Every time I am in a conference or a media discussion on agriculture I cannot help but quietly swallow my exasperation when I find almost every 'expert' worth the name pointing to the declining investment in irrigation (they surely mean mega irrigation projects/dams) as the primary reason for the prevailing agrarian distress. Universities, B- schools, consultancy firms, banks, and of course the media houses (mostly the TV channels) are full of such arm-chair experts who have done more damage collectively to the country's fragile environment than everything else put together.
These 'experts' have rarely moved out from the comforts of their air-conditioned offices, and based on what they get from Google search, and that syncs well with what they have read in their text books, come out with their unsolicited advice on how to revitalise agriculture. Some of them I meet on panel discussions on TV and also in seminars here and there and believe me hearing them my blood start racing up.
It is therefore heartening to read a report Let's respect the water cycle in The Times of India (May 30, 2010). Written by Amit Bhattacharya, this report formed part of the full-page special report on monsoon. I found the Special Report much better than the weekly environment page that appears every Friday, which carries hardly anything that is inspiring and motivating.
Anyway, coming back to Amit Bhattacharya's report, I found it very informative and analytical. I am highlighting a few facts that every economist and the so-called experts in agriculture, must read. I hope it will help clear the mist from their computer-savvy brains, a mist that has been clouding the prospects for sustainable agriculture.
1. More than 60 per cent of India’s 62 million irrigated hectares is fed by groundwater. Which means it is not dams and canals that irrigate the Green Revolution belt comprising Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and parts of AP. Bulk of the irrigation is from groundwater.
2. Between 1991-92 and 2006-07, the government spent Rs 1.3 lakh crore on major and medium irrigation projects without achieving any net increase in the irrigated area. In other words, the big irrigation projects have failed to bring in any additional area under assured irrigation in the past 15-years.
3. India’s total canal-irrigated area has decreased from 17,791,000 hectares in 1991-91, to 16,531,000 hectares in 2007-08. In simple words, the canal irrigation frequency is declining every year. Big irrigation projects are slowly silting up or for other reasons becoming cost ineffective in the long run.
4. According to a 2005 World Bank report, the annual maintenance bill for India’s canal network comes to around Rs 17,000 crore. Less than 10 per cent of that money is available. So when the Finance Minister provides the Budget allocations for irrigation, it seems he is not even able to provide money for the upkeep of canals !
Amit Bhattacharya has provided enough water for thought. Given the constraints of diminishing investments, it is time to analyse whether big dams and canals is the right approach to provide irrigation or should the country adopt a more localised and farm-centric approach that conserves and harvests available water. In addition, there are also issues of water seepage from canals, salinisation of agricultural lands, and the role of water guzzling crops that form the cropping pattern besides displacement and rehabilitation.
This reminds me of two statements made by people who should be knowing what they said. Former Environment & Forests Minister Maneka Gandhi had once remarked that 90 per cent of India's dams do not have canals. These dams in fact add on to the flood woes at the time of rains rather than providing any succour. Before that, Mrs Indira Gandhi's advisor late P N Haksar had once told me that the rate of siltation of major dams in India was actually 500 per cent more than what the engineers had stipulated in project design.
Putting it all together, it is quite clear that the era of Big Dams is all but over. If you don't want to accept it, you do it at the cost of public exchequer, environment and the future generations.
Let us respect the water cycle
Times of India, May 30, 2010
Think of water and chances are you wouldn’t picture a farmer digging a tubewell. Most urban Indians can’t think beyond their own water woes — dry taps; waking up at odd hours to tank up for the day. Yet, 80% of all the water India uses goes into agriculture. But even so, 60% of our farmlands remain dependent on the rains. Just as water evaporates, it seems, so do the resources that go into water management in the countryside.
The scale of this ‘evaporation’ is so massive it is surprising the issue hasn’t generated more public debate. Nothing illustrates this better than the money spent on canals. In the 15 year-period from 1991-92 to 2006-07, the government spent Rs 1.3 lakh crore on major and medium irrigation projects without achieving any net increase in the irrigated area!
If anything, India’s total canal-irrigated area has decreased from 17,791,000 hectares in 1991-91, to 16,531,000 hectares in 2007-08, according to provisional figures released by the agriculture ministry. The story behind this dubious feat encapsulates almost everything that’s wrong with water planning and use in agriculture.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, should know. Last year, he co-authored a paper that contained exactly those startling statistics. He says it’s not about too few new canals but about “many old ones have stopped functioning, at least partially, due to siltation, lack of maintenance and faulty assumptions of water use. Then there are water management and sharing issues. Often there’s intensive water use in upstream areas which leaves no water at the tail-ends.”
Thakkar says it boils down to bad investment decisions. “The government keeps pushing for big irrigation projects without taking care of the existing ones, which in itself is a huge task. According to a 2005 World Bank report, the annual maintenance bill for India’s canal network comes to around Rs 17,000 crore. Less than 10% of that money is available,” he says.
Experts lament that new irrigation projects often fail to take into account the larger hydrological processes they would affect. They also pay little attention to water-use patterns. This has led to river basins such as the Krishna becoming over-irrigated.
Planning Commission member Mihir Shah calls such policy practices “hydroschizophrenia (or) a schizophrenic view of an indivisible resource like water, failing to recognize the unity and integrity of the hydrologic cycle.”
Shah elaborates: “It’s a strange situation. Water management in villages comes under two ministries — rural development ministry and ministry of water resources. Often the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
Read the full report at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/special-report/Lets-respect-the-water-cycle/articleshow/5989817.cms