MEDAK DISTRICT of Andhra Pradesh is the picture of a paradox. Known as one of the most backward districts of the Telangana region, it is also the district with the second largest number of industries in the state. Bereft of irrigation schemes, most parts of the district rely primarily on groundwater for both domestic and industrial needs. No wonder, groundwater levels here have fallen by an astounding 75 percent over the last decade, with 35 of its 45 mandals coming under the ‘critical and over-exploited’ category of groundwater utilisation.
Now, consider this. The future growth of this backward, parched region is expected to derive largely from a mushrooming of highly water-intensive agro-processing units. The district administration, which has distributed 25,404 acres of wasteland to the landless poor, has already motivated the 23,524 beneficiaries to go in for the cultivation of non-conventional crops such as medicinal plants (sweet sorghum and neem) and biodiesel plants ( jatropha and pongamia).
Horticulture too is being encouraged, with farmers opting to cultivate fruits like mangoes, oranges, watermelon and guava. All these will be used to encourage dehydrated fruit factories and canned juice units for various MNCs. In addition, one-third of the agricultural produce of Medak is dominated by rice, which requires long periods of standing water for a good crop.
This approach to Medak’s development begs a serious question: can its over-stretched groundwater resources bear the brunt of the massive demand for this precious resource?
The Central Ground Water Authority of the Union Ministry of Water Resources has proposed a host of measures to avert a potential crisis and save people’s livelihoods in Medak. Two big challenges would be to stem the excessive digging of borewells across the district, and promote optimal utilisation of the precious groundwater.
As the district already has an extremely high density of borewells, there is little potential to develop new sources of groundwater. Farmers are being advised to keep a minimum spacing of 300 metres between borewells, and to use only shallow borewells, especially in the post-monsoon period when the water table usually rises by a few metres. Among other suggestions, farmers have been asked to curb wastage of water by using equipment like sprayers and going in for drip irrigation, instead of making furrows to channel groundwater from borewells.
The biggest challenge for the district administration, however, will be to motivate traditional farmers of rice and cotton to opt for high-value crops that consume less water such as oilseeds and coarse grains. These high-value crops are also being eyed by the agro-processing industry that can use them for various products marketed across the world under various brand names.
But with its aquifers still sinking, Medak’s plans for development could well end up threatening the food and water security of the people in the region.