Greater Attention

Government support brings optimism but COVID-19 eclipses sector growth

Over the past few years, the irrigation sector has gained traction with greater focus on major, medium and multipurpose irrigation projects. The government has made concerted efforts towards infrastructure creation through various flagship initiatives such as the PradhanMantriKrishiSinchayeeYojana (PMKSY), the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme (AIBP), the Interlinking of Rivers Programme and the Command Area Development and Water Management Programme. Over the past few years, these initiatives have had some success in bringing about visible improvements in irrigation practices at the state level. These improvements have been in terms of the number of projects undertaken, irrigation potential created, and technologies and best practices adopted.

In spite of this, the sector is marred by a number of issues such as poor water use efficiency, low coverage of advanced micro-irrigation systems, less than optimal utilisation of irrigation potential, and overexploitation of groundwater sources. The novel coronavirus outbreak has further added to its woes, thereby casting dark clouds over the sector. The pace of project implementation has been severely impacted due to the lockdown enforced to contain the spread of COVID-19.

While it is too early to draw specific conclusions due to a number of uncertainties about the fallout of the pandemic, the risk of a second wave, social distancing norms across the country, etc., the irrigation sector, like others, is expected to remain under pressure.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at the noteworthy trends over the past year, the impact of COVID-19 and the way forward for the sector…

Notable trends and developments

Renewed focus on increasing water productivity

In a bid to improve water use efficiency, new and improved methods of irrigation and irrigation technologies are being adopted by state governments and cropping patterns are being recalibrated. Farmers are also being given advice with respect to the adoption of modern agronomic practices such as raised bed sowing, alternate furrow irrigation, furrow irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation, mulching, direct seeded rice growing, system of rice intensification, laser land levelling, adoption of drought-tolerant varieties, and diversification of cropping patterns with low water requiring crops like pulses, oilseeds, maize, and agro-forestry. Training sessions and field-level demonstrations are being conducted to educate farmers on these aspects.

The Ministry of Jal Shakti also provides technical and financial assistance to state governments to encourage sustainable development and efficient management of water resources through various schemes and programmes, such as the AIBP under the PMKSY. During 2016-17, 99 major/medium irrigation projects under the AIBP, with an ultimate irrigation potential of 7.6 million hectares, were prioritised in consultation with states, for completion in phases. Besides, the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare is implementing the “Per drop more crop” component of the PMKSY which focuses on enhancing water use efficiency at the farm level through micro-irrigation technologies – drip and sprinkler irrigation. An area of around 525,043 hectares was covered under micro-irrigation in the country between 2015-16 and 2019-20.

Higher technology penetration

Irrigation technologies are being developed to shift from rain-dependent farming to harvesting and storing rainwater and using it efficiently to cultivate crops. Techniques are being developed to use water optimally – by providing moisture rather than concentrated loads of water. Micro-irrigation has grown from being a forced technology to a much-sought-after and demand-driven one. The new technologies that are being deployed include canal network flow monitoring systems to monitor canal systems and on-farm parameters using sensors, remote terminal units and information and communication technology; irrigation scheduling for helping farmers plan when to irrigate and how much water to use in order to maintain healthy plant growth during the cropping season; and precision farming that includes effective land preparation, soil surface management, nursery practices, optimum plant population and efficient input management through drip, fertigation and a well-planned crop rotation strategy, among others.

Increase in budget allocations

There has been an increasing trend in budget allocations by various states for irrigation and flood control. Haryana witnessed an increase of 64.7 per cent in the state’s planned expenditure on irrigation in the 2020-21 budget estimate over the 2019-20 revised estimate. Along the same lines, Punjab witnessed an increase of 24.2 per cent in the planned expenditure on irrigation in the 2020-21 budget estimates over the 2019-20 revised estimates. Uttar Pradesh too registered an increase of 3.85 per cent over the period under consideration.

Mixed results on expenditure incurred on maintenance of irrigation assets

The expenditure incurred on works (excluding establishment expenditure) for maintenance of irrigation assets per hectare of command area (Rs 1,000 per hectare) has witnessed a mixed trend. According to the Composite Water Management Index 2.0 report, August 2019, Goa witnessed the largest increase, becoming the state with the highest maintenance expenditure in 2017-18. In contrast, Haryana (which had the highest maintenance expenditure in 2015-16 and 2016-17) and Odisha reported a decline of Rs 1,062 and Rs 2,456 respectively. Maintenance expenditure reduced by Rs 2,160 and Rs 2,000 in the case of Assam and Tripura, respectively, between 2015-16 and 2017-18, a respective decline of 40 per cent and 34 per cent as compared to their 2015-16 expenditure. Lack of funds for maintenance has been highlighted as one of the reasons for the under-utilisation of the country’s irrigation potential.

Most states are highly dependent on rain-fed agriculture with some states having a large part of their cultivated area under rain-fed agriculture. According to the Composite Water Management Index 2.0 report, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Sikkim, Kerala, Nagaland and Karnataka have more than 75 per cent area under rain-fed agriculture, highlighting inadequate coverage by irrigation systems in the country.

COVID-19 fallout

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns to stymie its spread have had a domino effect on several sectors, including irrigation. The challenges have been exacerbated by the resulting shortage of equipment and raw material, the mass departure of the migrant workforce to their native places, and liquidity issues, to name a few. All construction-related activities were stopped, thereby affecting the pace of project implementation.

The level of project delay is directly linked to the stage of implementation of the project. Construction works on ongoing projects came to a complete halt during the lockdown. The Sri Sitarama Lift Irrigation Project in Telangana, for example, is currently facing the impact of the pandemic. The project engages around 4,000 migrant labourers, both skilled and unskilled, at different sites. With the labourers desperate to return to their villages despite government appeals to the contrary and the approach of the rainy season, the project’s pace of implementation is expected to be heavily impacted. Besides, contractors usually engage labourers for check dams, the construction of which has also slowed down. Besides the exodus of migrant labour, another factor that has slowed down irrigation projects is financial constraints. The Maharashtra water resource department has made ambitious plans to mobilise funds through the bond market to expedite key irrigation projects. However, the plan may have to be put on hold in light of the government’s decision to limit its expenditure. As of May 2020, 313 projects requiring funds to the tune of Rs 1.09 trillion are under construction in the state. Most of these projects are likely to face the heat as a result of the ongoing health crisis.

Further, while the lockdown imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak is one of the key reasons behind the dwindling financial health of the government, the budget allocations for the irrigation sector are not commensurate with the requirements of state water departments. For instance, the Maharashtra government allocated funds totallingRs 102.35 billion to the irrigation department, while the state’s under-construction projects require funds to the tune of over Rs 1 trillion. Hence, at a time when the government’s focus would be on first completing under-construction projects, the announced projects are not expected to see the light of day for at least the next couple of years. The government may have to shortlist projects on a priority basis, thereby resulting in cost escalations for projects kept on hold.

The months under the lockdown also severely impacted the government’s revenue and expenditure budget. Now, with more government funds being diverted to health and other essential sectors and the decision to curtail the government’s expenditure budget, the pace of implementation of irrigation projects is also likely to be reduced.

The road ahead

Post-COVID-19, the role of irrigation will become all the way more important given the need to ensure food sufficiency in the second most populated country in the world. Further, there will be a need to ensure that irrigation projects are not impacted due to funding constraints, lack of raw material and equipment, inadequate workforce and other restrictions due to the pandemic in order to bring the sector back on track.

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