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Down the drain: India's costly (and losing) irrigation battle

Prachi Salve 

The has spent nearly Rs 200,000 crore from the First Five-Year Plan to create an potential of around 109 million hectare. But the efforts have lagged considerably, affecting the country’s ability to counter poor monsoons and improving agricultural productivity.

Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh (MP) are some of the biggest offenders in spending. For example, Andhra Pradesh has completed only 17 projects out of the allotted 105 projects. Karnataka has completed only 33 projects out of 305 projects while Maharashtra and MP have completed 94 and 90 out of 186 and 242 projects, respectively.

has played a major role in agriculture in India. The gross irrigated area, as a per cent of gross cropped area, has increased from 34 per cent in 1990-91 to 45.3 per cent in 2008-09. Nearly 80 per cent of public investments have been diverted to irrigation. India has irrigation potential of 140 million hectares out of which about 109 million hectares have been created and around 80 Mha utilised.

The percentage of spending on irrigation with respect to overall expenditure has gone down from 22.54 per cent in 1951-56 to 6.19 per cent in 2002-07. However, the expenditure on irrigation projects has increased from Rs 376.2 crore in the First Plan to Rs 83,647 crore in the Tenth Plan. Since there is high variability of rainfall in India, there is an acute need to conserve surface water. According to the Planning Commission, a total of about 225 billion cubic meters (BCM) of surface storage capacity has been created till now. The per capita storage capacity of India is 190 cubic meters, which is very less compared to USA, Australia, Brazil and China, which is around 5,961, 4,717, 3,388 and 2,486 cubic meters, respectively. The demand gap could be 250 BCM by 2050, and the burden on surface irrigation will be 150 BCM even with groundwater provision.

MMI and ERM Projects
can be divided into major and medium irrigation (MMI) projects and extension, renovation and modernisation (ERM) projects. The has identified 583 irrigation projects for the XII Plan period out of which 236 are major projects, 265 are medium projects and 65 are ERM projects. There are 17 special category projects involving diverse activities such as dam safety, special repairs. There are 327 on-going projects including 154 major, 139 medium and 34 ERM projects that will require financial inputs in the XII plan for implementation. There was a backlog of 130 projects taken up under the XI Plan, and 116 projects, including 45 major, 66 medium and 5 ERM projects, have been completed during the XI Plan.

CADWM Scheme
Command area development & water management scheme was launched in 1974-75 for the development of adequate delivery of irrigation water up to the fields. The programme aims to promote a multi-disciplinary team under a Command Area Development Authority, which helps develop an integrated approach of all activities relating to irrigated agriculture in a coordinated manner. The total number of projects from 1974-75 up to now is 314 with culturable command area of 28.9 million hectares (Mha). Total approved outlay for the scheme during the XIth Plan was Rs 1,600 crore. A total of Rs 3,528.09 crore has been released to states as central assistance under the programme since its inception in 1974-75 up to March 2008. CADWM has changed to a state-sponsored programme from 2008-09

The core components of physical works under CADWM can be measured by the construction of field channels, implementation of warabandi (rotational water supply) and field drains.

The Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) was launched in 1996-97, and has increased area under irrigated cultivation to 5.3 Mha in the Xth Plan from 4.10 Mha during the IXth Plan. Nearly 287 major and medium irrigation projects have been included under AIBP out of which 134 projects have been completed and central assistance amounting to Rs 48,747.806 crore has been provided to the states so far since the inception of the programme.


The state governments have reported 557 projects, which will spillover from the XI Plan.

Delays in construction of railway/highway crossing, land acquisition, improper synchronisation of project components and delayed tendering and contract management lead to projects not getting completed. This further leads to time and cost overruns. There has been an increase in the number of projects awaiting completion at the end of IV Plan. However, the backlog has remained between 500 and 600 projects since then. The backlog decreased at the end of VII plan but increased again to the present levels. The increase is indicative of a saturation of the capacity of the individual state governments towards physical completion of the projects.

Time and Cost Overruns
A study by the on cost overruns found that for a representative 12 projects, there was an escalation of the order of 138 per cent over the original cost – indicating an escalation of 1.38 times the estimated approved cost for one project. There was a very high cost escalation of the order of 1,000 per cent and more for 24 out of the 151 major projects taken up earlier than 1980…. and the average escalation is around 200 per cent for major projects starting from 1985. In the case of medium projects, there are 24 projects with a cost escalation of 500 per cent or more.

The gap between the irrigation potential created (IPC) and the irrigation potential utilised (IPU) is steadily increasing from the First Plan where IPC was 12.2 Mha and IPC was 12.98 Mha to the IX Plan where IPC was 31.05 Mha and IPU was 31.03 Mha. It is clear that capital investment is not translating to proper utilisation of potential. The Ministry of Water Resources had commissioned the Indian Institutes of Management (Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Kolkata and Lucknow) to analyse the trend, and the following reasons were highlighted by them:

Lack of proper operation and maintenance; incomplete distribution systems; non-completion of command area development work; changes from the initially designed cropping pattern; and diversion of irrigable land for other purposes.

There is a need for major reforms in the irrigation projects, mainly around capacity building and user engagement. The government needs to focus on building capacity and reduce time and cost over runs. Participatory irrigation management (PIM) has been highlighted in the national water policy of 2002. PIM involves engagement of farmers and other end users in various aspects of planning, design, development andmanagement of the water resources schemes.

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 increase in local employment in agriculture. The has managed to convince 15 states so far to adopt the PIM approach, and successful functioning has been reported by states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. The battle to provide superior irrigation coverage to India’s farmers is going to be a long one.


Reprinted from permission from India Spend

First Published: Mon, August 20 2012. 00:50 IST