Indian Agrarian Crisis now moved to

Farmer-the most endangered species

Failure in Irrigation

Posted by Ramoo on February 21, 2007….

Business Standard / New Delhi February 21, 2007

Farmer suicides and distress in the countryside have taken on the dimensions of a national scandal. What farmers need most of all is assured water for irrigating their crops; indeed, many suicides by farmers have been traced to the disastrous drilling of bore wells that turn out to be dry or to crop failure because the rains did not come. That is why the rapid expansion of irrigation was made one of the six components of the ambitious Bharat Nirman project. So it is a tragedy that the objective has been lost sight of when it comes to budgets and programme execution. The harsh fact today is that there is no noticeable increase in the pace of irrigation development. Even the accelerated irrigation benefit programme, launched over a decade ago with the well-conceived idea of focusing resources on easy-to-complete projects, seems to have failed to deliver results. Despite all the ambitious planning, no more than 1.4 million hectares of additional irrigation potential is reported to have been created in the 10th five-year Plan, due to end next month. If this is indeed the case, it shows a sharp drop in the speed with which new irrigation potential is being created. For more than half a century, the country has added close to a million hectares of irrigation potential annually. Compared to that, the 10th Plan’s record is dismal.

It is easy to forecast now that the Bharat Nirman programme’s ambitious goal of extending irrigation to 10 million additional hectares by 2008-09, is not going to be met. Indeed, the evidence now available suggests that the large sums of money being annually pumped into the accelerated programme are probably not being well utilised. All of this translates into wasted agricultural potential and a low-income trap for farmers who cannot get assured water. The net result is that a sizable part of the country’s total irrigation potential—reckoned at 139.9 million hectares, against the earlier assessment of 113 million hectares—will continue to lie unexploited for a long time to come.

One reason for the problem is that irrigation is on the state list of the Constitution, and most states are unable to raise the resources required to be invested in irrigation. Work under even the accelerated irrigation programme has got stuck because of the states’ failure to put in their share of resources—usually a half to a third of the Centre’s allocation. But there are other issues as well. The populist approach towards water and power charges has converted irrigation works from generators of revenue (as they were in pre-Independence days) to a financial burden. This has affected not only the maintenance and operation of irrigation projects but also command area development work so as to make use of the irrigation capacity that has been created. The result is water-logging and soil salinity, which makes irrigation a curse rather than a life-saver. What the country needs urgently are major water sector reforms, including the setting of realistic user charges and creation of water users’ bodies for maintaining and operating irrigation works. It is only when irrigation is made a commercially viable sector that the states will be prompted to invest in the expansion of irrigation.

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