DOI: 10.1177/25148486231217141 ISSN: 2514-8486

Creating the ‘Rice Bowl of India’: Examining the political economy of groundwater-led agrarian transformation in dryland India

Ambarish Karamchedu
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law

This article explores the political economy of groundwater-led agrarian transformation in dryland India through the expansion of groundwater irrigation and rice production since the 1990s. Within this process, I speak to aspirations by subsistence farmers and imaginaries by state governments for agricultural commercialisation via expanding and investing in irrigation infrastructures. In India, this has largely been driven by private and decentralised investments by smallholder farmers. Theoretically adding to the literature on water infrastructures, development aspirations and groundwater governance, I find how farmer aspirations of rice cultivation and associations of the crop with food security and status drove the debt-laden and capital-intensive rapid adoption of groundwater irrigation in dryland Telangana, aided by specific discourses and electricity subsidies policies post the formation of the newest state in India in 2014. I find that political discourses of historical inequalities over water in the struggle for state formation of Telangana in 2014 mobilised electricity subsidies as a key lever to re-imagine the state as a rice bowl of India through groundwater expansion, producing uneven political economy and ecological repercussions for farmers. This article finds that while rice production increased in a short period in Telangana, it came at the expense of widespread well failures and indebtedness at the farmer and village level colliding with the fragile semi-arid climate and hard rock aquifer setting in the state, deepening distress and decay from depleted water infrastructures and failed aspirations.