One of the drivers of India’s irrigation sector has been the construction of large dams on our rivers, which Jawaharlal Nehru famously described as “the temples of modern India”. While these dams have helped increase India’s irrigated area and provided a semblance of food security, they have also created more problems than they have solved. What is worse, these dams have not really achieved what they had promised. While the nation and its most deprived people have paid a huge price in terms of displacement and ecological costs, the farmers for whom the water was meant have not benefited as planned.
Perhaps the most telling statement in this regard has recently come from the chief minister of Maharashtra, the state with the highest number of dams in India. Intervening in a debate in the state assembly on July 21, Devendra Fadnavis remarked that Maharashtra has 40 per cent of the country’s large dams, “but 82 per cent area of the state is rainfed. Till the time you don’t give water to a farmer’s fields, you can’t save him from suicide. We have moved away from our vision of watershed and conservation. We did not think about hydrology, geology and topography of a region before pushing large dams everywhere. We pushed large dams, not irrigation. But this has to change.”
Recent scholarship supports the chief minister’s refreshing perspective. It shows that most of the peninsular river basins (the Kaveri, Krishna and Godavari) and the Narmada and Tapti have reached full or partial basin closure, with few possibilities of any further dam construction. In the Ganga plains, the topography is completely flat and storages cannot be located there. The problem further up in the Himalayas is that we confront one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. The Himalayas are comparatively young mountains with high rates of erosion. Their upper catchments have little vegetation to bind the soil. Deforestation has aggravated the problem. Rivers descending from the Himalayas, therefore, tend to have high sediment loads. The Geological Survey of India records many cases of power turbines becoming dysfunctional following siltation. Climate change is making the predictability of river flows extremely uncertain. Diverting rivers will also create large dry regions, with adverse impact on local livelihoods (fisheries and agriculture). The neo-tectonism of the Brahmaputra valley and its surrounding highlands in the eastern Himalayas means that modifying topography by excavation or creating water and sediment loads in river impoundments can be dangerous. Recent events in Uttarakhand and Nepal bear tragic testimony to these scientific predictions.
The comprehensive proposal to link Himalayan and peninsular rivers, estimated to cost around Rs 5,60,000 crore in 2001, also presents major problems. It has been overlooked that because of our dependence on the monsoons, the periods when rivers have “surplus” water are generally synchronous across the subcontinent. Further, given the topography of India and the way links are envisaged, they might totally bypass the core dry highlands of central and western India. Even more worrisome, recent studies indicate that the scheme could deeply compromise the very integrity of the monsoon cycle. The presence of a low salinity layer of water with low density is a reason for the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures in the Bay of Bengal, creating low-pressure areas and leading to the intensification of monsoon activity. Rainfall over much of the subcontinent is controlled by this layer of low saline water. If we interlink rivers such that fresh river water does not continue to flow into the sea, this could have serious long-term consequences for climate and rainfall in the subcontinent.
It is this enormously constrained situation that underscores the wisdom of the perspective outlined by Fadnavis. India desperately needs to make a paradigm shift in irrigation, move away from a narrow engineering-construction-centric approach to a multi-disciplinary, participatory water management perspective. We can make huge increases in irrigated area without needing to build more dams simply by the de-bureaucratisation of irrigation, adopting participatory irrigation management through water user associations (WUA), pioneered in some irrigation commands in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Once farmers themselves feel a sense of ownership over water, the process of operating and managing irrigation systems undergoes a profound transformation. The WUAs collect irrigation service fees, whose structure is determined in a completely transparent and participatory manner, from their members. Collection of these fees enables WUAs to undertake proper repair and maintenance of distribution systems and ensure that water reaches the farm gate.
To incentivise states to adopt this approach, the 12th Five Year Plan proposed the setting up of a national irrigation management fund (NIMF), a non-lapsable fund that reimburses state irrigation departments a matching contribution of their irrigation service fee collection on a 1:1 ratio. To encourage participatory irrigation management, the NIMF would provide a bonus to states, which would enable WUAs to keep 50 per cent of the irrigation service fees collected by them. The 12th Plan believes that participatory irrigation management has failed to take off in many states because, in the current scenario, WUAs have all the obligations but no rights or secure access to irrigation. The aim is to empower these associations. Simultaneously, the human resource profile of irrigation departments is to be broadened by including not just engineers but also social mobilisers, water managers, agronomists and hydrogeologists, so that holistic management of water becomes possible.
Such a paradigm shift in irrigation would enable a decisive move in the direction proposed by Fadnavis. What is truly tragic, however, is that despite the 12th Plan allocation of Rs 6,000 crore for the NIMF, neither the UPA nor the NDA has notified the fund. India is truly fortunate for finally having a minister for water resources who understands the perils of dam-building in the Himalayas and is committed to uninterrupted water flows in the Ganga. It is to be hoped that she will not lose any time in adopting an approach that could add millions of hectares to irrigated land without building a single new dam — by better managing the water already stored in our existing large dams and ensuring it actually reaches the farmers for whom it is meant.
The writer was member, Planning Commission, 2009-14.