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Indicus Analytics: Irrigation - Untapped potential

India should focus on an integrated water management system for agriculture

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Harnessing water resources for farming is critical for increasing agricultural productivity. Undivided India had among the largest irrigated areas in the world, but with Partition a large part of the major canal systems went to . Recognising the importance of large-scale development of , more than half of all on has been spent on irrigation alone. The net irrigated area expanded from 20.85 million hectares in 1950-51 to 62.29 million hectares in 2007-08. And the net sown area increased from 17.5 per cent to 44.2 per cent over the period.

Expansion in irrigation had been most significant in the sixties, with an increase of about 2.3 per cent a year in net irrigated area. But this growth dropped significantly to 1.3 per cent a year in the nineties. Over the years, the dependence on groundwater for irrigation has increased. With little progress in new large-scale surface irrigation schemes, the increased availability of low-cost electric and diesel pumps and a lopsided power tariff policy, tube wells have been the dominant source of irrigation.

A comparative analysis of states reveals the striking differences in irrigation facilities across the country. tops the list with about 98 per cent of its sown area being irrigated, an outcome of the focus on irrigation in the green revolution. Next in importance among the big states is , with about 84 per cent of its net sown area being irrigated. Uttar Pradesh is not far behind, in fact it holds the largest share of 21 per cent of total net irrigated area in the country. In , more than 60 per cent of the net area sown is irrigated, while irrigation covers more than half the net area sown in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. (Click here for chart)

Pattern of land use by year
(million hectares)
Year Net area
Net irrigated
1950-51 118.75 20.85
1960-61 133.20 24.66
1970-71 140.86 31.10
1980-81 140.29 38.72
1990-91 143.00 48.02
2000-01 141.36 55.13
2007-08 (p) 140.86 62.29
Source: Ministry of Agriculture

At the other end, the proportion of net irrigated area to net area sown is less than 10 per cent in Assam, Jharkhand, Sikkim and Mizoram. Most of the north-eastern states in India are ranked low in terms of net irrigated area as a proportion of net sown area. There are many reasons for this — prevalent subsistence economy, limited population, being one of the wettest regions in the world and so on. However, with the growth of commercial agriculture and horticulture in this region, the need for irrigation facilities is being increasingly felt. stands out as a large state with less than 20 per cent of its net sown area under irrigation; there is also a vast intrastate disparity that needs to be corrected urgently, with the Vidarbha region far behind western Maharashtra. and are the other two large states where the net irrigated area is less than one-third of the net area sown.

Added to the problem of inadequate irrigation is the fact that the utilisation of irrigation potential has been dropping steadily in India with numerous problems afflicting the existing irrigation sources: poor maintenance to deal with wear and tear, depleting water table, inadequate power for lifting device, non-availability of water, diversion of water for non-agricultural purposes and so on. It goes without saying that an integrated approach to water management is crucial in ensuring optimal use of water for agricultural output.

, a weekly feature by Indicus Analytics, focuses on the progress in India and across the states across various socio-economic parameters.  

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