A Key Priority

Irrigation emerges as a major focus area for the government

Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for over 50 per cent of India’s population and plays a significant role in the overall socio-economic fabric of the country. Agriculture and allied sectors accounted for 19.9 per cent of the overall gross value added (GVA) during 2020-21, with a rising trend from 17.1 per cent during 2018-19. The increasing share of agriculture and allied sectors in GVA opens up a plethora of opportunities for the construction industry as well due to the rise in demand for irrigation infrastructure. The irrigation sector is the largest consumer of water in the country. The current stress on the country’s finite water resources has been worrisome. The need of the hour, therefore, is to improve water use efficiency in the irrigation sector through the adoption of micro-irrigation techniques.

Indian Infrastructure takes a look at recent trends over the past year, challenges posed by Covid-19 and the way forward…

Irrigated command area

As per the Composite Water Management Index 2.0 report, released by NITI Aayog in August 2019, the total irrigated command area in 24 states has increased from 55.38 million hectares in 2015-16 to 63.94 million hectares in 2017-18. Gujarat continues to remain at the top followed by Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Himachal Pradesh was ranked first in the north-eastern and Himalayan states, followed by Uttarakhand, Tripura and Assam. Union territories have provided statistics for the first time and Puducherry has been announced as the top performer. According to the report, only three states (Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Bihar) have irrigated command area of over 5 million hectares. Meanwhile, states such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Goa, Kerala and Sikkim have irrigated area of less than 1 million hectares, reflecting significant interstate variations. The report indicates overall growth in the total irrigated command area, with a significant level of variation among different states.

Growing share of budgetary allocation

The central government’s budget allocation for irrigation and flood control has been continuously growing. In the Union Budget 2021-22, a total of Rs 773 billion was proposed for the water sector, which comes under the purview of the Ministry of Jal Shakti, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Ministry of Rural Development and Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. This allocation is almost double the previous year’s budget projection. In the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Ministry of Jal Shakti, the key share was allotted to major and medium irrigation projects. The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana received Rs 55.88 billion out of a total allocation of Rs 90.22 billion. The scheme components that received allocation were Har Khet Ko Pani Rs 9 billion, Flood Management and Border Areas Programme Rs 6.36 billion, Atal Bhujal Yojana Rs 3 billion, servicing of loans from NABARD  – Rs 36 billion, and special package for Vidarbha and Marathawada Rs 4 billion.

Micro-irrigation

Given the stress on finite water resources and fast depleting groundwater, micro-irrigation has slowly started gaining prominence over conventional flooding methods of irrigation. Micro-irrigation techniques such as drip and sprinkler irrigation are gradually emerging as demand-driven technologies. During 2019-20, around 1.17 million hectares of land was brought under micro-irrigation. The adoption of micro-irrigation methods in the country has been sluggish. Of the total irrigation potential created in the country, micro-irrigation accounts for only 22 per cent. Initiatives such as the launch of the PMKSY and the setting up of a micro-irrigation fund are steps in the right direction. However, progress needs to be accelerated further. The high cost of technology and maintenance despite subsidy support, need for power and assured water source are some of the key issues that have inhibited the adoption of micro-irrigation.

Prioritising water productivity

One of the most significant objectives of the National Water Mission is to improve water efficiency by at least 20 per cent. The goal can be accomplished by assuring increased efficiency on both the demand as well as supply fronts. State governments are now deploying modern and improved irrigation systems and irrigation technologies. Farmers are being advised on how to implement modern agronomic practices such as raised bed sowing, alternate furrow irrigation, furrow irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation, mulching, direct-seeded rice growing, rice intensification system, laser land levelling, drought-tolerant varieties’ adoption of, and the diversification of cropping patterns with less water requiring crops including pulses, oilseeds and maize, and agro-forestry. They are being informed on these areas through training sessions and field demonstrations. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20, a total of 525,043 hectares of land in the country was irrigated by micro-irrigation.

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 Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Project (AIBP) under the PMKSY. During 2019-20, the PMKSY-AIBP provided states with central assistance worth Rs 17.38 billion for priority projects. The scheme of AIBP was originally approved till December 2019; however, it got extended till March 2021.

Adoption of modern technologies

As per India’s National Strategy on Artificial Intelligence, agriculture is a priority industry for AI-driven solutions. At present, the majority of farmers depend on traditional resource-intensive farming techniques. They have minimal access to modern technologies, logistics, and storage facilities, as well as data on weather patterns, soil health and crop protection. Irrigation technologies are now being developed to help farmers switch from rain-fed agriculture to harvesting and storing rainwater and efficiently using it to produce crops. Techniques are being developed for optimum utilisation of water by supplying moisture rather than concentrated water loads. Micro-irrigation has evolved from a forced technology to a much-desired and demand-driven technology. 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, and 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.

Rising maintenance cost

One of the causes for the country’s irrigation potential remaining underutilised has been lack of finance for undertaking maintenance activities. The expenditure incurred on works (excluding establishment expenditure) for maintenance of irrigation assets per hectare of command area (Rs 1,000 per hectare) has shown a diverse trend. As per the Composite Water Management Index 2.0 report, Goa saw the largest increase, becoming the state with the highest maintenance spending in 2017-18. Meanwhile, Haryana, which had the highest maintenance expenditure in 2015-16 and 2016-17, recorded a decrease of Rs 1,062. Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, maintenance expenditure of Assam and Tripura fell by Rs 2,160 and Rs 2,000, respectively, marking a decline of 40 per cent and 34 per cent as against their 2015-16 expenditure.

Challenges posed by Covid-19

Construction activities on almost all irrigation projects came to a halt after the nationwide lockdown was imposed. While construction activities resumed in the subsequent months with partial relaxations, labour shortages still continue to pose challenges.  The implementation of lockdowns led to disruptions in the supply chain and impacted the availability of key raw materials such as steel and cement.

It is also expected that highly technical material and services required for the execution of complex projects such as tunnelling are going to cost higher than in the pre-pandemic period. The sharp deterioration in states’ finances because of the prolonged lockdowns has taken a toll on irrigation projects. In fact, several projects are being deferred as the state governments are focusing on critical works only.

The way forward

The government has extended significant support towards infrastructure creation in the irrigation sector. States such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan are also offering significant investment opportunities in this sector. According to India Infrastructure Research, irrigation projects entailing an investment of around Rs 8,381.03 billion are currently in the announced and approved stages. Assuming that about 50-60 per cent of the cost of projects is allocated to construction activities, it can be estimated that investment of Rs 4,000 billion-Rs 5,000 billion will be required for construction activities in the upcoming irrigation projects. There is an urgent need to resolve construction-related issues such as land acquisition, inaccurate cost estimations and delays in securing clearances in order to ensure timely implementation of projects. Going forward, it is crucial to ensure smooth irrigation services through the adoption of efficient practices, use of advanced technologies and creation of resilient economic structures.

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