Water Resources and Irrigation Development in India: An Overview

Research Team: K. V. Raju, A. Narayanamoorthy, G. Gopakumar and H.K. Amaranath

Collaborating Institution: ISEC

Since independence, there has been a quantum jump in state support for the harnessing of water resources for agriculture in India. This work was carried out for the Ministry of Agriculture to review the contribution of irrigation to agricultural development over the past 50 years. Some of the important features have been the deceleration in the growth of canal irrigation, the decline in tank irrigation, and the rapid expansion in groundwater irrigation. While efforts to increase canal irrigation continue, and new financing mechanisms in the form of ‘autonomous’ corporations such as Krishna Bhagya Jala Nigam to tap financial markets have been devised, resorting to these mechanisms only amounts to bypassing the limits on state borrowing and do not resolve central issues like the recovery of irrigation fees.  

In terms of benefits to farmers, irrigation expansion has clearly led to substantial increases in agricultural productivity. But these gains are unevenly distributed across regions and within regions. Furthermore, the gains in productivity have come at the cost of increasing negative externalities, especially problems due to salinity in canal irrigation, over-exploitation of groundwater resources in groundwater-based irrigation, and (in the case of canal irrigation) cost-effectiveness.

The overview highlighted the need to reduce inter-regional and intra-regional disparities, not by increasing inter-regional transfers but by focusing on intra-regional improvements such as the rejuvenation of traditional water management structures and the promotion of more water-efficient technologies. This in turn, requires changing the institutional, fiscal and legal arrangements for water resource management. Some of the urgent changes required are reforming institutions for tank irrigation management, changing the legal regime and enforcement mechanism for regulating groundwater exploitation, and internalising the costs of large canal-based irrigation projects.  

Published as: Technical report, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore.  (ExtendedAbstract)

Contact: cised@isec.ac.in