Monsoon, Water Scarcity and Just-in-time Irrigation

Since my childhood, I have seen canals as a means of irrigation (images). However, as I remember, it was never a reliable means. In days of draught with rain god failing the farmers, it never provided the water so badly needed. Officer working in the department were corrupt and favoured those who bribed them. One of the very old men in the village died with an ambition to make his grandson even an orderly in the department. Fortunately for my village, under some World Bank scheme, the canal got renovated and widened. However, the maintenance and up keeping remain extremely poor (see a recent photograph, canal on leftside). The irrigation by canal water requires a network of sub canals to take water to individual plots. No doubt, the system means a lot of wastage of water and over irrigation. Further, the quarrels between the landholders to share the water were rampant. Sometimes, it used to be bloody too.

At present time it must be really difficult rather impossible to take up any new canal project with so much of opposition to land acquisition and compensation. Further, new breeds of experts, economists, and columnists have written a lot against the canal-irrigation. Tushaar Shah of the International Water Management Institute writes, “Even after 200 years of canal building, less than 15 per cent of Indian farmlands benefit from canal irrigation. The rest is either rain-fed or supported by some 20 million farmer-owned irrigation wells. Spending $50 billion on dams and canals in the 11th Plan would be a waste.” Even Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar agrees with Shah. The experts claim, farmers need just-in-time water on demand that groundwater and wells can provide better with minimal wastage. Hindu religious scriptures considered construction of well and pond as great pious work that takes away the ill effects of sins committed and provides heaven after death. I remember my mother carrying out a function of the marriage of the well that we got constructed in our plot of land that didn’t have any means for irrigation.

Surprisingly, even after 60+ years of independence, only around 40 per cent of the cropped area in India is irrigated and most of the Indian farmers and the economists look for a good monsoon for the good yield that affects inflation rate and GDP growth rate. Overall monsoon rain in India is pretty good. Planners must look to find ways and means to collect the water of monsoon effectively in water tanks, lakes and reservoirs that otherwise goes waste, so that it can be pumped in for irrigating the farmland when needed. The entire country, covering every village, has to go in for a programme of saving and storing water, below and above the ground, as part of overall watershed development programmes. Since 2004 budget, Mr. Chidambaram includes the renovations of the thousands of water bodies in all his budgets. It will reduce the suspense and the dependence on the precise progress of the monsoon.

An enormous irrigation potential still remains untapped in most villages. Through NREG scheme, every panchayat must rejuvenate tanks on priorities and, where possible, construct them. Rainwater, which mostly runs off, has to be channeled into water bodies, which both store the water and recharge groundwater. Wherever possible, bunds on seasonal rivers and rivulets have to be constructed to create reservoirs.

Innumerable successful examples of such grassroots water harvesting initiatives exist from pre-canal irrigation days. Rulers and landlords built huge tanks. Rajsmand and Jaismand in Rajasthan are examples. In and around my hometown Sasaram, many water tanks are still there, though many need rejuvenation and de-silting. Conservation of monsoon water as much as possible must become again the national mission that must reach every nook and corner of the country for darught-proofing. And as the country improves on water conservation, it will greatly mitigate the risks posed by the vagaries of the monsoon and the additional risks likely to be posed by global warming. Investment in creating these assets would have got priority over the waivers running in thousands of crore.

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