To Reduce Farmer Suicides India Needs More Efficient Irrigation

Over the last decade, one million poor farmers in India have committed suicide. One might reasonably ask what does this have to do with KS Gopal, who is in the water management business. 

In Gopal’s view, his job has everything to do with reducing the tragedy of farmers surrendering hope. He is the director of India’s Centre for Environmental Concerns, and his business is all about irrigation, or, more accurately, a better way to nourish fruits and trees. He gives a graphic example: A fruit tree is planted as a seedling. It grows as it is given water. However, after five years, the water level has gone down, and the tree dies. In other words, at a tree’s peak performance, it requires more water. 

“That is a lot like the farmer who gives up after those many years working with his trees,” said Gopal. “The trees die from the lack of proper irrigation. The farmer becomes desperate.”

Gopal and his team are working to change the system of irrigation in India.  “It’s not easy, and it is a long process, but we have patience.” The agricultural specialist, educator, and innovator has dedicated three decades to efficient water usage. The result where his innovation is used has been healthier fruits and vegetables. While it doesn’t necessarily increase the yields, it does mean a better price at market as middle-men focus on the best looking and robust products to display at market to garner a higher price. 

It’s not easy, and it is a long process, but we have patience.

Gopal is one of 40 innovators under the Securing Water for Food program, a joint funding endeavor of USAID and the governments of the Netherlands, South Africa, and Sweden. He attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in The Hague in June. The conference was sponsored by the US State Department and the Dutch government. Gopal’s innovation focuses more on moisture at the root level of plants as opposed simply to the water they receive.  This way, said Gopal, we save at least a third to half in water usage by feeding the plants when they need water. 

This is important for India. 

Nowhere in the world is water more critical than in India. Up to 80 percent of the country’s population relies on groundwater for drinking and irrigation, leading to a near-country-wide shortage. In fact, a quarter of the world’s groundwater is extracted annually in India. This is greater than that pumped up by China and the United States combined, with China and India having roughly the same population of 1.3 billion people. 

Gopal’s organization has continuously improved the process of bringing measured amounts of water to the roots of plants and trees. On the other hand, a drip system soaks the soil, wasting water, and often saturating the plants. 

In the beginning, Gopal’s team used clay pots beneath the soil’s surface to release moisture. However, the current method regulates water being dispensed to roots by a device that senses the current level of need, only releasing water as required to feed the plant. “This creates a rich ecosystem to foster soil microbe and soil health,” he said. 

Thus far, Gopal’s business has had a strong summer, selling more than 2,000 of his devices. Though change takes time, he believes there is a possibility the government will subsidize his innovation to farmers in the future. As he sells more devices, he has been able to bring the price down to 40 cents for each. Some plants require one unit early in life, some two, and a mature tree four. He calls it SWAR for System of Water for Agriculture Rejuvenation. 

But the fact is, Gopal is quick to say, “We are not in the business of selling a product. We are in the business of transforming irrigation and changing society. I’m tired of hearing about farmer suicides.”


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.