Sustainable Farming: Key trends and initiatives in the irrigation sector

The irrigation coverage in India has in­creased to around 50 per cent of the net sown area at present, from 17 per cent at the time of Independence. According to NITI Aayog, in 2022-23, of the 141 million hectares of gross sown area in the country, around 52 per cent (about 73 million hectares) had irrigation access. The foodgrain demand is expected to grow from 330 million metric tonnes (mmt) at present to around 450 mmt by 2050, thereby putting a lot of stress on the irrigation sector. India’s irrigation sector remains the largest user of water, around 85 per cent. As per industry experts, the estimated water demand in the irrigation sector has grown from around 690 billion cubic metres (bcm) in 2010 to 910 bcm in 2015 and it is further expected to grow to over 1,070 bcm by 2050. Compared to other countries such as Australia, Bangladesh, China and the US, India’s agricultural water consumption per hectare of cultivated area is the highest, at around 4,060 cubic metres per hectare. It is alarming that the country’s li­mited water supply has become overexploited. Therefore, increasing water use efficiency in the irrigation sector is critically essential.

Key government initiatives

Over the past few years, the government has made concerted efforts towards improving water management practices, especially in the irrigation sector. The total budget allocation during financial year 2023-24 for the Depart­ment of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation is over Rs 200 billion. Of this, the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) has been allocated over Rs 85 billion, the Atal Bhujal Yojana has been allocated Rs 10 billion, the Na­tio­nal River Conserva­ti­on Plan has been alloca­ted Rs 3 billion, Inter­linking of Rivers has been allocated Rs 35 billion and other central sector schemes have been allocated a sum of over Rs 52 billion. One of the most prominent schemes for irrigation, the PMKSY is helping to enhance the physical access to water on farms and expand cultiv­a­ble areas under assured irrigation and improve on-farm water use efficiency.

Update on PMKSY

To increase farmers’ access to water and increase the amount of land that may be irrigated, the Ministry of Jal Shakti launched the PMKSY in 2015. The government ca­me up with the concept to ensure that all agri­cul­tural lands have protected irrigation and in­creased output per unit of water. The scheme has two key components – Accelerated Irriga­tion Benefits Programme (AIBP) and Har Khet Ko Pani (HKKP).

The AIBP was launched to provide central as­sistance to states for major and medium irrigation projects in the country, to accelerate the implementation of advanced-stage irrigation projects delayed due to financial constraints. Meanwhile, the HKKP was launched with four sub-components – command area development and water management (CAD&WM); surface minor irrigation; repair, renovation and re­storation of waterbodies; and groundwater de­velopment. In 2016, the CAD&WM was taken up for pari passu implementation with the AIBP. For the period 2021-26, PMKSY-HKKP has been approved with the target for the creation of ar­ound 0.45 million hectares of irrigation po­tential through surface minor irrigation and re­pair, renovation and restoration of waterbodi­es. Implementation of groundwater compone­n­ts for the completion of the ongoing projec­ts with an irrigation potential of 82,290 hectares has also been provisioned. Further, the CAD&WM co­mponent targets the completion of 85 ongoing major/medium projects, with a coverage of cultivable command area of around 3 million hectares during 2021-26.

Key trends

Micro-irrigation gaining prominence

Micro-irrigation techniques, such as drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, have started gaining prominence. Micro-irrigation can increase yields and decrease water, fertiliser and labour requirements. By applying water directly to the root zone, the practice reduces water loss th­rough conveyance, run-off, deep percolation and evaporation. Moreover, fertigation, which involves combining water and fertiliser application via irrigation, is possible through micro-irrigation. Fertigation results in a balanced application of nutrients, reduced fertiliser requirement and higher nutrient uptake.

Many states such as Rajasthan, Jhar­khand and Haryana are undertaking initiati­ves for promoting micro-irrigation. Rajas­than launched the micro-irrigation mission in the state, with the aim of providing financial as­sistance to farmers for the installation of micro-irrigation techniques such as drip and sprinkler irrigation systems. Under the mission, the government provides subsidies ranging between 50 per cent and 90 per cent to farmers, depending on the type of crop and the farmer category. Si­milarly, the Haryana government is also planning to set up major micro-irrigation projects worth Rs 200 million in the Morni area of Pan­ch­kula district. It is a significant step towards providing better irrigation facilities to farmers in the district and will cover an area of approximately 1,280 acres.

Increasing adoption of technology

Given the need to increase productivity while saving water, advanced methods of irrigation are playing a key role in the future of Indian ag­riculture. The use of sensors and automated irrigation practices allow farmers to monitor crops from anywhere. Technologies such as nanotechnology-based irrigation, artificial intelligence and machine learning, satellite imaging, robotics, drones, etc., can be used to track multiple data points, in order to help farmers identify irrigation needs based on location and weather conditions. Drones are equipped with thermal sensors, which enable them to detect dry field areas that require irrigation. The use of irrigation drones is an emerging technique that can be brought to the fore to implement smart irrigation in India. Moreover, smart pump systems that can meet the needs of drip and sprinkler systems in farms, for which pressure can be managed using internet of things sensors, can also boost productivity.

Emphasis on solar pumps

Solar pumps have proven to be a feasible and non-polluting source of energy for agricultural users. The Government of India launched the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Ut­thaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM), with the objective of providing energy and water security to farmers and reducing the use of diesel in the farm sector. Solar pumps are emerging as viable, non-polluting sources of power for agricultural consumers. As of March 2023, the Mi­nistry of New and Renewable Energy and Po­wer has allocated more than 0.95 million stan­dalone solar pumps to various states and un­ion territories. To ease its implementation, the PM-KUSUM scheme has been ex­te­nded till March 31, 2026. The replacement of existing diesel pumps with solar pumps helps reduce irrigation costs by around Rs 50,000 per year.

Encouraging use of treated wastewater

Innovative solutions such as reusing treated wastewater and irrigation through an underground pipeline conveyance system are being explored in some states. This is expected to re­duce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions drastically. According to a study, around 1.3 million tonnes of GHG emissions in the country could have been reduced by reusing treated wastewater for irrigation. State governments are th­us encouraging the use of treated wastewater in irrigation to increase water use efficiency and reduce gas emissions.


The irrigation sector is burdened with many challenges. These include insufficient storage capacity to harness surplus water, inequitable distribution of water, unregulated groundwater usage, climate change effects, water quality issues and inefficiencies in canal systems, among others. The irrigation sector also faces the challenge of inadequate use of digital and technological tools.

The sector also faces many implementati­on challenges related to aspects such as fin­ancing, land acquisition, statutory clearances, design approvals, skilled manpower and capacity building, contracting strategies, cash flow ma­nagement, quality control, etc. According to industry estimates, the irrigation sector has fa­ced a cost overrun of around Rs 1.2 trillion in major and medium irrigation projects in the co­untry. Also, there has been a time overrun of about 18 years faced by 105 irrigation projects in India.

Sector outlook

Improving irrigation efficiency is essential for sustainable agriculture, with the growing de­mand for groundwater from both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Going forward, micro-irrigation is expected to remain the backbone of the irrigation sector. Moreover, technology-based water resource management and sm­art solutions such as canal automation, GIS mapping and mobile applications, data integration and drone-based solutions are expected to shape the future of the irrigation sector in the country. Furthermore, the interlinking of rivers and mega lift irrigation schemes with large storage capacities will be the key to the future of the irrigation sector.

The government is also planning to recast the flagship PMKSY into a smart irrigation sc­he­me. This will help achieve at least 20 per cent increase in on-farm water use efficiency and help in reaching the micro-irrigation potential of covering 70 million hectares through hi­gh­er use efficiency technologies. w

Based on a presentation by Santosh Bhaskaruni, Associate Director, KPMG, at a recent Indian Infrastructure conference