"Water being state subject, most of the reforms has to the initiated at the state level through consensus. The role of different agencies such as Central Water Commission (CWC), Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) is limited to hydrological monitoring of rivers, flood forecasting, groundwater survey and assessment of water quality. In other words, their role is advisory in nature and they have no direct stakes in the outcomes of their decisions. It is quite possible that one state has to forego some of its economic interests for the benefit of another. As a result, in the current institutional set up, the state may show no interest in such plans as they are not statutory in nature.
The committee set up in November 2015 by the Ministry of Water Resources. Some of the problems identified by the Committee are: low efficiency – about 35 per cent in public irrigation schemes; a mounting gap between potential created and potential utilized in the irrigation sector to the tune of 26 million ha; unsustainable use of groundwater, which accounts for 2/3rd of India’s irrigation; declining of proportion of area irrigated by canals and lack of scope for further development of surface water in the country.
Issues of concern
First of all, the efficiency in public irrigation is far higher than what is being reported, if one assesses it at the basin scale. An efficiency level of 25-35 per cent in public irrigation schemes, as noted by the Committee, means nearly 70 per cent of the water released from the reservoirs or diversion systems would be lost. This works, out to be around 280 billion cubic metres of water, annually. This ‘wastage’ should end up in the natural sink that is the rivers and the oceans. If we acknowledge that the large irrigation systems are located in the water scarce states of India such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Telangana, most of this water should appear at the last drainage point of the rivers in these states. However, this does not happen. Most of these rivers have no significant amount of water draining out in normal years as noted even by the Committee. Hence, the efficiency argument is completely flawed.
Secondly, as regards the Committee’s remarks on the large gap between ‘irrigation potential created’ and ‘potential utilised’, the way estimates of ‘irrigation potential crated’ are arrived at is misleading. These figures are often unrealistic as they are based on estimates of quantum of water available in the reservoir and a ‘design cropping pattern’ which never happens in reality. Water inflows into reservoirs can change depending on the amount of rainfall in the catchment and many upstream developments. Also, farmers shift to water intensive crops once irrigation water is made available, shrinking the area further. As regards the potential utilized, there is heavy under-reporting of the actual area irrigation by canals. There is no account for water lifted from canals and drains by engines and the area irrigated by wells which benefit from the canal seepage and return flows form gravity irrigation. This also means that we need to reviews the way data on canal irrigated area are collected.
Water demand management requires efficient pricing of water in irrigation and other sectors and water rationing or fixing volumetric entitlements. These are long overdue. Only such measures can bring about improvements in water use efficiency through optimal use of irrigation water for the crops or allocation of the available water to more efficient crops or saving water in the existing uses and selling it to alternative uses at a high price. These decisions need to be executed by the respective state agencies. Though well irrigated area in India is much higher than that of canal irrigated area at present.
The Committee does not make a mention of the fact that large reservoirs (most of which were primarily built for irrigation, excluding those for hydropower) today supply water to several large cities. A recent analysis involving 301 cities/towns in India shows that with increase in city population, the dependence on surface water resources for water supply increases, with the dependence becoming as high as 91 per cent for larger cities. Many large cities depend almost entirely on surface water from large reservoirs. Some examples are Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Rajkot and Coimbatore, with contribution ranging from 91 per cent to 100 per cent (ADB, 2007).
On the groundwater side, it is a well-established fact that the two major reasons for over exploitation of aquifers are the absence of well defined water rights in groundwater and inefficient pricing of electricity supplied in the farm sector.