Views of J. Chandrashekhar Iyer

“Creation of an integrated water ministry has been a major step forward”

The irrigation sector is the largest consumer of water in the country. The sector is, however, burdened with issues such as poor water use efficiency, less than optimal utilisation of irrigation potential, low coverage of advanced micro-irrigation systems and overexploitation of groundwater sources. Over the past few years, the government has made concerted efforts towards improving water management practices. At a recent India Infrastructure conference, J. Chandrashekhar Iyer, chief executive officer, Polavaram Project Authority, talked about the state of water resources in the country, key government initiatives, major issues and challenges in the sector, and the status of the Polavaram irrigation project…

Current water scenario

India’s current water situation is concerning. Plummeting resources along with variability in water availability, rising demand and changes in climate conditions continue to pose challenges for the water sector. Currently, the total utilisable water in the country amounts to 1,123 billion cubic metres (bcm), of which 690 bcm is surface water while 433 bcm is groundwater.

More than 70 per cent of the annual precipitation takes place in a limited period of four months. Further, climate change has affected rainfall patterns making planning more complex. The scarcity of water is exacerbated by uneven spatial distribution leading to surplus water in some river basins and deficit in others. On the other hand, the demand for water is rising rapidly owing to increasing population, urbanisation and industrialisation. The country’s per capita availability of water has declined drastically from 5,177 cubic metres at  the time of independence to around 1,545 cubic metres in 2011.

As per estimates by the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development, the water demand from all the sectors in 2010 was around 710 bcm. The irrigation sector was the largest consumer amongst all the sectors with a share of 78 per cent. In the future, the share of irrigation in the total water requirement is expected to reduce due to competing demand from the domestic and industrial sectors. The agricultural sector would, therefore, have to achieve increased production with reduced water availability. The optimum utilisation of water thus becomes imperative.

Government initiatives

The creation of an integrated water ministry has been a major step forward. Earlier, the management of water was spread across various departments even at the central level. The setting up of the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MoJS) by merging the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD&GR) and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has helped the government in holistically addressing both the demand and supply of water. Further, the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) which was under the purview of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also been brought under the MoJS. This has enabled bringing issues of conservation, development and pollution abatement of all the rivers under one ministry unlike earlier where the Ganga river and its tributaries were responsibilities of the MoWR, RD&GR and other rivers were being looked after by the NRCD.

As water is in the state list of the constitution, all water resource projects are planned, funded and executed by state governments themselves as per their resources and priorities. The central government, however, provides technical and financial assistance and encourages sustainable development of water resources through its policy interventions. Over the years, the central government has introduced various schemes and programmes such as Ganga Rejuvenation, The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), interlinking of rivers, etc. for conservation and efficient management of water resources. The government also engages in regular dialogue with the neighbouring countries on international river water sharing issues.

The National Mission for Clean Ganga was launched in 2015 with an outlay of over Rs 200 billion for the rejuvenation of the Ganga river. The mission has made rapid strides in the past four years. Several activities such as setting up of sewage treatment and common effluent treatment plants, cleaning of ghats, planting of trees, etc. have been undertaken to restore the overall health of the river.

The project to interlink rivers for ensuring equity in distribution of water is also a key priority for the government. Around 30 river links including Himalayan and peninsular components had been identified. These projects are currently in the preliminary stages. Further, the National Hydrology Project, which is being funded by the World Bank, aims to modernise and strengthen the capacity of existing institutions and equip them with real-time flood forecast systems.

In 2015, the government launched the PMKSY with the vision of extending irrigation coverage in the country. The Har Khet ko Pani component of the PMKSY involves activities relating to source augmentation, groundwater development, diversion of water from water-plenty to water-scarce areas, and repair, restoration and renovation of traditional waterbodies. The MoJS is also undertaking aquifer mapping for sustainable management of groundwater under the National Project on Aquifer Management.

Around 16 irrigation projects have been declared as national projects. Work on various projects such as the Polavaram project and the Shahpur-Kandi project is under execution and is being monitored continuously. Further, the completion of 99 long-pending major and medium irrigation projects has been prioritised under the scheme. Additionally, a new scheme called the Incentivisation Scheme for Bridging Irrigation Gap (ISBIG) has also been proposed. The objective of the scheme is to complete the command area development and water management works for bridging the gap between the irrigation potential created and the irrigation potential utilised. Currently, the ISBIG, which will combine 280 schemes, is awaiting cabinet approval.

Various back-end institutions such as the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) in Pune, the Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CSMRS) and the National Water Informatics Centre (NWIC) form the backbone of the sector and help the ministry and states in implementing their initiatives. While the CWPRS undertakes specific research studies relating to development of water resources and power projects, the CSMRS conducts activities in the sphere of soil mechanics. The NWIC serves as a repository of nation wide water resources data.

Key issues and challenges

India’s water sector faces numerous challenges. The country’s water resources are not only declining but are also unevenly distributed. The gap between water supply and demand has increased over the years. Further, there has also been a decline in water quality. The rising population and increasing economic activity will add more pressure on the already stressed resources.

There has also been overexploitation of groundwater in the country causing the water table to plummet. India withdraws 2.5 times more groundwater as compared to other countries. Around 60 per cent of the net agricultural area is irrigated through groundwater. The water efficiency in irrigation remains dismal at 38 per cent. There is thus an urgent need to improve efficiency through measures such as adoption of micro-irrigation systems. Canal infrastructure is also in bad shape due to issues such as lack of financial resources and interest by the states. Crop planning is also a big issue. Planning should be commensurate with water availability. Participatory irrigation practices need to be taken up to spread awareness and educate farmers.

Polavaram project

The Polavaram project is a multi-purpose irrigation project on the Godavari river in Andhra Pradesh. It is expected to irrigate over 700,000 acres of land. The project will also generate electricity through a 960 MW hydropower plant and help in supplying water to Visakhapatnam township for drinking and industrial purposes.

While work on the Polavaram project began as long back as 2005, it picked up pace only after the project was accorded national status in the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014. Since then, the project has been receiving funding from the central government. It is being implemented by the Andhra Pradesh government on behalf of the Polavaram Project Authority.

The major components of the project involve the construction of an earth-cum-rockfill dam, two canals, a spillway dam, tunnels, etc. Currently, while the construction of the right main canal is almost complete, work on the left main canal is expected to take some time. The building of the spillway is also going on in full swing.

As the project is quite complex, various studies have also been undertaken by organisations such as the CWPRS, the CSMRS and the Dam Safety Review Panel to resolve issues in the project. Both the Andhra Pradesh government and the central government are committed towards timely implementation of the project which is expected to be completed by December 2021.


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