MGNREGA – National Importance, Potential and Challenges

India’s Dryland Areas

In the two decades prior to 2004, the rate of growth of foodgrains production was lower than the rate of growth of population.While for some years now foodgrain production has grown at a rate higher than population growth for many years, we need to remember that there are limits to irrigation development. Gross irrigated area in India went up by over 300%, from 22.56 million hectares (mha) in 1950-51 to 75.14 mha in 2000-01. At present, India has the largest irrigated agriculture in the world. However, a remarkable fact is that since the mid-1970s, the rate of expansion of irrigated area has undergone a decline. Both the rate of growth of irrigated area (1.83%) and average annual increments (1.28 mha/year) were the lowest in the period 1990-93 to 1999-2000, compared to earlier decades. It is estimated that 4400 (large, medium and small) dams have been constructed in India so far (CWC, 2002). The pace of dam construction reached its peak in the mid-1980s, subsequent to which it slowed down considerably. A severe financial constraint restricts the possibilities of growth in surface irrigation based on big dams (Planning Commission, 2002). Evidence of problems such as waterlogging, salinity and alkalinity emerging in irrigation commands point to the ill-effects of over-irrigation. It should also be remembered that the track record of development projects in handling the problem of proper rehabilitation of displaced persons has been extremely poor (ILO-ARTEP, 1993). Of the addition to irrigated area of 25.7 million hectares (mha) between 1970 and 1990, groundwater accounted for over 85%. The most dramatic change in the groundwater scenario in India is that the share of tubewells in irrigated area rose from a mere 1% in 1950-51 to 40% in 2007-08. Groundwater availability is dependent on the water storage and transmission characteristics of underlying geological strata. About 65% of India (comprising mainly the continental shield) is underlain by formations usually referred to as “hard rocks”. Deeper seated aquifers often have good initial yields, but a tubewell drilled here may be tapping groundwater accumulated over several hundreds of years. Once groundwater has been extracted from a deeper aquifer, its replenishment depends upon the inflow from the shallow system. The path this water has to traverse is characterized by relatively unfavorable media, which greatly slows down the rate of groundwater recharge. This poses a severe limit to expansion of tubewell technology to areas underlain by these strata.

Potential of Dryland Agriculture

It is now well-known that over the last sixty years, the share of agriculture in national income has fallen dramatically (from 54 per cent in 1931 to 18 per cent in 2008), without a corresponding decline in its share in the work force (which was 71 per cent in 1931 and 56 per cent in 2008). This indicates that the labour productivity in agriculture has fallen relative to the average labour productivity in the economy as a whole (Bhaduri, 1993). The continuing inter-sectoral differences in labour productivity, together with the fact that agriculture and related activities are still the major source of livelihoods is among the abiding causes of poverty in India. The flip side of this phenomenon suggests that if we want to raise overall output and employment in the economy, the most effective means would be to raise the productivity of agriculture. Since national per capita income can be expressed as a weighted average of sectoral productivities, it follows as an arithmetical identity that a rise in productivity in agriculture would lead to a greater increase in national output than the same increment in the productivity of the other sectors. In developing economies with a predominant agricultural sector, growth in agricultural productivity and employment is attainable through careful management of natural resources including water. This is also the pre-condition for greater labour absorption in agriculture through greater crop diversification and increased cropping intensity (Bhaduri, 2005).

India’s Drylands: Neglected Geographies

Map of India's Dryland Regions

India’s Dryland Regions

In fact, by disaggregating the agricultural sector into a Green Revolution sector and a dryland sector, we could extend Bhaduri’s analysis and argue that the maximum returns to a unit rise in productivity (across sectors) are obtainable from the dryland agricultural sector in India. This is because the drylands sector is characterized by the lowest levels of productivity, even while employing nearly 50 per cent of the labour force in Indian agriculture. Thus, both the scope for raising productivity and its potential aggregate impact are the highest in this sector. Since the poorest sections of Indian society live here, a rise in productivity in this sector would have an immediate impact on poverty alleviation, without having to await the rather doubtful and tenuous ‘trickle-down’ from the core to the periphery. It would also have a positive impact on the pattern of inter-regional inequality by benefiting the most backward areas.  

India’s Drylands: Contributions

  • 62% of Total Land Area
  • 56% of Cropped Area
  • 52% of Population
  • 48% of Food Crop Area
  • 68% of Non-FC Area
  • 77% of Pulses
  • 66% of Oilseeds
  • 45% of Cotton
  • 40% of Additional Food for Self Sufficiency

Rainfed drylands account for 48% of area under food-crops and 68% of the area under non-food crops. In terms of crop groups, 77% of pulses, 66% of oilseeds and 45% of cereals are grown under dryland conditions. More than 90% of the area under sorghum and pearl millet, 57% of maize, 62% of cotton, 76% of gram, 88% of pigeon pea and nearly 80% of groundnut, sesamum, linseed and soybean are located here. Rainfed areas account for nearly 80% of the output of coarse cereals, nearly 50% of maize, 65% of gram and pigeon pea, 81% of groundnut and 88% of soybean. Finally, if we concentrate our investment in these areas on labour-intensive works which raise productivity through the process of environmental regeneration, we could go a long way towards making the overall growth path of the Indian economy both employment-oriented and sustainable in the long run. Data from the Rural Labour Enquiry (Labour Bureau, 2004) reveal that the proportion of the landed among agricultural labour households is very high5. The NSS 61st Round shows that in 2004-05, as many as 76 per cent of the rural households in the country were marginal farmers (owning less than 1 hectare of land) and another 13% were small farmers (with landholding size between 1 and 2 hectares) (NSSO, 2007). Thus, small and marginal farmers accounted for nearly 89% of the landholdings. An increasing number of these small and marginal landowners, operating low-productivity holdings are being forced to enter the labour market. If priority is given to raising productivity in the fields of these landed labourers (occupying an estimated 8 million hectares), it would be a major contribution towards direct poverty alleviation in India.