Irrigation for the nation

How one Indian state is leading the way on farm water supply.

How one Indian state is leading the way on farm water supply

India’s farmers have often struggled to secure reliable water supplies. For much of the country, rainfall is concentrated during the monsoon, leaving the rest of the year dry. If the monsoon fails, destitution can threaten many millions. The country’s media regularly highlights the tragic numbers of farmer suicides as a graphic illustration of just how precarious agriculture can be.

Adjusting a sprinkler, India
Adjusting a sprinkler, India. Photo: Alexis Liu, IWMI


So the Indian Prime Minister’s recent promise of “har khet ko pani” (water to every farm) must have been welcomed by many. But just how realistic is this? Can publicly funded irrigation policy really give every smallholder a guaranteed supply of water?

In response to the new announcement, the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Research Program had undertaken an analysis of irrigation reform in several Indian states. A synthesis of their findings has just been published and cautions that money needs to be carefully targeted if farmers are to truly benefit.

“Spending billions of rupees on grand irrigation projects is risky,” says IWMI’s Tushaar Shah, one of the report’s authors. “But some states have managed to invest effectively in irrigation improvements, and it is important that those lessons are shared.”


Power to the farmers

Firstly a distinction needs to be made between large public canal irrigation, and smaller on-farm investments such as tube wells and pump sets. Farmers want as much control over their water supply as possible, which generally makes wells and ponds preferable to big canal schemes, which have often been poorly managed. The downside is that on-farm irrigation usually requires power to run water pumps – a commodity that can be in short supply in India’s chaotic electricity supply network.

Despite farmers’ current preference for on-farm irrigation, the report emphasizes that a key first task is therefore to more effectively exploit the up to 40 million hectares of farmland that are already served by irrigation canals. This should be done at the same time as improving the productivity of tube well irrigation by providing farmers with a fixed daily ration of high quality power supply during peak irrigation season.

A good example of water-energy nexus interactions is Madhya Pradesh’s irrigation reform program. For on-farm pump users, rural power supply was very patchy – particularly during the dry winter months. This led to frustrated farmers battling with low voltage, frequent black-outs and transformer burnouts. Of course providing ready access to power can also be a negative. If it is priced too low it can result in over-pumping, but clearly change was needed. In 2014 the new Chief Minister introduced power contracts with farmers that guaranteed power supply during the winter in exchange for up-front payments. This resulted in a huge increase in irrigation for winter (Rabi) wheat. Cultivation expanded by nearly 2 million hectares – an area roughly the size of Israel. Almost double the power was used, but in contrast to previous years, farmers were happy to pay for more reliable access.


Complete canal care

For canal irrigators the new administration took a different approach. A dismal culture of mismanagement and corruption was swept away, and reforms introduced. Crucially, the new approach took a holistic view of water management. Canals were to be properly maintained with stringent deadlines for repairs and regular checks on progress. A “tail end first” policy was introduced guaranteeing farmers at the end of canals, who had often been deprived of water, plentiful supplies if they could prove that their fields were water-ready.

IWMI Tata water Policy Research Program Highlight 01, 2016
IWMI Tata water Policy Research Program Highlight 01, 2016

Water scheduling was improved so that farmers knew exactly what they were getting and when. The irrigation department also introduced regular video conferences with canal managers. The departmental secretary took a leading role in this and the chief engineer of the state had mobile numbers of 4000 farmers whom he could randomly call at any time to check that water had arrived as scheduled. Irrigation staff also made frequent field visits to build farmer confidence.

This has resulted in the irrigated area increasing rapidly so that by 2014, despite being a poor monsoon year, the state tripled the area of its irrigated canal commands compared to 2009.

“Once you combine new communication technologies with innovative policy reform you can really deliver spectacular results,” says Shah. “If we can replicate this success elsewhere, then the Prime Minister’s promise can become a reality, boosting farm incomes and pulling millions out of poverty.”

Tushaar Shah, Gourav Mishra, Pankaj Kela, Pennan Chinnasamy. Har Khet Ko Pani? (Water to Every Farm?) Emulate Madhya Pradesh’s Irrigation Reform. IWMI Tata water Policy Research Program Highlight 01, 2016.

A shorter version can also be found in Economic and Political Weekly February 6, 2016.

This work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystems.


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