Post-2000, India has witnessed some glorious irrigation successes and disastrous failures. Politics has played a part in both.
Throughout history, India’s rulers and overlords have used irrigation to consolidate political power. The BJP-led regime now and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) earlier, have also been doing it, but in sharply different ways.
UPA chief ministers used irrigation to create a spoils system. Soon after taking over as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister in 2004, YS Rajasekhara Reddy launched a Rs 1.86 lakh crore Jala Yagnam programme to irrigate 12 million acres of farmland. Eight years later, a scathing Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report concluded that the Rs 72,000 crore spent until then on the scheme had produced benefits that were only “illusory”. It soon gained notoriety as having been just a ‘Dhana’ (money) rather than ‘Jala’ (water) Yagnam. Similarly, in Maharashtra, the Congress-NCP government got mired in a Rs 70,000-crore irrigation scam in the drought-prone Vidarbha region. It resulted again in no new irrigated area, even as the Deputy CM Ajit Pawar and others were accused of swindling half the monies spent.
In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, too, BJP CMs Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan used irrigation as a political strategy. But neither has been accused of any irrigation scam. Yet, they pushed an irrigation-based agriculture growth agenda. They also ran massive media campaigns, claiming personal credit for the double-digit agricultural growth rates achieved under their stewardship. Both won three successive presidential-style Assembly elections, largely with support from the agrarian classes.
The significant part about Gujarat and MP under Modi and Chouhan was that they spent nothing like the massive sums blown up on irrigation by the UPA regimes in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. But in spite of that, the index of net irrigated area in both states soared, while remaining flat for the two UPA states (see chart). Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, MP’s net irrigated area more than doubled from 4.14 mh to 8.55 mh and similarly rose from 2.81 mh to 4.23 mh for Gujarat, whereas these barely grew in AP (from 4.53 mh to 4.58 mh) and Maharashtra (stagnant at 3.25 mh).
What Modi and Chouhan managed to achieve was based on a multi-pronged strategy that had a single-minded focus of making irrigation accessible to as many farm holdings as possible. Here, both recognised the criticality of groundwater and quality agricultural power supply. Modi’s government invested Rs 1,250 crore in rural feeder separation, to ensure three-phase, full-voltage, uninterrupted power supply for 8 hours daily to farmers. MP, likewise, resorted to issuing large-scale temporary tube-well power connections for up to 110 days, only to meet the irrigation requirements of wheat, the state’s main winter crop. These farm power innovations, for harnessing of groundwater, is what helped really expand irrigation coverage. Besides, Modi supported village communities to construct over 5,00,000 check dams for groundwater recharge, while ensuring that 5,000 irrigation tanks were de-silted annually by rotation.
But it wasn’t groundwater alone. Chouhan also realised that the actual area irrigated by government canals was only a quarter of the created irrigation potential, thanks to poor maintenance and management. He appointed a tough IAS officer as irrigation secretary, even as the CM’s personal handling of local political interference helped tame the anarchy in canal commands. After years of decline, government canals, then, began to operate as they should and water reached the tail-ends like never before. The Irrigated area in MP’s canal commands rose steadily from less than 1.0 million hectare (mh) in 2010 to 1.56 mh, 2.02 mh, 2.33 mh and 2.83 mh in the next four years, of which the last one (2014) was a drought year!
In the 2014 Parliament elections, when the BJP manifesto talked of launching the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY), many expected the scheme to upscale the irrigation success achieved in Gujarat and MP at a national level. Har Khet Ko Paani (water for every field), to be implemented by district collectors based on District Irrigation Plans, reinforced this hope. Sadly, however, the shape that the PMKSY has taken in the latest 2016-17 Union Budget seems to be guided more by UPA’s failures rather than the BJP’s own irrigation successes.
The worst thing about PMKSY is the absence of new thinking in approach and content. It is a hotchpotch of old schemes: The Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP) for fast-tracking of public irrigation projects, Per-Drop, More-Crop for promoting drip and sprinkler irrigation, and Watershed Management. Har Khet Ko Paani is a new component focusing on local water bodies and groundwater, but its funding is puny.
Moreover, PMKSY is too timid in its ambition. Modi government’s promise of doubling farmers’ income in five years has no chance without ensuring Har Khet Ko Paani. But the Budget neither sets out a roadmap for it nor provides resources. Even Per-Drop, More Crop will benefit only those who already have irrigation. It will not add any new irrigated area. AIBP, the bottomless pit, again gets a whopping Rs 86,000 crore over five years. This, when its track record in delivery has been dubious; according to the CAG, the Rs 72,000 crore spent on it since 1996-97 has yielded no discernible acceleration in irrigation benefits.
How would PMKSY look if it were really designed to scale up the irrigation successes of Gujarat and MP on a national scale? It would be different in at least the following ways:
# All these years, irrigation planning has been about developing water resources. PMKSY should be about providing on-farm water control, especially in rain-fed areas.
# Rather than national food security, PMKSY should focus on irrigation coverage of all rain-fed farm holdings. According to 2010-11 Agricultural Census, 58 million out of India’s 138.3 million farm holdings are ‘wholly unirrigated’, with adivasi holdings much more irrigation deprived than the rest. Over 45 per cent of India’s wholly unirrigated farm holdings are in Assam, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, AP and Telangana. PMKSY should prioritise these states and adivasi farm holdings.
# PMKSY should attack the massive regional inequality in irrigation access. While 95 per cent holdings in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have irrigation, over 90 per cent in Jharkhand, western Odisha, Vidarbha and Marathwada have none.
# In public irrigation systems, PMKSY should focus on closing the gap of 35-40 million hectares between irrigation potential ‘created’ and irrigation potential ‘utilised’. This is a low-hanging fruit that, more than money, requires deep reform in irrigation governance, of the kind Chouhan did in MP.
# In much of India, energy for pumping is a bigger constraint than availability of water. PMKSY should energise 8-10 million pump-sets (including via seasonal/temporary connections) in 150 irrigation-deprived districts. A third of India’s grid-connected irrigation pumps operate below par due to poor-quality power supply. Improving that can quickly expand irrigation access.
# Solar pumps have emerged as a big energy-irrigation solution. PMKSY should promote solar pumps by encouraging Discoms to offer farmers buy-back guarantee for the surplus power they produce from photovoltaic panels, as Gujarat and Haryana are already trying to do.
# According to the Minor Irrigation Census, peninsular India has over 5,00,000 traditional irrigation tanks. PMKSY should invest in their rehabilitation and regular periodic de-siltation on the lines of the Telangana government’s Mission Kakatiya. Wherever feasible, tanks should also be integrated into canal systems, as Gujarat is doing so successfully.
# Finally, PMKSY needs to operationalise a decentralised groundwater recharge plan for hard-rock peninsular India, while supporting planned conjunctive management of surface and groundwater in the alluvial Indo-Gangetic basin.
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