Views of M.K. Srinivas

“Irrigation is vital to meet the country’s future demand for foodgrains”

On September 25, 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit comprising 17 sustainable development goals, the global goals to end poverty, reduce inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change. One of these goals aims to provide clean water and sanitation to all. On the sanitation front, India was accorded open defecation free status in 2019 while on the water front, the central government launched the Jal Shakti Mission to provide clean water to every individual household. At a recent India Infrastructure conference, M.K. Srinivas, director general, National Water Development Agency (NWDA), talked about the state of the country’s water resources and foodgrain productivity, the key initiatives taken as part of the central government’s river-linking projects, and major issues and challenges facing the sector…

Existing water resources and foodgrain productivity

Currently, about 1,123 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water is available for utilisation in India. Of the 433 bcm of groundwater available, the actual realisation is about 260 bcm. Similarly, the actual utilisation of surface water is only 450 bcm, of the available 690 bcm. Therefore, the government has undertaken river-interlinking projects with the aim of enhancing the availability of surface water. India’s water demand is projected to reach 1,180 bcm by 2050. Of this, about 70 per cent is expected to come from the irrigation sector, followed by the domestic, industrial and power sectors.

At present, the country’s foodgrain production stands at 280 million tonnes (mt). The demand is likely to reach 450-500 mt by 2050, considering the expected rise in the population to about 1.6 billion. However, the current rate of foodgrain production is not adequate to meet the future requirements. Therefore, the government has a dual task of increasing foodgrain production, and, at the same time, sustaining it over the years.

For several years, the government has been largely focusing on new dams and canals to increase the area under irrigation. At present, the total irrigated area is around 68 million hectares (ha) which is roughly 50 per cent of the country’s total cultivable area. Further, the government is also taking measures to encourage water savings, considering the depleting freshwater resources. It plans to increase the area under micro-irrigation from 15 per cent of the total net irrigated area to 28 per cent. However, there are economic limitations to the adoption of micro-irrigation by farmers with smallholdings. The major challenge is the reluctance of farmers to adopt these new methods because of high capital cost requirements. The government has set up a number of institutions such as the Water and Land Management Training and Research Institute to conduct workshops for increasing awareness amongst farmers regarding these efficient irrigation methods. Currently, the per capita availability of water in a number of river basins is below sustainable levels. Without intervention, water availability is expected to decline further by 2025.

River-linking project

The government has fast-tracked the implementation of inter-basin water transfers to add another 165 bcm to the water available for irrigation. It will cover another 35 million ha under irrigation, increasing foodgrain productivity by about 100 mt. The river-linking project aims to manage water resources effectively by interlinking rivers through a network of reservoirs and canals. It will also tackle the problem of persistent floods, along with keeping a check on water shortages. Inter-basin water transfer will divert water from water-surplus basins to water-deficit ones. The project aims to raise the ultimate irrigation potential in the country through surface water and groundwater resources, along with generating hydropower.

Initially, the NWDA had considered about 30 links under the central government’s National Perspective Plan (NPP), of which 14 links involved the Himalayan component and 16 links involved peninsular components. However, 12 links were dropped eventually as they were either non-feasible or were withdrawn by the state governments. Currently, the rest of the links are at different stages of the preparation of feasibility reports and detailed project reports (DPRs).  The DPRs have already been prepared for some links such as the Godavari-Krishna, Krishna-Pennar, Pennar-Cauvery, Ken-Betwa, Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada links, whereas they are under preparation for the Cauvery-Gundar-Vaigai, Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal and Bedti-Varada links.

The DPRs for the Pancheshwar and Kosi High dams are currently under preparation. With respect to Bhutan, the two dams being contemplated are the Manas and Sankosh dams, of which, the Sankosh dam is likely to come up first. The peninsular links are expected to be developed sooner than the Himalayan links as there are international issues involved in the latter. However, the inter state issues involved in these links cannot be underestimated as the state governments have their own vision, planning and socio-political dimensions. As a result, the Netravathi-Hemavathi and Pamba-Achankovil-Vaipar links are unlikely to come up. Further, consensus over the Mahanadi-Godavari link is still pending as the river water is governed by the tribunal award.

Key issues and challenges

Irrigation is vital to meet the future demand for foodgrains in the country. The government has paid greater attention to improving irrigation facilities over the past few years. The investment in the irrigation sector as a percentage of the total infrastructure investment has risen from about 0.07 per cent in 2014-15 to 0.13 per cent in 2018-19 (provisional). The river-interlinking project will go a long way in increasing the availability of surface water for irrigation in the country. However, there are a number of domestic as well as international issues involved in the interlinking of rivers such as consensus among party states over water sharing, lack of funds and a weak implementation mechanism. Besides, international issues come into the picture as the Himalayan components interlink the water resources of India with those of Nepal and Bhutan. The Himalayan links have been planned to utilise water availability in these countries.

The Ministry of Jal Shakti has taken measures to tackle these issues on a priority basis by engaging in negotiations with the countries. The interlinking of rivers is crucial for a country like India which suffers from floods and droughts in different areas at the same time. Its successful implementation will ensure effective water management by providing surplus water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year.


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