Bhaskar Save's letter to the Planning Commission on the SSP: September 1993

Dr Jayant Patil
Convenor, Group on Sardar Sarovar Project
Member, Planning Commission
Yojana Bhawan, New Delhi 110001

Reference- Your D.O No: PC / M (JP) / SSP /93 dtd 8.9.93

Dear Sir,

Thank You for your letter dtd 8th September, 1993 inviting me to share my views and experiences with your group studying the Sardar Sarovar Project. I shall be glad to co-operate, and give below a concise statement as requested in your letter.

I am a 72 year-old farmer, born in a family whose ancestral occupation has been farming for many generations. Since childhood, I have closely seen a broad range of agricultural practices from traditional farming to modern chemical agriculture. During the last 30 years, I have entirely followed the low-cost way of natural farming. I do not use chemicals at all, and have been enjoying excellent yields and profits each year without any decline. The fertility of the humus-rich top-soil at my farm, and its capacity to absorb moisture has also steadily improved, and continues to improve.

I can confidently say from my long, personal experience that efficient, sustainable farming requires very little irrigation -- a small fraction of what is commonly used in modern agriculture. The yields of the crops are best when the soil is just damp. Rice is the only exception that can grow even where water accumulates, and is thus preferred as a monsoon crop in low-lying areas. Excess irrigation in the case of all other crops causes serious damage.

Whether one measures irrigation efficiency in terms of litres required for each kilogram of food produced, or in terms of tonnes per acre of land irrigated, the water requirement at my farm ‘Kalpavruksha’ is between one-third and one-twentieth of that used in most modern farms today. Moreover, the earth under the thick cover of vegetation is a big natural reservoir that holds water all round the year. The porous structure of the soil is like a sponge that enables it to absorb and to percolate to the aquifer, or ground-water table, an enormous quantity of rain-water each monsoon. The amount of water that is stored in the ground at Kalpavruksha in this manner is more than the total amount withdrawn from the well for irrigation in all the other months when there is no rain. Thus, the farm is a net supplier of water to the eco-system of the region, rather than a net user.

If our aim is sustainable agriculture for self-reliance, and for safeguarding the future of our children, there is no need for big irrigation schemes. The most efficient way, and in fact the only way, to ensure the water security and food security of this nation is by growing mixed, locally suitable crops, plants and trees, following the laws of nature. This will increase rainfall and restore the earth’s enormous natural capacity to soak and store the water in the ground, protected from evaporation.

Even barren wastelands can be restored to health in less than a decade. Moreover, by interplanting short-life crops, medium-life crops and long-life crops, it is possible to have planned continuity of yield to sustain a farmer through the transition period. The higher growth of bio-mass and ground-cover will also hasten the regeneration of soil fertility. My experience with the 5-year old Sanghavi Farm, started on wasteland, confirms this.

In this statement, I will mainly concentrate on agriculture and irrigation, covering the following points:

  • How irrigation-intensive modern agriculture ruins the soil and its capacity to absorb moisture, poisoning the entire food cycle of nature and destroying our health.
  • How natural processes greatly reduce the need for irrigation, increase ground-water resources, and simplify the work of the farmer.

Why excess irrigation is very harmful :

Just as human beings need to breathe continuously, so also the roots of plants (excluding species like mangroves, rice) require non-stop aeration. Excess water drives out air contained between soil particles, depriving the roots of their most vital need, and disrupting photo-synthesis. But soil that is just damp enables non-stop aeration near the roots, resulting in greater efficiency of photo-synthesis. Such continuous soil aeration is of fundamental importance in agriculture.

Prolonged flooding at the roots causes them to rot, resulting in various plant diseases and pest attacks. Even after the excess water in the soil has dried or drained away, much time is lost in regenerating the roots and root fibres, before the photosynthesis of new leaves, flowers, fruits etc can resume.

Excess water similarly harms the earthworms and aerobic micro-organisms such as decomposer bacteria, that vitally need oxygen to survive and function. The formation of humus from organic matter by these soil-creatures is thus obstructed.

Salinisation ruins the soil : Salinisation of the soil is an extremely serious problem caused by excess irrigation. It is only rainwater that is pure distilled water. The irrigation water drawn from canals, wells, tubewells etc. contains salts that have dissolved in it through contact with the earth. When such water is used on the farm, some of it evaporates, leaving the salts behind on the surface of the soil. e.g: with 60% evaporation, 60% of the dissolved salts are left behind. This process continues, and a progressively thicker crust of salts is formed on the land.

Most of Gujarat has a dry climate with a high rate of evaporation. As one moves northward to the regions of Saurashtra and Kutchh, the air gets hotter and drier. Consequently, the rate of evaporation and salinisation is even higher.

Salinisation greatly reduces the soil's capacity to absorb air and moisture, since these cannot penetrate the hard, sealed surface of the earth. The plants suffer as a result of this. Similarly, the earthworms, micro-organisms, etc also die through suffocation in the absence of air, speeding up the ruination of the soil. The traditional plough drawn by bullocks can no longer break the hardened earth, and the farmer is forced to resort to tractor-ploughing, which only worsens the damage each year.

The most serious problems, however, are caused where water-guzzling mono-culture cash-crops like sugarcane and basmati rice are grown round the year, abandoning the traditional mixed-cropping and rotation systems of the past.

I have personally seen the terrible condition of the land in the regions of Sangli and Baramati. This is a direct consequence of irrigation-intensive agriculture. One can actually taste the high saltiness of the soil. In many parts, the ground-water level has risen upto the root zone and can be found at a depth of barely 4-5 feet. The situation is such that not even a blade of grass can grow on such land. Huge areas in Punjab irrigated from Bhakra Nangal have been similarly ruined by soil-salinisation and water-logging. Such examples are numerous, and most large irrigation schemes face this threat.

The problems are compounded by toxic chemicals which increase the irrigation requirement of crops, and poison the food-cycle of nature, killing many helpful friends of the farmer like the earthworms, bees, frogs, spiders, birds, etc. The living soil collapses into dead dust . I fear for the people who still want to imitate the so-called agricultural "success" of Punjab.

Exporting Water :

The water used to irrigate one acre of sugarcane can provide the needs of atleast 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. One kg of basmati rice requires 300 to 400 litres of water, and large quantities of such rice are exported. One kg of corn requires only 15 to 17 litres of water and this crop is imported. In effect, we are exporting our water resources.

The Government is also promoting the export of sugar. Each such kg of processed sugar requires atleast 2 to 3 tonnes of water, which could have been used to grow, by the traditional organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of jowar or bajra to feed our own people. Moeover, the monocultures of sugarcane cause the worst problems of salinisation. While we may be able to import food, fuel, fertiliser, etc., land is something that can never be imported. We must be careful that we do not create in India, another Ethiopia or Somalia. God may forgive our mistakes, rooted in short-sighted greed, but the future generations will never forgive us.

Rain too, is driven away :

Some decades ago, there grew trees and forests even in parts of Saurashtra and Kutchh, and more rain used to fall than we have now. Today, there are still thick rain clouds darkening the skies in the monsoon months as they pass above these regions. But little or no rain falls on the ground, as the hot dry air is not suitable for condensation. We unfortunately forget that deserts do not form because there is no rain. The truth is that rain stops falling because we have already destroyed the vegetation and created deserts.

In the past, Kutchh lost its green cover through the clear-felling of trees and forests for selling timber. Today, India is losing most of her vegetation and destroying her soils because of modern irrigation-intensive agriculture, modern (reckless) development, and cancerous urbanisation. This is the path of desertification and man-made famines. The only alternative is to reduce water wastage, and follow nature's way to regeneration..


The Example of Mountain Forests:

On steep mountain slopes, such as in the Himalayas or Sahyadris, the soil is subject to high erosion during the heavy tropical monsoons. Consequently, the earth may have barely 5% soil and 95% rock and stones.Yet thick forests with huge, old trees thrive on such land. The well-drained slopes allow for non-stop soil aeration, and undisturbed photo-synthesis. During the 8 or 9 months when there is no rain, the trees are able to survive very well on the moisture soaked in the monsoon, and on the daily condensation of dew. No irrigation needs to be provided by man! In contrast, the low-lying areas in river valleys and plains (e.g. Gangetic region) may have 95% soil and less than 5% rocks or stones. But because such land is prone to water accumulation, the roots of trees suffer from poor soil aeration. After the rains stop in October, many months may go in repairing or replacing the damaged roots. The photo-synthesis of new leaves and branches is usually resumed only around April, and after 2 to 3 months, the monsoon returns, once again disrupting photo-synthesis where excess water is unable to drain away. The growth of trees and forests in such conditions can therefore be seen to be poorer than on the well-drained slopes.

The Role of Weeds :

In nature, wherever some sunlight falls on bare, damp soil, a number of weeds come up on their own. These shade the ground, moderate the micro-climatic temperature, maintain humidity and reduce evaporation loss, thus conserving the soil moisture. The earthworms, micro-organisms and other creatures of the soil multiply and work well under such conditions. The movement of all these creatures provides natural tillage to the soil, maintaining its porous structure and its capacity to absorb and hold both air and moisture. When the weeds complete their life cycle, their dead leaves and roots provide the food needed by the earthworms, decomposer bacteria, etc. which is then converted into nutrient-rich, natural compost.

Soil Humus :

If all organic ‘waste materials’, e.g. crop residues, leaf litter, cattle and human excreta, etc. are returned to the soil, these are broken down through the digestive processes of the soil creatures, increasing humus on the surface. This dark mixture of semi-decomposed and fully decomposed matter, is a very absorbent substance. It is the most important element in ensuring the sustained fertility of the soil, and stores both rainwater and dissolved minerals for the plants to draw upon. Equally helpful is its role in enabling excess water to drain away to deeper layers of the sub-soil, and finally to the ground-water table.


Controlling Water Wastage :

Since atleast 60% of the water used for irrigation nowadays is excessive, wasteful and harmful, the first step that needs to be taken is to control this. [Where harmful chemicals are used , the lasting damage to soil through salinisation is even greater, and it is essential that the government undertakes a widespread public education programme for the farmers]. By this, not only will the harm caused by excess irrigation stop, but a good deal of the water that is saved can also become available for priority areas where acute scarcity is felt. Moreover, agricultural costs will fall, while yields will significantly improve. Israel is one example of a state with extremely little water obtaining good agricultural yield under harsh conditions. Even better results can be obtained in India at much less cost by relying entirely on natural processes without using any chemicals. There is no necessity either for drip irrigation.

Tree Cover:

Additionally, the government should implement a programme to restore atleast 25% to 30% cover of mixed, indigeneous trees and forests. Outstanding benefits can be achieved within a decade at comparatively little monetary investment. Rainfall will increase and ground water levels will rise. We unfortunately forget that the potential for natural water storage in the ground is many times greater than the combined capacity of all the major and medium irrigation projects in India – complete, incomplete, or still on paper. Such underground storage is also more efficient as it is protected from the high evaporation of surface storage. The above measure of planting traditional indigenous trees will also make available a variety of useful produce to improve the health and well-being of a larger number of people.

In Conclusion :

It is my firm belief that large irrigation schemes are not necessary for sustainable and self-sufficient agriculture. Rather, such schemes have usually resulted in excessive misuse of water, starting a chain effect of various problems, making it essential to adopt the above measures to minimise the damage caused. The present trend of demand for irrigation water is like a bottomless pit. If wastage continues in this manner, not even a dozen Sardar Sarovar Projects will be sufficient.

As I am a farmer, I have confined myself to matters pertaining to farming. If you have any questions, or need some further clarifications/details, I will be glad to answer.

Thanking you,

Yours sincerely,

Bhaskar H Save