irrigate their crops.

In order to pick the actual locations to visit within each district, a list of villages for each was obtained. Each of the three districts has somewhere between 2000 to 3000 villages and fifteen were randomly picked from each. Within each village a semi-structured interview as conducted with three to five farmers, depending on their availability; in some villages getting five suitable people to interview proved relatively easy, whereas in others trying to meet more than two farmers could be quite a challenge. A semi-structured interview approach was used because it allows a set list of questions to be asked of the interviewees, while also allowing plenty of scope for the farmers to elaborate on their practices and the issues they face. This also allows for the core data collected to be compared between of the farmers interviewed. Questions included the amount of land each farmer had, the type of crops they grow, timing and volume of irrigation water application, water availability and how much it cost them to irrigate. All conversations were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis, all interview locations and where possible the locations of the wells or canals used for irrigation were marked using a GPS.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect before I headed out; that the southern Bundlekhand district of Jalaun was quite “backward” as the Indians put it, with poorer, less technologically advanced farmers, and Sitapur, just to the north of the State capital Lucknow, with its markets and large population, to be more progressive and wealthy. I expected irrigating your crops to be free or at least cheap and the crops produced by the farmers to be bought by the Government at a guaranteed price.  What I found was almost the complete opposite.

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Photo 1: Irrigation of rice field in Sitapur (photo by J. O’Keeffe)

Irrigating crops in these districts can actually be quite expensive. How much depends on your source of water. Irrigation from a tube well usually costs the farmer somewhere in the region of 150 rupees per hour, whether this is done by means of an electric submersible pump or a diesel suction pump. For the farmer who sells the water, the price of using a diesel pump is more or less the same, but is cheaper to use an electric pump, as they usually pay an annual fee of about 25,000 rupees, after which they can use as much as they like; provided there is actually electricity available. Few farmers interviewed had access to electricity for more than eight hours per day, and this was usually at night. As a result, much of the irrigation carried out, particularly in Jalaun was carried out between 4pm- 11pm. If you needed to irrigate your crops outside of these times the only options were diesel, or canal water if available.

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Photo 2: Water abstraction from tubewell using diesel pump in Jalaun (photo by J. O’Keeffe)

A relatively large portion of farmers in the southern district of Jalaun had access to some canal water. Most of this came via a small number of canals supplied by the Matatila Dam and the Betwa River in the district of Jhansi to the south. Canal water provides a much cheaper option than groundwater. While using a tubewell will cost in the region of 2250 rupees per acre for the entire crop of wheat, the same amount of water from a canal will cost about 250 rupees. Access to cheap canal water in Sitapur however is very limited and the vast majority of farmers rely completely on groundwater to irrigate their crops. In addition, while many farmers in Jalaun had access to electric tube wells, few did in Sitapur; the exception being those who could avail of the extremely rare Government tube wells. Irrigation costs comprise a large part of farmers expenditure and with no access to cheap water like users in Jalaun, farmers in Sitapur are less well off and less technically advanced. A clear example of this is the method in which farmers apply their water. While all farmers use flood irrigation, the majority of those in Jalaun employ sprinklers for at least the first application of water, while in Sitapur few farmers even knew what a sprinkler was.

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Photo 3: Road conditions between Jalaun and Hamirpur (photo by S. Swarnkar)

While travelling around Uttar Pradesh and interviewing farmers was certainly interesting and exciting experience, it was not without its challenges. English is an official language in India, but unfortunately for me only 1 farmer out of 109 interviewed could actually converse in it; so all interviews had to be carried out through a translator. Translating from English to Hindi and back again can be tricky, particularly as most locations seem to have their own version of the language. I was very lucky to have had the help of two MTec students; Shirivendra and Somil, who not only could understand my version of English, but also what I was trying to ask.  Both took turns to come out in the field with me along with the fourth member of our team, Moonah the driver. While it’s all well and good to randomly pick villages on a map, actually getting to them turns out to be a bit more complicated. Roads can vary from excellent to terrible, and impassable if there has been a rain shower. Even getting into Hamirpur district proved to be particularly challenging. After almost an entire day of trying, we eventually found what seemed to be the only functioning road into the district.

Overall, it was a great experience in which I collected a lot of what will hopefully turn out to be useful and unique data. I was very lucky to have had lots of help from all at IIT Kanpur, particularly Naresh, my translators Shivendra, Somil , and Moonagh  the driver. Also, Professor Rajiv Sinha who very kindly allowed me to come to Kanpur and provided access to all the resources I needed.

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About jimmyokeeffe

Research Postgraduate at Imperial College London. Interested in water resources, agricultural water use, and the interactions between food, water and energy.
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