New Delhi: Is public irrigation a bottomless pit in Indian agriculture?
Between 1991 and 2007, the country invested over Rs.2 trillion (calculated at 2007 prices) but the canal irrigated area actually shrunk by 3.8 million hectares.
The Reserve Bank of India which arrived at these numbers in 2008 saw this as ‘a question of governance.’ In other words, public investments in irrigation were like throwing good money after bad.
One state to have bucked the trend and increase access to irrigation was Madhya Pradesh (the other being Gujarat under then chief minister Narendra Modi). Under chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Madhya Pradesh quickly improved power supply for irrigating the winter wheat crop, shows a policy paper from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
And this explains how the state burst into India’s wheat scene in less than five years. Production of wheat in Madhya Pradesh more than doubled, from 8.4 million tonnes in 2009-10 to 17.1 million tonnes in 2014-15, overtaking green revolution success stories such as Punjab.
According to IWMI, during Chauhan’s first decade as chief minister, the Madhya Pradesh government spent a total of Rs.36,689 crore on irrigation, far less than states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra where irrigation projects benefitted politicians and contractors by creating ‘rent seeking opportunities.’
Between 2006 and 2013, Madhya Pradesh tripled its canal irrigated area from 0.8 million hectares to 2.5 million hectares. Following Madhya Pradesh’s model, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayi Yojana with an outlay of Rs.50,000 crore for five years can progress towards the goal of ‘water to every field’ by focusing on two low-hanging fruits, IWMI recommends.
First, India needs to quickly utilise the 20-40 million hectare of already created potential of canal irrigation, and secondly, it has to improve this productivity of groundwater irrigation by providing farmers limited but quality power supply during peak crop seasons.
Here are three reasons behind the stellar performance of Madhya Pradesh, as highlighted by the IWMI policy paper titled Water to Every Farm? Emulate Madhya Pradesh’s Irrigation Reform.
Firstly, Chauhan wanted to expand irrigation for the 110 day winter crop of wheat but Madhya Pradesh was critically short of power. To overcome this, the state contracted advance power purchase for winter months. Between 2010 and 2013, the state issued 3.12 million winter connections to farmers expanding wheat cultivation by 1.8 to 2 million hectares per year. Unlike Punjab, farmers in Madhya Pradesh paid a chunk of the costs—Rs.8,430 for a season—while the state provided a subsidy of Rs.5,420 per farmer.
Secondly, the state enforced a ‘tail-end first’ rule challenging entrenched power relations. This meant farmers at the tail end received canal water first and water was distributed in an orderly manner. Earlier, when canals ran non-stop at low supply, farmers at the head-end of canals did not have any incentive to save water.
Thirdly, via constant monitoring the state obsessively pursued irrigating tail-end areas. The chief engineer would call any of the 4,000 odd mobile numbers of tail end farmers to enquire if water reached their fields.
Despite the success of Madhya Pradesh, IWMI’s recommendations end with a note of caution. Had the state used the 2009 to 2013 years of normal monsoon to recharge groundwater, Madhya Pradesh could have easily sailed through the back-to-back drought years of 2014 and 2015.
But the underlying lesson from IWMI’s research is clear. “Both Modi and Chauhan pursued agricultural growth through irrigation development as a political strategy for capturing agrarian vote-banks rather than rent-seeking.” Here is something for India’s other drought hit states to learn from.