Irrigation in India – Focus on some serious issues


Water scenario is now fast changing as a result of increasing population, rising demand for irrigation in India to raise high-yielding varieties of crops, rapid urbanization and industrialization, electricity generation, the impact of global warming, and erratic rainfall. Water for Life Decade [2005-15] and the annual World Water Day is held on March 22 every year has significance to create awareness among all stakeholders that water is finite, scarce, costly and precious and, therefore, should be efficiently managed for country’s sustainable development. This paper highlights some serious issues of irrigation in India, viz. incomplete projects, cost-time overruns, under-utilization, among others, and suggests strategic actions and measures for efficient management of water resources.

Irrigation in India – Focus on some serious issues


India has a population as much as 15% of the world’s population but has only about 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. Much of these are unevenly distributed. The average annual rainfall in the country is about 1,170 mm, which corresponds to annual precipitation [including snowfall] of 4,000 billion cubic meters [BCM]. Nearly 75% of this [3000bcm] occurs during the monsoon season, confined generally to 3-4 months [June to September] a year. According to the Planning Commission, India has so far created a total of about 225 billion cubic meters [BCM] of surface storage capacity. However, per capita storage capacity in India at 190 cubic meters is very less compared to the USA [5,961], Australia [4,717], Brazil [3,388], and China [2,486]. This necessitates the creation of large storage facilities for maximum utilization of the run-off.

Water availability: Though the average water availability in India remains more or less fixed according to the natural hydraulic cycle, per capita availability is reducing progressively owing to the increasing population. In 1991, the average figure was around 2,200 cubic meters [cm], which has fallen to about 1829 cm. It may further go down to about 1340 cm and 1140 cm a year by 2025 and 2050 respectively.  The situation in some of the river basins is worrisome.  According to international agencies any region with per capita water availability of less than 1700 cm is considered ‘water-stressed’ and those with less than 1000 cm ‘water scarcity’. Already six river basins of the country fall in the ‘water-scarce’ category, and five more basins are likely to be ‘water-scarce’ during 2025-50. only 3-4 basins will be ‘water sufficient’. Water availability both in quantity and quality has been on the decline over the past 3-4 decades because of gross mismanagement of the available water resources and environmental degradation. Our Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh on August 18, 2009, on the opening day of the conference of Environment Ministers, said, ‘Climate change is threatening our ecosystems; water scarcity is becoming a way of life and pollution is a growing threat to our health and habitat’. He further expressed his concern that’ rivers all over India are still being degraded’. Not only per capita availability of water in the country is already low but also there is enormous wastage, growing pollution, and contamination of surface as well as groundwater.

Water for Irrigation: In the year 1947, the effects of the partition of the country and the drought caused a massive deficit in food supplies. Acknowledging irrigation as an important infrastructure for developing agriculture the country emphasized and prioritized the development of water resources programs. From the First, Plan Government has invested about Rs. two lakh crore for creating irrigation facilities. The Union Government initiated the Accelerated Irrigation BenefitProgram (AIBP) in 1996-7 for extending assistance for the completion of incomplete irrigation schemes. Under the AIBP, Rs.55,416 crore of central loan assistance /grant has been released up to 31 December 2012. An irrigation potential of 76,22,500 hectares is reported to have been created by States, from major / medium /minor irrigation projects under the AIBP till March 2011. Total irrigation potential so far created is around 108.2 million hectares by March 2010. The net irrigated area increased from 2085 million hectares in 1950-51 to 58.54 million hectares in 2004-05 whereas gross area under irrigation increased from 22.56 million hectares to 79.51 million hectares during the period. The gross irrigated area increased from 34% of the gross cropped area in 1990-91 to 45.3% in 2008-09.

Issues facing Irrigation in India

1. Serious Issues: The government needs to demonstrate political commitment and administrative skills and initiate strategic actions to overcome following serious issues facing irrigation in India.

  • Incomplete projects: There has been an increase in the number of projects awaiting completion since the end of the IV Plan. The backlog has remained between 500 and 600 projects since then. The backlog declined at the end of the VII Plan but increased again to the present level. Currently, there are 557 irrigation projects yet to be completed. Andhra Pradesh has completed only 17 projects out of the allotted 105 projects, followed by Karnataka [33/305], Maharashtra [94/186] and Madhya Pradesh [90/242] projects. Major factors responsible for this include, inter alia, improper synchronization of project components, and delayed tendering and contract management, land acquisition, delays in construction of railway/highway crossing.
  • Time and Cost overruns: The worst part of the inordinate delay in the completion of projects has been the time and cost overruns. A study by the Planning Commission on cost overruns found that for a representative 12 projects, there was an escalation of the order of 138% over the original cost [i.e. escalation of 1.38 times the approved cost]. There was a very high-cost escalation of the order of 1,000% and more for 24 out of the 151 major projects taken up earlier than 1980 and the average escalation is around 200% for major projects starting from 1985. In the case of medium projects, there are 24 projects with a cost escalation of 500% or more.
  • Underutilization: The gap between the irrigation potential created [IPC] and the irrigation potential utilized [IPU] is steadily increasing from the First Plan. Currently, IPU is 80 million hectares [73.39%] as against IPC of 109 million hectares. Factors responsible for low utilization of irrigation as studied by Indian Institute of Management [Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Lucknow] focus on lack of proper operation and maintenance, incomplete distribution systems, non-completion of CAD works, changes from the initially designed cropping pattern and diversion of irrigable land for another purpose, among others. Inadequate provision of budget provision for operation and maintenance of the irrigation system is significantly responsible for under-utilization followed by non-completion of dis-tributaries, minors, field channels, and on-farm development.
  • Groundwater: Around 70% of India’s irrigation needs and 80% of its domestic water supplies come from groundwater. A large part of agriculture is dependent on non-renewable groundwater. The water table in many States has been falling at an alarming rate. For decades, agricultural States of Punjab, Haryana, UP, and Rajasthan encouraged farmers to sink tube wells to get free water for agricultural use. Power for pumping out this water was supplied virtually free or at heavily subsidized rates. This led to over-exploitation of groundwater and widespread environmental damage. Even this encouraged farmers to flood crops like rice, wheat, and fruit trees with water indiscriminately impacting soil/environmental degradation and low crop productivity. The rate of groundwater depletion raced faster than the rate of replenishment in many States. NASA scientists in the US, using satellites to track groundwater loss in India’s north-western grain basket have found that there has been an average 33 cubic km a year drop in the water table in the region, much higher than the estimates of the Government of India. The satellite study has revealed a loss of 109 cubic km groundwater in Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan over the six-year period between August 2002 and October 2008, twice the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga in MP. To regulate exploitation of groundwater by legislation in the light of the National Ground Water document “Dynamics of Ground Water Resources of India” brought out by the Central Ground Water Board in 2005 which revealed extremely alarming & deteriorating condition of groundwater in country’s 1,645 blocks as compared to 4,078 safe blocks. There are 839 blocks overexploited, 226 blocks critical, 550 blocks semi-critical, and 30 blocks saline.
  • Management: Integrated Water Resource Management [IWRM] in agriculture is a concept of sustainable development, allocation, and monitoring of water resources and its use in agriculture. IWRM has also a role to meet social, economic, and environmental objectives. This concept has been successfully applied more in areas relating to domestic and industrial use in several countries like Australia, Mexico, and Korea. In India, notwithstanding a full-fledged river-basin approach is yet to be developed and used extensively, existing sources of water availability for agriculture[rains, surface, and groundwater in particular] have to be sustainably developed, judiciously allocated and their equitable distribution and efficient use monitored rigorously.    Operationalization of the concept necessitates initiation of water reforms, enactment of laws, and establishing institutions to enforce them, through consultations with the farmers. In this process, the Government has to assume the responsibility of a regulator and facilitator and transfer its current role of implementing irrigation projects to autonomous water services management organizations, community-based organizations, and the private sector. Policy interventionists and planners of water resource development and management should invariably seek the participation of farmers as ultimate water users who can be organized into legal bodies called “Water Users Associations”. Women have been found playing an effective role in the provision, management, and safeguarding of water for agriculture and non-agriculture purpose.
  • Water Users Associations:  The Eleventh Plan earmarked Rs.10,326 crore for irrigation. More attention should be paid to involving farmers as water users and making them responsible to manage irrigation systems. Six States viz. Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, and Orissa have enacted laws that make the creation of WUAs mandatory. But unless the laws accompanied by an effort to make WUAs viable and crucially prepare the irrigation department for transfer of power to them, the participatory irrigation management concept will be a non-starter. The WUAs should function as democratic organizations, follow a set of rules, have a transparent agreement with the irrigation department, hold regular meetings, and include safeguards to protect small farmers and tail-end-users. Apart from the institutional aspect, WUAs need small but critical incentives to motivate them to manage the irrigation systems.
  • Reforms: Reforms in irrigation development, inter alia, focus on reducing time and costs overrun and participatory irrigation management [PIM] which involves the engagement of farmers and other end-users in aspects viz. planning, design, development, and management of water resources schemes and capacity building of implementers and water users. This ought to result in increased reliability and equity of water distribution, reduction in disputes, better and timely maintenance of the system, increased crop yields and income from agriculture, increased recovery of water charges, and an increase in local employment in agriculture. Maharashtra, Gujarat, AP, and Orissa have reported success in PIM approach out of 15 States which assured to implement PIM approach

Other measures: Other important measures need to include

  1. The policy and programs related to water should focus equitable sharing of water; integrated management of surface water, soil water, and groundwater;  intra-basin and inter-basin water transfer; participation of an enlightened public in decision making and welfare of socially, economically and politically weak segments of society, among others.
  2. Irrigation accounts for 83% of the water consumed. As per estimates of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan, the irrigation sector will consume about 79% of the available water resources in 2050. To improve significantly the efficiency of the irrigation system of the Government and private irrigation projects from the current level of 40% and 65% respectively. Even a 10% improvement in the efficiency of agricultural water use is likely to result in the availability going up by 40%. This calls for focused attention to promote improved water management practices in irrigation projects suffering from operational deficiencies and integrated water resources development and management approach.
  3. Declining per capita availability and the threat of river basins turning ‘water-scarce’ necessitate well-coordinated and planned measures for storing run-off water during the rainy season. In view of this, widely acceptable and area-suitable water conservation measures have to be explored and adopted. Also, it is necessary to strengthen existing irrigation infrastructure, increase water use efficiency and productivity, raise crops requiring less-water, make rainwater harvesting mandatory for all and provide shading with trees the banks of canals and other reservoirs.[iv] Despite the country gets fairly a good rainfall at about 46 inches per annum, almost 50% of its falls in a span of 15 days, and 90% of the rainwater is lost due to run-off in just four months. Only about 15% of the annual rainwater is used for irrigation. If this water is properly stored and efficiently used for sustained surface irrigation, it can enhance agricultural productivity at low cost and reduce excessive pressure on groundwater.

Over the years, there has been a manifested lack of attention to water legislation, water conservation, water use efficiency, water harvesting, and recycling and infrastructure. The current scenario exhibiting a number of incomplete projects accompanied by low utilization of irrigation potential already created shows that return on capital invested in creating irrigation facilities is inordinately delayed or almost lost. All incomplete projects need to be completed by the end of the 12th plan period by drawing a suitable road map and over-exploitation of groundwater must be regulated strictly indicating specifically the role, responsibility, and accountability of officials, department, and ministry concerned.

It is time that India in her concern for the environment, ecology, social/human, and rights relating to water shifts the subject of water to the concurrent list of the Constitution and frames policy that aims at transforming the country into a Sujalam [richly watered], Suphalam [richly fruited] and Sasya Shyamalam [richly harvested].

By Dr. Amrit Patel

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