Sustained efforts over the last two years to improve irrigation access for farmers in India seem to have begun showing results, at least in terms of creation of physical infrastructure.
The Narendra Modi government had, in 2016, embarked on a mission to complete all unfinished major and medium irrigation projects – some of these languishing for decades – under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP). Two years on – the mission was announced in the Union Budget presented on February 29, 2016 – the progress has been quite impressive, going by the information made available by the Ministry of Water Resources.
Out of the total 105 projects targeted for completion before December 2019, work in as many as 41 is either over or at least 90 per cent finished. The 41 include all the 18 ‘Priority I’ projects that were supposed to have been completed by the end of 2017. There are another 32 projects, categorised under ‘Priority II’, which are to be completed this year. The remaining 55 ‘Priority III’ projects have a deadline of December next year.
The Ministry’s data shows that in 16 projects – including nine in the ‘Priority II’ and seven in the ‘Priority III’ lists – between 80 and 90 per cent of work has been completed. Further, in 57 out of the total 105 projects, there has been minimum 80 per cent work completion. That ratio, at 54 per cent, isn’t bad, considering that we still have more than one-and-a-half years to go for the terminal date of December 2019.
The 105 projects together are expected to bring an additional 6.7 million hectares (mh) of cultivable land under irrigation. Here again, the works undertaken till February 2018 have already created nearly 4.4 mh of new irrigation potential, which is 65 per cent of the target set for December 2019.
Currently, only about 66 mh or less than half of the country’s total 142 mh arable land area has irrigation cover. Even within this 66 mh, only around 25 mh is accounted for by government-created major, medium and minor canal irrigation projects. The balance comprises tube-wells, open wells, tanks, ponds and other private/individual-level irrigation facilities. To that extent, the ongoing work in the 105 AIBP projects represents one of the fastest expansions in the country’s irrigated land area.
While a mission-mode approach and focussed monitoring has clearly made a difference in giving a push for the completion of pending projects, the real game-changer, however, has been the provision made for innovative financing. In the past, the annual budgetary allocations for these projects were hardly enough to keep work going, leave alone cover cost escalations, which were themselves a result of incessant execution delays. In fact, the Ministry of Water Resources admitted to a Parliamentary committee last year that cost overruns were to the tune of 1,382 per cent in major irrigation projects. For medium projects, this figure was 325 per cent.
Realising that the monies required for these projects could not be raised solely through budgetary support, the Modi government decided to explore the market borrowings option. The 2016-17 Union Budget announced the creation of a dedicated Long-Term Irrigation Fund (LITF) under the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development or NABARD with an initial corpus of Rs 20,000 crore. It was also proposed to generate Rs 86,500 crore over five years, with the budgetary allocations provided every year primarily going to service these loans for financing irrigation projects. State governments, too, were allowed to access this fund.
“Availability of money is the main reason for the rapid progress seen on the 105 AIBP projects. Going to the market to raise money was the most crucial decision, as the government would have never been able to provide the required budgetary funds at one go to ensure project completion,” a former official of the Water Resources Ministry pointed out.
In this year’s budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has extended the LITF’s scope to include command area development of even already completed projects. The underlying thinking is that it would enable the same projects to irrigate more area. This would expand the irrigation potential created, while also bridging the gap vis-à-vis that currently utilised. In addition, nearly Rs 1,000 crore has been provided for developing groundwater resources, especially in the forest and Naxal-prone areas of Central India. These belts have abundant groundwater, but with sub-optimal extraction.
Simultaneously, the Modi government’s ‘More Crop Per Drop’ initiative has resulted in roughly 8.45 lakh hectares incremental area coming under drip and sprinkler irrigation. According to a recent written reply to a Parliament question, the Centre has, in the last three years, sanctioned or released a total of Rs 21,723 crore as budgetary support for the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana. This is an umbrella programme of all irrigation schemes, including AIBP, micro-irrigation and watershed development interventions.
Creating of physical infrastructure is, however, just the first step in taking water to agricultural fields. There is equal need for reforms to ensure that water – whether from canal irrigation projects or underground resources – is measured, metered, priced and managed, along with proper crop planning, in order to cover more area and the maximum number of farmers. “The improvement of canal networks and formation of water-user associations to take undertake their operation and maintenance are among the initiatives required to enable water to reach the last person in the command area,” added the earlier-quoted official.