Farmers love rice and wheat primarily because of stable prices and assured state purchases. These two staples, along with another thirsty crop, sugar cane, are grown in 40% of the country’s gross farmed area but consume about 80% of its irrigation.
India’s 1.3 billion people have access to only about 4 per cent of the world’s water resources, and farmers consume almost 90 per cent of the groundwater water available. As global temperatures rise and overuse of water depletes existing resources, the threat to lives and businesses in Asia’s third-largest economy is projected to grow.
Water shortages are already acute: nearly half the country’s population faces high-to-extreme water stress and about 200,000 die each year due to inadequate access to safe water.
Stoked by climate change, the water crisis has forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to try and turn around decades of established farming practices and convince the country’s most powerful voting bloc to change the crops they plant. Water-guzzlers like rice and wheat are out, corn and pulses are in.
In the long run, experts say water shortages will make crop diversification an inevitability. Currently India is the world’s biggest extractor of groundwater — more than China and the U.S. combined — accounting for almost a quarter of the total extracted globally.