Irrigating India: Complexity Continues

The Government has earmarked Rs 86,500 crores for its flagship irrigation programme, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. However, the irrigation projects have been like the goose, delivering golden eggs to the politicians, officials and contractors. MOHD MUSTAQUIM digs out how the irrigation scams in some states have forced lakhs of farmers to commit suicides and analyses what future awaits for the farming community with the implementation of new irrigation schemes

Irrigating India: Complexity Continues

The Government has earmarked Rs 86,500 crores for its flagship irrigation programme, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. However, the irrigation projects have been like the goose, delivering golden eggs to the politicians, officials and contractors. MOHD MUSTAQUIM digs out how the irrigation scams in some states have forced lakhs of farmers to commit suicides and analyses what future awaits for the farming community with the implementation of new irrigation schemes

The news about the eruption of violence around the water sources at Latur district in drought-hit Marathwada region of Maharashtra was a big jolt to India’s water management and irrigation programmes. Having a three trillion economy and dreaming of being a ‘World Guru’, even after 69 years of independence, we have been failed to secure drinking water for our citizens. Moreover, lifeline of farming-irrigation remained neglected and mismanaged. India is still struggling to irrigate its farmland as per requirement.

Marathwada faced three droughts in four years – 2012, 2014 and 2015 – with a 44 per cent rainfall deficit. The water reservoirs in the region have dipped alarmingly. In March, these reservoirs had only 5 per cent of water. It was around 20 per cent last year in the same month. The situation in Beed, Osmanabad and Latur is more serious as the water availability in the reservoirs was just 2.13 per cent in February.

Adding Woes

However, this gravest drought is not just nature’s fault. There have been scams and siphoning off thousands of crores of funds, meant for irrigation and watershed development projects. The Government led by the Congress in association with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party reportedly got stuck in a Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam in the State. During this period of 2001-02 and 2012-13, the fund went in vain and the net irrigated land in Maharashtra remained stagnant at 3.25 million hectare.

Corruption and complexities have eaten out irrigation funds not only in Maharashtra but also in other states, according to media and CAG reports. The sector has been one of the biggest routes of siphoning off public money by the successive governments. Keeping the end beneficiaries in a bay, irrigation projects have been like the goose, delivering golden eggs to the politicians, officials and contractors. Similar to the Maharashtra’s jumbo sized scam, with a focus on irrigating 4.8 million hectares of agricultural land; Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, YS Rajasekhara Reddy initiated an irrigation project, Jala Yagnam with an allocation of Rs 1.86 lakh crore in 2004. In 2012, the Comptroller General of India (CAG) reported that Rs 72,000 crore had been spent on the programme which could not bring any result. The CAG termed the benefits as ‘illusory’. Between 2001-02 and 2012-13, the irrigated area in the State barely increased from 4.53 million hectares to 4.58 million hectares.

The Central Government, in 2009, allocated a corpus of Rs 7,266 crore to the another drought prone area, Bundelkhand. This fund was supposed to be spent in three years with a major focus on watershed development and irrigation projects. Out of this amount Rs 3,506 crore was for seven districts in Uttar Pradesh while rest of the money was to be spent in the six districts of Madhya Pradesh. Similar to Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, the result was again invisible. There have been allegations of siphoning off the funds by the nexus of politicians, officials and contractors. Farmers again left dependent on the ‘Rain God.’

Flip side

While Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Bundelkhand regions were creating history of failures of the irrigation projects, two states – Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh – were writing the success stories. As Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh blew up massive amount on failed irrigation projects, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh spent very low and raised irrigated land considerably. Between 2001-02 and 2012-13, the net irrigated farmland in Madhya Pradesh increased from 4.14 million hectare to 8.55 million hectare. It had prime focus on its major Rabi crop wheat which made the State India’s largest producer of this crop. Similarly, during the same period, the net irrigated area in Gujarat increased from 2.81 million hectare to 4.23 million hectare.

Fresh Interventions

According to the Government of India’s figures, out of 141 million hectares of net cultivated area only about 65 million hectares are irrigated. However, the World Bank report says that only 36 per cent of cultivated area in India is irrigated. Whether it is 36 per cent or 46 per cent, the figures are again depicting the 7-decade’s failure of successive governments. To improve the situation, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has announced that Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY) will be implemented in a mission mode to bring another 28.5 lakh hectares farmland under irrigation. According to him, 89 projects under Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP) will be fast-tracked which will help irrigate another 80.6 lakh hectare farmland across the country. He expects that out of 89 projects, 23 will be completed by March 31, 2017. These projects require Rs 17,000 crores next year and Rs 86,500 crore in the next five years. 

Even after adding a component of Har Khet Ko Paani (water to each field) into the PMKSY, the Government has a very negligible focus on bringing under agriculture which is only 2.85 million hectare in five years, including 8.06 million hectares of ongoing and stuck irrigation projects under AIBP will merely increase the net irrigated land to 76 million hectares. It means, even after five years, rest of 65 million hectare will remain dry.

The Minister also announced in the Budget to create a dedicated Long Term Irrigation Fund in National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) with an initial corpus of Rs 20,000 crore. A similar programme for sustainable management of groundwater resources, with an estimated cost of Rs 6,000 crore has been proposed for multilateral funding. The Government has also made provisions that allocations under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) will be used for creating at least 5 lakh farm pond and dug wells in the rainfed areas.

The AIBP was launched in 1997 to speed up the existing and new irrigation projects. According to official data, around Rs 72,000 crore have been spent in two decades on the programme. Paradoxically, only one third of targeted farmland under AIBP actually got irrigated and this was underlined by the Economic Survey 2015-16.

The rising demand of water from non irrigation purposes are also on the rise that brings negative impact on irrigation projects. Citing an example of Sardar Sarovar Dam in Narmada river in Gujarat, Prof. Yoginder K Alagh, noted economist and Chancellor, Gujarat Central University, says, “The canals to the farmlands from the dam were developed before 2002. It was one of the historic models of canal system, made in India. When Narendra Modi became chief minister of the State, the government’s only job was to divert the water to the fields. But unfortunately, the 40 per cent of water was diverted for the beautification of riversides in Ahmedabad where the city dwellers can come and spend their leisure time. The water was actually meant for agriculture.”

In the wake of the past records, it would be too early to say what would be the result of PMKSY. Although the allocation has been raised adequately, the programme seems more or less replica of the UPA government’s failed irrigation projects rather than guided by the successes of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Lack of Clarity

The PMKSY carries all old and failed components of the UPA regime such as AIBP and watershed development. The only new component added in the programme was Har Khet Ko Paani, which focuses on creating and managing local water bodies, but with a target of just 2.8 million hectares.

Commenting on the past failures, one of the architectures of AIBP, Prof. Alagh says, “Since 1960s, the irrigation projects have been bringing fruitful results. But, after mid 80s, the results were not as desired. The successive governments have been putting huge funds, but return is not coming out. Before implementing the PMKSY and putting further money into AIBP, the government should constitute a study group to analyse the failures of the past and find out the roadmap.”

Rain is the only source of water in the southern plateau of India. Despite consecutive failures of monsoon, especially in that region, the water from the dams is diverted into the water intensive crops like sugarcane and water intensive horticultural crops like grape. In the wake of such water deficiency, the policymakers need to promote the low water intensive crops and horticulture crops like pomegranate, among others. Overuse of water will lead the country to crisis.

Three droughts in four years have hit the agricultural growth very badly. Due to the drought in 2012, farm growth was 1.5 per cent in FY13, after a good monsoon in 2013, the growth reached to 4.2 per cent in FY 14. Thereafter, two droughts in 2014 and 2015 declined the growth to -0.2 per cent and 1.1 per cent in FY15 and FY16 respectively. As more than half of the population is dependent on agriculture, the sector needs to grow at least in double digit annually. Considering water as the Central component of agriculture and sidelining all political rivalries, the governments at the Centre and States need to implement irrigation projects on priority basis with putting transparency in the system.

The another challenge comes as the regional disparity in irrigated land. The 95 per cent of farmland in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are irrigated. Whereas, 45 per cent of country’s rainfed area falls in Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana which do not have any irrigation facilities. To bring the momentum of agricultural growth across the country, PMKSY must have special emphasis on bridging this gap.

The water table in many regions is depleting very deeply. The situation can only be managed by putting a check on the water run off in the monsoon season. Within the 22 km stretch in Delhi, the Yamuna river passes through thee bridge-cum-barrages. These barrages hold the water and keep the water table up in its 1,485 square km catchment area. In couple of years, there have been cases of reaching water level up to the basements in the houses in some parts of Delhi like Laxmi Nagar and Sunlight Colony. “There’s no barrage from Delhi’s Okhla to 300 km downstream Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, leads to water run-off. Thus, the watertable is declining in the catchment areas. If bridge-cum-barrages are made in the rivers in certain distance, the water run-off can be put on check and the table will be managed,” says social activist, Sudhanshu Dwivedi.

Dwivedi claims to have given a proposal of building bridge-cum-barrage in the Chambal river as part of the new railway line, being coming up between Jhansi and Mathura. “The government has accepted the proposal and work is going on. It is expected to be completed in couple of years. It would store a quantum of water which would expectedly solve the problem of irrigation in the surrounding areas,” he adds.

The governments need to focus on sustainable usage of groundwater by water harvesting, watershed management, check dams and localised solutions in the rainfed areas. It would sharpen bringing new areas under irrigation. In the areas having sufficient level of groundwater, the farmers need to be supplied uninterrupted power supply in the irrigation periods. Pumping water through diesel pump sets increases the agricultural cost and make it unviable for farmers. The solar pumps can be another solution.

While speaking at a conference in New Delhi, Haryana Agriculture Minister, Om Prakash Dhankar said that one third of water in the 35 years old canal system gets wasted through leakage. The case is similar in the other parts of the country when a big quantum of water gets lost in the canals.

However, in the wake of water wastage through this system, some initiatives of supplying water on concealed mode have been taken on micro level. According to Shriram Gadhave, President, Vegetable Grower Association, from the newly rejuvenated Wasna Dam (2013) in Satara district, water is supplied to 1,500 acres parched farmland through pipeline. It doesn’t waste water and with zero maintenance cost. It has improved the lives of 15,000 hamlets in Palshi village of drought prone Koregaon tehsil in the district.

Such initiatives can change the scenario. Rather than putting huge funds in irrigation projects, the governments need to think of the return on the investment. If the return is not coming, there must be brought changes in the strategies. The country has green irrigation policies and projects, however, the policymakers need to think about their effective implementation. Following the three droughts in the agrarian country in last four years, the rural economy has already been reeling under distress. Until, the remaining rainfed cultivated areas are not transformed into irrigated land, the farmers’ economy will continue to dwindle. It would not be an ideal situation for the rural and the overall Indian economy.

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