With the continuing drought in Maharashtra, the issue of irrigation policy has yet again gained prominence. Speaking at the Express Adda on Friday, Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for road transport and highways, who also hails from the Vidarbha region, has seemingly not spared the ruling BJP-Sena government in the state for not preparing for the water crisis, while stating that “drought is not an overnight phenomenon”. Further, he has sought that the state government invest more in irrigation projects. “Telangana, which is one-third of Maharashtra, has given Rs 25,000 crore for irrigation projects. A big state like Maharashtra has a budget of just Rs 7,000 crore for irrigation projects”, Gadkari pointed out.
The minister is not wrong in suggesting that irrigation be accorded top priority, especially in a state where large parts of the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions are prone to regular droughts. However, looking at India’s chequered history of implementing major canal irrigation projects, it is unlikely that mere higher budget allocations would guarantee improved results. For instance, the Congress-NCP government in the state, which was in power earlier, was accused of spending no less than Rs 70,000 crore on irrigation projects without leading to any increase in net irrigated area. A report by the comptroller and auditor general of India had, likewise, panned Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s Congress government in undivided Andhra Pradesh for squandering Rs 72,000 crore on mega irrigation projects whose benefits were only “illusory”.
Beyond just the overall budget allocation, there are wide regional disparities, not just within the state but also in the country to take care of. For instance, within Maharashtra, 90 per cent of Marathwada is bereft of any irrigation facility. Clearly, just increasing the budget allocation or announcing new projects is not enough. The important thing is how this money, aimed at improving irrigation potential, is spent. In this regard, Maharashtra can learn from the administrative reforms undertaken by Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in the recent past. These aimed primarily at bridging the gap between irrigation capacity created and irrigation capacity utilised, by ensuring periodic de-silting and maintenance of canals. Ultimately, water used for agriculture, whether from the ground or through canals, has to be priced to reflect scarcity value and ensure judicious use. Only then will farmers invest in water-saving technologies. As such, the government can look at incentivising such crops that are more suitable for a state lacking adequate water.