India Intelligence Report

Management of Rural Water Resources Need for Policy and Institutional Framework

With a view to achieving the desired growth rate, modernization, self-reliance and social equity in the sphere of agriculture, being the backbone of Indian economy, the Government of India very aptly accorded top priority to creation of irrigation facilities by investing sum of Rs.1,253,407.3 million under major and medium irrigation projects, Rs.304,063.6 million under minor irrigation projects and Rs.96,581.3 million under Command Area Development Program, accompanied by private sectors’ investment of Rs.7,128,681.2 million during the period from 1951-52 to 1999-00.- by Dr. Amrit Patel &  Dr Gopal Kalkoti

With a view to achieving the desired growth rate, modernization, self-reliance and social equity in the sphere of agriculture, being the backbone of Indian economy, the Government of India very aptly accorded top priority to creation of irrigation facilities by investing sum of Rs.1,253,407.3 million under major and medium irrigation projects, Rs.304,063.6 million under minor irrigation projects and Rs.96,581.3 million under Command Area Development Program, accompanied by private sectors’ investment of Rs.7,128,681.2 million during the period from 1951-52 to 1999-00. Net impact of Government’s initiatives and support of Banks/Rural Financial Intermediaries [RFIs] has been that the production of all farm commodities and, more particularly, food grains has increased from around 50 m tones in the fifties to about 210 m tones in the year 2005-2006.

However, the food production will have to be raised to around 350 m tones by the year 2025 AD, leave alone other crops. Besides, production and productivity should be stable, rather than fluctuating from time to time. It is proved much beyond doubt that irrigated farming has the potential to impart stability in the production of crops. Thus, the demand for water for irrigation purpose [besides drinking water needs of the people and livestock in rural areas] is expected to increase sharply, leave alone for industrial & domestic purpose. It is in this context that the attention of all concerned must be drawn not just to managing floods and droughts but also to the fulfillment of the unredeemed promise to the poor that they have access to fresh water and sanitation during the 11th Five Year Plan period [2007-12]. As it is widely recognized that investments in irrigation can accelerate the process of integrated rural development sharply focusing on minimizing the incidence of rural poverty and improving the quality of life of rural poor, it is necessary to create right type of policies, institutional infrastructure and coordinated approach to increase water-use efficiency and productivity in agriculture Attempt is, therefore, made here to briefly highlight these aspects. 

Irrigation Scenario

Of the country’s ultimate irrigation potential assessed at 139.9 million hectares, so far only 65% [95.13 million hectares] has been harnessed. Under the irrigation component of “Bharat Nirman” the target for creating additional irrigation potential of 10 million hectares in four years [2005-09] is fixed to be met largely through expeditious completion of identified on-going major& medium irrigation projects. The “Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Program” [AIBP] launched by the Government of India in 1996-97 aims to create additional irrigation potential of 3.25 million hectares through major/medium projects. Budget for the year 2006-07 referred to revamping of the Command Area Development Program so as to allow for potential irrigation management through Water Users Associations. Around 20,000 Water Bodies with a command area of 1.47 million hectares are identified in the first phase of repair, renovation & restoration at a cost of Rs. 44,810 million. Further, to bridge the gap between the irrigation potential created & the potential utilized “Bharat Nirman” plans to restore & utilize irrigation potential of one million hectares through implementation of extension, renovation & modernization of irrigation schemes along with Command Area Development & Water Management practices.

Dr. Amrit Patel holds a doctoral degree in Rural Studies and Masters in Agricultural Science. He has extensive research and teaching experience with Gujarat Agricultural University and College of Agricultural Banking of Reserve Bank of India. He has extensive rural banking and micro-credit experience with 25 years with the Bank of Baroda and 10 years as consultant for the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and International Fund for Agricultural Development. He has worked in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Kenya, and India. Dr. Patel has published 3 books on optimal farming practices, use of tools in farming, and rural economics and has contributed over 500 papers on these subjects.

Provision of credit by Rural Financial Institutions [RFIs]in India have contributed quite significantly in creating the much needed irrigation facilities in rural areas by providing long- term credit on favorable terms to a large number of farmers for sinking new dug wells/ shallow tube wells/ heavy duty bore wells; renovation of existing wells; installation of lift irrigation systems on perennial rivers; on-farm development works under the command area development projects; installation of diesel pump sets; energisation of wells; installation of sprinkler and drip irrigation systems and the like. Disbursement of credit for harnessing irrigation potential has increased significantly from year to year since 1970. It may well be appreciated that during the seven years period from 1998-99 to 04-05, RFIs have disbursed credit of the order of Rs.194,350  million for creating irrigation facilities. National Bank has, also, supported irrigation development by providing refinance of Rs. 18,724.7 million during the period from 2003-04 to 2005-06  & further sanctioning financial support of Rs. 146,841.5 million for 78,442 projects out of its Rural Infrastructure Development Fund during the period 1993-94 to 2005-06.

However, following adverse features act as the constraints in developing the irrigation system & realizing full benefits of its potential.

  • During the eight year period [1996-04] AIBP” brought only 1.8 million hectares under irrigation as against 7.7 million hectares & 6.5 million hectares during 1970s & 1980s respectively. During 10th FYP [2002-07] only 1.4 million hectares were added under irrigation.

  • While presenting budget for the year 2007-08 the Finance Minister expressed the need for Rs.800,000 million to complete all past years’ incomplete irrigation projects whereas he allotted only Rs. 110,000 million raising from Rs. 71,210 million provided in the previous year.

  • According to third countrywide survey there are around 19 m wells, shallow & deep tube wells of which a very large number have been sunk by farmer-entrepreneurs out of borrowing from informal sources.

  • Mid-term review of the 10th FYP revealed that currently the cost of creating one hectare irrigation facilities comes to around Rs. 40,000 to Rs.250,000 which has been more than double than that of past years.

  • The return on the irrigation projects undertaken by the Government is round 30 % of their maintenance costs & therefore the irrigation system lacks in proper maintenance.

  • The irrigation efficiency of Government projects is mere 40% as against 65% of private irrigation system.

  • A National Ground Water document entitled “ Dynamics of Ground Water Resources of India” brought out by the Central Ground Water Board in 2005 revealed extremely alarming & deteriorating condition of ground water in country’s 1,645 blocks as compared to 4,078 safe blocks. There are 839 blocks over exploited, 226 blocks critical, 550 blocks semi-critical & 30 blocks saline.

Policy Issues

          If past experience were any guide following policy issues are immediately called for.

  • Groundwater resources and inter-state river basins need to be brought under the purview of the central Government.

  • Water Reforms Commission needs to be constituted to formulate comprehensive policy and program in respect of ownership, availability/supply of water resources from various sources and in any form; demand of water for drinking, domestic, agriculture and industrial purposes in urban and rural areas; distribution of water keeping in view social equity; pricing of water depending upon the use, users and areas etc.

  • Besides, following enabling measures are required in order to make available safe drinking water in rural areas, involve water users through formation of their associations to operate & manage the water supply system, fix charges & recover cost of operation and maintenance of the system; and seek private sector participation to create desired impact of scarce and costly rural water resources on our economy.

  • Access to safe drinking water should be recognized as the basic constitutional right of human being and livestock which must be complied with by the Government of India and not necessarily by the State Governments. It is very sad that even after 60 years, since independence, quite a large number of villages are not only deprived of having a dependable source of drinking water but many others have, also, been experiencing impact of hazardous chemicals in the aquifers of groundwater.

  • A high proportion of the rural population in agricultural areas in India obtain their drinking water supplies from shallow and private bore holes, which suffer to a much greater extent from the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides as well as other elements injurious to health viz. fluoride, nitrate, chloride, arsenic, sulphide, iron, zinc, chromium and salinity. Already 185 locations/districts through out the country where theses pollutants cause harmful effects have been identified by the Government and other agencies. The gravity of the problem can best be understood from the fact that fluoride is present in 37 districts of nine States; salinity [inland] in 12 districts of five States; salinity [coastal] in 11 districts of four States; nitrate in 68 districts of 12 States; chloride in 17 districts of five States; arsenic in four districts of one State; sulphide in three districts of one State; iron in 26 districts of seven States; zinc in six districts of three States and Chromium in one district It would, therefore, be in the national interest if Union Government should plan and implement Pradhan Mantri rural safe drinking water yojana ameliorating the impact of hazardous chemicals in the aquifers of groundwater in these villages during 11th FYP.

  • Drinking water needs of human beings and livestock deserve to be accorded the top priority and it should have charge on any available water. Irrigation and multi-purpose projects should invariably include a drinking water component wherever there is no alternative source of drinking water. RFIs in consultation with Panchayati Raj Institutions [PRIs] and NGOs may identify villages where adequate safe drinking water both for human beings and livestock is not available and can impress upon Members of Parliament and State Legislatures to make required funds available from their Area Development Funds and provide drinking water in a period of five years.

  • Effective participation, commitment and involvement of users’ of irrigation water, PRIs and NGOs should be sought for Planning, designing, developing and managing the water resources schemes. Necessary legal and institutional framework should be created to form Water Users’ Associations which should have authority and responsibilities in the operation, maintenance and management of water infrastructure and facilities. These Associations should be provided need based intensive training by the Irrigation Department, Agricultural Universities and RFIs so as to help them operate and maintain the system with a view to eventually transferring the management of such facilities to them in the course of time.

  • The cost of creating irrigation facilities has already been high and will rise substantially in the course of time. It is, therefore, advisable to move from supply-to-demand driven and service- oriented water management system. It is high time that financial sustainability of irrigation structures and systems is now very well recognized by one and all. This, therefore, calls for fixing and effectively collecting water charges in such a way that they cover the operation and maintenance costs for providing the services initially and a part of capital costs subsequently. These rates should be linked directly to the quality of services provided. Since irrigation-seed-fertilizer technology yields better return on the investments made, it should be desirable, possible & reasonable for farmers to bear the cost. Besides, RFIs provide production credit to farmers which also includes this component in the scale of finance. The subsidy on water rates to the disadvantaged and poorer sections of the society, if warranted, should be well targeted, transparent and monitored. A coordinated approach among WUAs, PRIs and RFIs can help achieve implementation of this policy.

  • Irrigation system created at individual farmer’s level is by and large maintained properly by farmers from their own resources or by obtaining bank credit from RFIs & under Rural Infrastructure Development Fund created at NABARD level. Irrigation structures and systems created through massive public investments need to be well maintained to yield expected return for which bank credit at market rate can be secured from RFIs initially and simultaneously making appropriate annual budgetary provision by State Governments. There should be regular monitoring of structures and systems and necessary rehabilitation and modernization program should be undertaken.

  • Recognizing that suitable areas to be brought under irrigation will be increasingly scarce, wherever feasible [Eastern region] creation and expansion of water resources infrastructure for diverse uses should continue. However, added emphasis should be given to improve substantially the performance of the existing water resources facilities. Allocation of funds under the water resources sector should be re-prioritized to ensure that the needs for operation and maintenance of the facilities as well as for new development are adequately met. In any way, maintenance of existing system should not suffer.

  • With a view to introducing innovative/novel approaches and corporate management culture, generating financial resources and improving service efficiency and accountability to users, a modest beginning can be made to encourage participation of private sector in planning, development, operation and management of water resources projects for diverse uses. Depending upon the specific situations various combinations of private sector participation in building, owning, operating, leasing and transferring of water resources facilities may be considered.
    Water Development Authority Existing Central Water Commission should be upgraded as an autonomous body, “Central Water Development and Regulatory Authority” vested with the authority to plan, develop, supervise and advise the central and state Governments on matters related to water resources with the ultimate objective of managing available water resources in the country for accelerating the pace of socio-economic development and making safe drinking water available to the population. The role of this body, inter alia, may need to be as under.

  • To operationalise and implement in a time bound program the recommendations in respect of critical areas as identified by National Commission on Agriculture, Irrigation Commission and Water Policy documents of the Governments.

  • To prepare “water status maps” for every agro-ecological region of the country and update periodically, focusing use of water in the light of land capability classification and land use planning.

  • To prevent degradation of land in the irrigated areas through enforcing adoption of proven and demonstrated economically viable water use technology rather than encouraging indiscriminate use of water and raising high duty crops like sugarcane.

  • To determine scientifically the pricing of water and enforce recovery of water charges on time through putting in place appropriate administrative machinery.

  • To carry out periodical reassessment of the ground water potential in each agro-ecological region and assess the quality and quantity of water available, study economic viability of its extraction, determine density of wells, spacing between two wells, size of wells, size of pumping sets, cropping pattern etc.

  • To supervise and regulate exploitation of ground water resources ensuring that withdrawal does not exceed the recharging possibilities.

  • To prevent detrimental environmental consequences of over exploitation.

  • To formulate ground water recharge projects with sharp focus on the improvement of the quality and availability of ground water.

  • To formulate policy guidelines for avoiding over exploitation of ground water especially near the coast to prevent ingress of sea- water into sweet water aquifers.

  • To formulate policy and operational guidelines in the matter of.

1. Allocation of water in an irrigation system focusing on equity and social justice,

2. Removing disparities in the availability of water between head-rich and tail-end farms and between large and small farms,

3. Adoption of a rotational water distribution system and

4. Supply of water on a volumetric basis with due regard to rational pricing.<

Coordinated Approach

Existing institutions viz. RFIs, Agricultural Universities [AUs]/Krishi Vigyan Kendras[KVKs]/Water & Land Management Institutes]WALMIs]and PRIs in their individual capacity have contributed in the development and management of water resources in the country. However, a coordinated approach of these institutions in following specific areas would go a long way to facilitate users to optimally utilize water, effectively conserve resources and substantially improve farm productivity and return on investments made.

  • Villages in which irrigation potential already created has not been optimally utilized in the light of research and development efforts under irrigated farming need to be identified by RFIs and assessment should be made to estimate the under utilization as well as reasons thereof in consultation with Irrigation Department. Concerted efforts are required to ensure that the irrigation potential already created is fully utilized on lines of the command area development approach. Reclamation of water logged and saline land should be undertaken by cost-effective methods and it should form a part of command area development program. AUs, KVKs, and WALMIs can train users for optimum use of water on scientific lines with change in cropping patterns.

  • Agriculture consumes the highest amount of water. It uses around 70 per cent of all fresh water withdrawals worldwide. With a growing population, agriculture will face stiff competition both from domestic water users and industrial units. Water users at any point of time and at any geographical locations should, therefore, concentrate on increasing irrigation intensity, extend benefits of irrigation to as large a number of farm families as possible and maximize farm output.

  • It is recognized that agriculture is the sector where the potential for water productivity gains is the highest. Main aim should, therefore, be to get optimal productivity per unit quantity of water utilized in conjunction with high yielding variety seeds and fertilizers, besides return on the investments made. This necessitates soil and water analysis, adoption of appropriate cropping systems and scientific water management techniques coupled with suitable farm practices and use of sprinkler and drip irrigation system.

  • Needs of dry land and drought-prone areas should be given priority while planning water resources development projects. Dry land areas and more importantly drought-prone areas require concerted attention both from research and extension support point of view. Area based research should be intensified focusing on soil-moisture conservation, water harvesting, minimizing evaporation losses, evolving less moisture-requiring/moisture-stress/drought-resistant varieties of crops using biotechnology. Proven and demonstrated research should immediately be disseminated among users of water.

  • Projects focusing development of ground water potential including recharging and the transfer of surface water from surplus areas to dry-land/drought-prone areas, where appropriate and feasible, should be formulated. Development of pastures and forestry which are relatively less water demanding should be encouraged. Relief works undertaken for providing employment to drought-stricken population should preferably be for drought proofing.

  • We should accept that when and where water is scarce, all sources of water [rain, surface water, ground water and waste water] are to be scientifically harnessed and utilized to improve farm output The resources should, therefore, be conserved and the availability augmented by minimizing losses, maximizing retention and eliminating pollution. For this, measures like selective linings in the conveyance system; modernization and rehabilitation of existing systems including tanks; recycling and reuse of treated effluents and adoption of traditional practices/techniques like mulching or pitcher irrigation and new techniques like sprinkler and drip may be promoted.

  • Integrated and coordinated development of surface water and ground water resources and their conjunctive use should be envisaged right from the planning stage and should form an integral part of the project implementation.

  • Both surface and ground water should be regularly monitored for its quality.

  • Watershed management through extensive soil conservation, catchment area treatment, preservation of forests and increasing the forest cover and the construction of check-dams should be promoted. Efforts should be made to conserve the water in the catchment.

  • There should be close integration of water use and land use policies. Irrigation planning either for individual project or in a basin as a whole should take into account the irrigability of land, cost effective irrigation options from all available sources of water and appropriate irrigation techniques for optimizing water use efficiency.

  • Research and development efforts need to be accelerated and augmented in specific areas such as, assessment of water resources, water harvesting and ground water recharge, water quality, water conservation, evaporation and seepage losses, recycling and reuse, cost-effective water management techniques and improvements in traditional and indigenous technology, crops and cropping systems, soil-water-plant relationship, reclamation of water logged and saline soils etc in close consultation and coordination with users of technology.

  • A perspective plan for training water users, water users’ associations, PRIs, RFIs in specific areas by WALMIs, KVKs and AUs should be formulated as an integral part of water resources development program.

  • Awareness of water as a scarce resource and conservation consciousness should be created through providing education and incentives as well as enforcing regulations and disincentives, where need be.


It is high time that Government of India recognizes peoples’ constitutional right to safe drinking water as well as consider legitimate demand for irrigation, industry & domestic purpose in the light of water being a scarce, limited & very costly commodity. Recent report on Global Warming sufficiently warns that climate change is likely to affect agriculture adversely & increase the risks of hunger & water scarcity due to enhanced variability & more rapid melting of glaciers. In this process, there is immediate need for constituting “Water Reforms Commission” and “ Water Development & Regulatory Authority” to consider between them all aspects of water ownership, social equity, supply, demand, costs, pricing, utilization, eliminating hazardous impact of chemicals noticed in the ground water, in 185 districts/locations, arrest deteriorating ground water condition in 1,645 blocks in the country, increasing water use efficiency etc.,