India has very low levels of irrigated area compared to international standards.
Photo: © IFPRI/

Water for sustainable agricultural growth in India

This year’s World Water Week takes place in Stockholm/Sweden in late August/early September under the motto “Water for Sustainable Growth”. Our author shows what things are like in this respect in his home country of India.

Since 2001, the Sweden-based Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) has been arranging the World Water Week annually to focus on aspects of the world’s escalating water crises. It aims to help link practice, science, policy and decision-making and enables participants of around 130 countries to exchange their research studies and field experiences on global water challenges. During the World Water Week, the media can critically discuss and publish the performance of the policy initiated, programmes implemented and issues identified during the previous years and present the framework to pursue the unfinished tasks to accomplish the objectives of the National Water Mission.

It is indeed apt that the SIWI has focused “Water & Sustainable Growth” as its theme during this year’s World Water Week. It is in this context that this article briefly highlights the serious issues of water for sustainable agricultural growth in India that the Government of India along with all other stakeholders should consider on the occasion of the proposed World Water Week – given that droughts and floods are annual features in one or the other part of the country.   

India’s water scenario

As a result of increasing population, rising demand for irrigating agricultural land, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, electricity generation, impact of global warming and erratic rainfall, India’s water scenario is now fast changing. As against the ultimate irrigation potential of 140 million hectares (MHA) estimated in 1997, so far, irrigation facilities of 102.8 MHA have been, created, and 45 per cent of the country’s net sown area (63.36 MHA) is irrigated, leaving as much as 55 per cent at the mercy of monsoon rains. According to the Report of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India of 2007, India has very low levels of irrigated area compared to international standards.
Crop-yields in India are relatively lower than that in East Asia and have almost stagnated despite a holding size that is larger on average than in China. Rice yields in India are less than half that in Japan, an economy of smallholder agriculture.

The situation in some of the river basins is worrisome. According to international agencies, a region with a per capita water availability of less than 170 mm is considered ‘water stressed’ and one with less than 100 cm ‘water scarce’. Already, six river basins in India fall in the ‘water scarce’ category, and five more basins are likely to be ‘water scarce’ during 2025-50. Only 3-4 basins will be ‘water sufficient’. Water availability has been declining in quantity and quality over the past 3-4 decades because of inappropriate management of the available water resources and environmental degradation. At the conference of Environment Ministers in August 2009, the former Prime Minister of India said: “Climate change is threatening our ecosystems; water scarcity is becoming a way of life and pollution is a growing threat to our health and habitat and rivers all over India are still being degraded.” Not only is per capita availability of water already low, but there is also enormous wastage, growing pollution and contamination of surface and groundwater.

In 1947, when India gained independence, the effects of country’s geographical partition and drought caused a massive deficit in food production. Acknowledging the importance of irrigation for increasing food production, the Government prioritised the creation of irrigation facilities right from the first five-year plan. Since then, Government has been creating irrigation facilities through major, medium and minor irrigation projects, exploiting surface water resources and farmers promoting lift irrigation schemes and extracting groundwater through sinking shallow/deep tube wells.

Groundwater facilitates farmers to source water where and when they want it. Storing and replenishing groundwater is more cost effective than building and maintaining surface irrigation structures. Around 70 per cent of India’s irrigation needs and 80 per cent of its domestic water supplies are sourced from groundwater. A large part of agriculture is dependent on non-renewable groundwater. In 1960-61, the share of groundwater through tube-wells was just one per cent of total irrigation resources. But it increased to 45 per cent by 2011–12. As against this, the share of canal irrigation declined from 36 per cent in 1990-91 to 25 per cent in 2011-12. Erratic monsoon affects farmers owning tube-wells, compelling them to excessively extract groundwater, whereas most small and marginal farmers (accounting for about 86 % of the total holdings and cultivating about 43 % land) who do not have their own tube-wells and pump-sets, must buy water at substantial cost.

Issues of serious concern

While the Government has invested significant resources to develop irrigation, there are a range of issues that have substantially constrained not only the harnessing of the full potential of irrigation resources and full utilisation of available water, but also an increase in irrigated cropped area and water use efficiency impacting on crop productivity per unit of water resources as well as farmer’s income and employment generation. During the World Water Week, Indian policy-makers and programme implementers ought to consider these issues seriously and demonstrate their political will, administrative skill, capability and commitment to formulate and implement a time-bound programme to achieve the mandated tasks in five years:

Weak framework conditions. In the context of significant changes in the social, economic and technological environment, a comprehensive assessment of water resources is overdue; this need for reassessment already arose after it was last attempted in 1999-00. Furthermore, the Ministry of Water Resources needs to redouble the efforts to set up a National Bureau of Water Use Efficiency as the National Water Mission has a target of improving water-use efficiency by 20 per cent by March 2017. In December 2015, a committee was constituted to examine the provisions of the draft National Water Framework Law and suggest changes/modifications therein, taking into account inter-alia the emerging challenges in the water sector, reuse of wastewater, the likely impact of climate change on water resources and the importance of river restoration/rejuvenation, among others. This framework law with basic principles for alignment of legislations sounds rational and calls for a consensus among State Governments.

Insufficient implementation. According to the Ministry’s response to a Parliamentary Question, despite the central Government providing more than Rs. 530 billion from 2004 to 2014 to State Governments for completion of irrigation projects, implementation of 163 out of 297 projects was delayed, including some projects for over 20 years. The worst impact of the inordinate delays in completion of projects has been the time and cost overruns. A study by the Planning Commission of India on cost overruns revealed that cost escalation was 138 per cent for twelve projects, 500 per cent or more for 24 medium projects and 1,000 per cent and more for 24 out of 151 major projects approved earlier than 1980. Average cost escalation was 200 per cent for major projects starting from 1985.

Untapped potential. The gap between the created and the utilised irrigation potential has been steadily widening since the 1950s. The potential created is 80 million hectares, this corresponds to 77.8 per cent of the 102.8 million hectares of utilised irrigation potential. Factors responsible for low utilisation of irrigation as studied by four Indian Institutes of Managements focus on a lack of proper operation and maintenance, incomplete distribution systems, non-completion of the Government’s Command Area Development Programme works, changes from the initially designed cropping pattern and diversion of irrigable land for other purpose, among others. Inadequate provision of budget provision for operation and maintenance of the irrigation system is significantly responsible for underutilisation, followed by non-completion of distributaries, minors, field channels and on-farm development.
Moreover, 90-odd major reservoirs and numerous smaller water bodies are able to hold barely a year's requirement of water as against water storage capacity for two or more years in many countries.

Groundwater depletion: Groundwater through wells has a share of nearly 61 per cent of total irrigation. Almost 70 per cent of the groundwater potential has been utilised. Existing irrigated areas have been faced with serious water stress as both reservoirs and groundwater resources have been depleted in several parts of the country. In many regions, the water table has been falling at an alarming rate. For decades, farmers in agriculturally-predominant regions of India were encouraged to sink tube wells to get free water for agricultural purposes. Electricity for pumping out water was supplied virtually free or at heavily subsidised rates.

This led to over-exploitation of groundwater and even encouraged farmers to indiscriminately flood crops like rice, wheat and fruit trees with water, which impacted on soil and environmental degradation and caused low crop productivity. The rate of groundwater depletion rose faster than the rate of replenishment in many States. NASA scientists in the US, using satellites to track groundwater loss in India’s north-western grain basket, have found an annual average of 33 cubic km drop in the water table in the region, much higher than the estimates of the Government of India. The satellite study revealed a loss of 109 cubic km groundwater in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan between August 2002 and October 2008, twice the capacity of India’s largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga in Madhya Pradesh.

Food insecurity could get worse

Water required to meet the food deficit in India eventually has to be searched in water-scarce regions, which have good endowment of arable land. This puts additional pressure on the water-scarce regions for freshwater. Hence, the food crisis is as much a crisis of land in water-rich regions as a crisis of water in semi-arid and arid water-scarce regions. The groundwater over-exploitation problem in the water-scarce regions increases the magnitude of the crisis. In a nutshell, the problem of groundwater over-exploitation is more serious than what official assessments indicate.

If unchecked, its impacts on national food security are likely to be severe as the regions that are experiencing over-exploitation also happen to be the regions producing surplus cereals that are transferred to land-starved water-surplus regions. The alluvial areas of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana experiencing a decline in water levels are the largest contributors to India’s wheat stock, and the hard rock regions of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Karnataka are the largest contributors to India’s rice stock. The food security impacts would be aggravated as the depletion of groundwater reserves shrinks the area under cereals irrigated by wells; when water becomes scarce, and cost of irrigation water rises, the farmers move away from traditional cereal crops that give low returns per unit of water and cultivate cash crops. This can lead to a decline in food production, impacting national food security. All of this could lead to rising prices of cereals, jeopardising the ability of poor people to purchase food.

As the prices of the high-valued cash crops are highly sensitive to market fluctuations, the farmer can also become vulnerable to income losses, thereby getting exposed to food insecurity. This calls for researches and implementing strategies to (a) improve surface irrigation in intensively irrigated areas facing over-exploitation, (b) improve the efficiency of utilisation of green water and the rainwater held in the soil profile, (c) reduce soil water depletion by lowering the amount of residual moisture held in soils after harvesting and (d) reduce the consumptive use of water (evaporation, transpiration) through a shift to low water consuming crops that are economically more efficient, i.e. crops that give higher net returns per unit of water consumed.

But, under the current pricing regime followed in canal water, and the electricity pricing policy for farm sector followed by many states, the marginal cost of using water and electricity is almost zero, except when the supply of energy and water is extremely limited. This necessitates the policy and programmes to incentivise farmers of these regions that can encourage them to adopt measures to improve the efficiency of water use and also improves the returns per unit of land. Therefore, what is most important is to introduce reforms in the water and energy sector, including volumetric pricing of canal water and consumption based pricing of electricity used in groundwater.

Union Government must assume responsibility

Often, the available water is not being optimally utilised because of inter-State disputes. Upper riparian States are extravagant in tapping river waters and waste these costly and scarce resources whereas those downstream are frequently denied their legitimate share. At least a dozen of these inter-State water conflicts have defied resolving issues through mutual agreements, high-level political interventions and even adjudication by specially created tribunals. Once in court, disputes stay there for decades. It is, therefore, time now to consider bringing the subject of water under the jurisdiction of the Union Government instead continuing with the State Governments.

Dr Amrit Patel,
 Consultant, Ahmedabad/India Contact:dramritpatel(at)

Photo source:IFPRI/

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