From paddy to palm oil: Telangana focuses on water intensive crops

S Nageshwar Rao, a farmer walks inside his palm oil garden at Medapally in Khammam district. Photo by Manish Kumar

  • After a push for paddy production, the Telangana government is focussing on expanding oil palm cultivation. Both paddy and oil palm and water intensive crops.
  • The government has made a push to increase its irrigation potential with mega water projects but experts say that it is not a sustainable way and could have an impact on water resources in the future.
  • Telangana is the second largest cultivator of oil palm in India, after Andhra Pradesh. The Indian government has been pushing for increased domestic oil palm cultivation to meet the demand for palm oil that is currently being met primarily by imports.

This is the second article in a two-part series on oil palm cultivation in Telangana. Part One discusses the state’s ambitious plans to expand oil palm cultivation.

B. Bucchaya, a 62-year-old farmer, is harvesting fresh oil palm fruits from his farm in Khammam district of Telangana. He will sell these to the nearest oil processing unit and make quick money. Not too far away, Mohammad Salim is growing paddy over four acres of his agricultural land.

This is a common sight in Khammam and now across agricultural land in Telangana as well — large tracts of paddy fields interspersed with patches of young and old oil palm fields.

After a push for paddy crop over the past few years, the Telangana government is now boosting oil palm cultivation. Both paddy and oil palm are water-intensive crops. In line with the plan to increase cultivation of these crops, Telangana has also increased irrigation facilities, over the past eight or so years, from 2014, when Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were bifurcated into separate states.

Studies and government records suggest that agriculture in Telangana is moving away from traditional crops like oil seeds, pulses and vegetables, which were commonly grown in this region, towards paddy and oil palm in recent years.

According to the latest annual socio-economic outlook of the state, production of paddy has increased by 378 percent between 2015-16 and 2020-21 in Telangana. Meanwhile, the production of oil palm has increased almost three times from 75,447 Metric Tonnes (MT) in 2015-16 to 2,08,826 MT in 2020-21. During the same period, the annual report shows that the percentage of gross sown area of traditional crops such as groundnut, Bengal gram and sesamum, continued to decrease.

Shift to water intensive crops

Oil palm is a water intensive crop, with one tree requiring 200 to 300 litres of water per day. While this may be lower than what the typical water intensive crops such as sugarcane and paddy use, it is still a considerable amount that could impact water resources.

An oil palm farmer in Khammam district of Telangana in his oil palm field. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

On March 7, this year, the Telangana government presented its state budget and allocated Rs. 10 billion for the current fiscal year, exclusively for expanding oil palm plantation in the state. T. Harish Rao, the state finance minister who presented the budget, said, in his speech, that until 2014, the region that is now Telangana had issues of drought and lack of irrigation, but current irrigation facilities in the state have improved.

Rao in his speech said, “In 2014, water was available only for (irrigating) 20 lakh acres (of agricultural land) in Telangana. By 2021, this has increased to 85.89 lakh acres.” He also said that owing to the growing demand for palm oil as well as increased irrigation potential in the state, Telangana plans to expand land under oil palm cultivation.

According to the state government’s latest plan, it has planned to bring 20 lakh acres of land under oil palm plantation in the next five years against the existing 90,000 acres. The government, in the latest budget, also highlighted what is currently the world’s largest multi-stage lift irrigation project, Kaleshwaram, on Godavari river basin and other irrigation projects which helped in boosting irrigation in the state.

However, it is not only the state government who wants expansion of oil palm in Telangana, but also the federal government that has given a target of adding three lakh (300,000) acres of land for oil palm in the next five years under the National Mission on Edible Oils – Oil Palm (NMEO-OP) scheme. A central re-assessment committee with members from The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR)’s constituent organisation, India Institute of Oil Palm Research (IIOPR), in 2021, had recommended expanding oil palm plantation from four districts of Telangana to 27 districts of the state owing to the increased irrigation facilities.

Currently Telangana is second in India, after Andhra Pradesh, in the quantity of palm oil it produces. According to data from the directorate of agriculture and farmers welfare, Andhra Pradesh produced 2,95,075 metric tonnes (MT) of crude palm oil in 2021-22, the highest in India, which was followed by Telangana which produced 46,171 MT during the same period.

Likely ecological threats 

But what does this transition of Telangana agriculture from traditional crops to commercial and water intensive crops such as paddy and oil palm mean for the state’s environment and agriculture?

The Telangana state horticulture department says that an increase in oil palm plantation will not pose a hazard to the state’s agriculture and ecology. “In other largest (palm oil) producing countries in the world like Malaysia and Indonesia the story was different where due to expansion of oil palm, there was deforestation. But in Telangana, we are mainly boosting oil palm on agricultural land. Also, irrigation facilities in the state have increased manifold in the last few years. We are also judicious about not using these plants in urban areas of six of the water deficient districts of the state. This will only help in giving better financial security to the farmers,” an official from the state horticulture department said, on the condition of anonymity.

However, experts from the agriculture and water sector have apprehensions about the proposed plan of the state government and the union government to expand oil palm plantation in the state on a large scale.

Devinder Sharma, a noted agriculture and food policy expert from Chandigarh claimed that the whole policy of supporting a crop like oil palm that requires a significant amount of water is a “wrongly conceived” idea which could have alarming consequences in the state in future. “This is the same kind of mistake Punjab made decades ago. Intensive cropping of water-guzzling plants like paddy has led to decreased groundwater levels in this state. Why are states like Telangana trying to make the same kind of mistakes and become the next Punjab in the years to come? In Telangana, there is short sightedness. If there is an increase in irrigation and better water availability, we should not ruthlessly exploit and literally allow mining of water resources thereby depriving our future generations of the precious resource,” he told Mongabay-India.

He also added, “In the race to compete with other states to commercialise production, they are on their way to destroy agriculture. Moreover, it has been done for a cheaper and sub-standard edible oil. It is always better to boost our own high quality edible oil crops to minimise the gap between total domestic production and total consumption.”

The groundwater level in Telangana is not significantly impacted so far. Since 2018, the depth to the ground water level has been decreasing, which means the water level itself has been increasing. Experts that Mongabay-India spoke to claim it is because of the good rains the state had been receiving. According to government data, the state received 46 percent excess rainfall in 2020-21 and normal rainfall in the last five years, leading to timely recharge of groundwater.

B Bucchaya, a palm oil farmer at his aged palm oil garden at Koratalagudem village in Nalacondapally mandal in Khammam district. Photo by Manish Kumar
B. Bucchaya, a palm oil farmer at his aged palm oil garden at Koratalagudem village in Nalacondapally mandal in Khammam district. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

But there could be other factors that increase the demand for groundwater. For example, studies have indicated that even a one percent increase in average temperature due to reasons like climate change, could lead to 10 percent additional demand for irrigated water in arid and semi-arid areas. Telangana is a semi-arid region, according to the state government.

Water blues 

Experts claimed that owing to the geography of Telangana, a focus on water intensive agriculture could impact the water resources, including groundwater, significantly in the future, in addition to having other environmental impacts. Telangana, in the Deccan plateau, is situated on an elevation and the government in the state had been using lift irrigation and other ways to pull water from rivers to cater to the large irrigation needs of the state. The demand for irrigation is likely to increase with the increase in oil palm cultivation.

Himanshu Thakker, Coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) told Mongabay-India, “In Telangana most of the cultivable land is situated at a higher altitude so there is need to pump water from the rivers to irrigate many of these lands. That is why even the Kaleshwaram dam is mostly pumping water from lower to higher altitude rather than acting as a dam to provide gravity flow irrigation. This is very energy intensive and not sustainable in the long run. Large scale lift irrigation projects have not been successful in the majority of the areas where they were tried.”

Studies have shown that in the past few decades the practice of using wells as sources of water for irrigation, compared to tanks, canals and other sources, has been significantly increasing in this region that’s now part of Telangana. In 2015-16, which is up to when the data is available, over 86 percent of area irrigated in the Telangana region used wells as the source. Several oil palm farmers that Mongabay-India met at Khammam, Suryapet and other parts of Telangana mostly use their wells to irrigate their oil palm fields. Thakker said that the government needs to regulate the use of groundwater resources like wells and tubewells to make the farming sustainable.

He said, “Whenever there is availability of groundwater, there is an increase in the number of tube wells and wells. It is a slow poison and it takes time to show alarming impacts. The groundwater use needs to be regulated at the local level. There needs to be more groundwater recharge. The better way for the government is to go for decentralised rain water harvesting systems. Since the rainfall is good in Telangana, this is a much better option.”

Ramanjaneyulu G.V., an agricultural scientist at the Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture said that Andhra Pradesh tops the list of oil palm production in the country due to the favourable conditions it offers, unlike Telangana.

“If you see Andhra, most of the oil palm plantations are spread in coastal belts of the state because it requires moisture. In Telangana which is an arid region, there is less moisture and dry weather. In such conditions, the yields are likely to be lower and also in future the farmers could face problems due to low yield in case of other problems like lack of water for irrigation. As these are long gestation period crops, this could harm the state more than benefiting it,” he said.

He added, “Two years back the same thrust was given by the government for farmers on increasing paddy cultivation when irrigation in the state increased and now the focus has shifted towards oil palm. State should not push for a particular crop and let the farmers make their own choice. When the state pushes, it is the seed suppliers who make more incomes than farmers. It happens all over.”


Banner image: Samnini Nageshwar Rao, a farmer, walks in his oil palm plantation at Medepally in Khammam district. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

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