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Down the drain

The sight of the Narmada bursting through the gates of the Indira Sagar Dam, India’s largest, makes for great photographs, but the river’s flow conceals a truth that the government wants to keep hidden from you, Aman Sethi writes.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2009 01:24 IST
Aman Sethi

The sight of the Narmada bursting through the gates of the Indira Sagar Dam, India’s largest, makes for great photographs, but the river’s flow conceals a truth that the government wants to keep hidden from you.

Despite spending Rs 1,42,269 crore — enough to build 3,500 three-lane flyovers — on major and medium irrigation projects between 1990 and 2007, the geographical area serviced by canals has declined.

It reduced 13 per cent to 15.4 million hectares, according to Ministry of Agriculture figures.

The monsoon of 2009 is officially over, and as India tries to assess the impact of a 20 per cent rain shortage, it seems evident that the canal system — built to offset monsoon vagaries — is in terminal decline.

“These figures imply that the total geographical area irrigated by canals is reducing,” said Himanshu Thakkar, of SANDARP, a volunteer group that compiled the figures from government data. “While the government claims new areas have come under canal irrigation, other areas are no longer receiving canal water.”

In response to a written query from Hindustan Times, the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) neither disputed the figures, nor offered an explanation for the decline. Instead the ministry suggested that it was “more relevant to refer to figures of irrigation potential utilised”, which they claim has increased by almost 18 per cent from 1991-92 to 2001-02.

The Ministry of Water Resources defines irrigation potential as the area that a dam can irrigate. This potential is considered utilised once the distribution network has been completed and there is water in the canal.

While net irrigated area figures are updated every year on the basis of a census, there is little clarity on the frequency and rigour with which figures for irrigation potential utilised are revised.

“Irrigation potential utilised is one of the most delightfully vague indicators used to measure irrigation facilities,” said a senior government official overseeing irrigation speaking on condition of anonymity.

A confidential government report supports his statement.

“There was no actual increase in agriculture production or the irrigated area of the major crops in (the case of) 10 major irrigation projects built in 13 states,” the report said.

In Khandwa district, 192 km west of Bhopal, the farmers of Delgaon village sit by the Indira Sagar Dam’s dry canals and pray for rain.

The Indira Sagar Dam’s blueprint was drawn up in 1982. Today Delgaon is still waiting for a drop of canal water.

Until a bridge was completed late last year, the water stopped at a road that blocked the canal 42.31 km from its source, leaving an additional 30-km stretch unutilised.

“It took more than seven years to get this bridge built and only after people from 15 villages squatted on the roads to protest,” said Narendra Kumar Dogaya, the 27-year-old headman of Delgaon.

According to an internal note of the government, the Indira Sagar Project (ISP) is currently irrigating 13,067 hectares of the 123,000 hectares it is designed to service once completed.

This means India’s largest dam is functioning at 11 per cent of its capacity.

It’s the same story across India.

For instance, only 27 per cent of the Sardar Sarovar Project's (eastern Gujarat) distribution network and 23 per cent of that of the Rengali Project, 200 km west of Bhubaneswar, are complete.

“In this country the ability to build large dams properly is non-existent,” said Shekhar Singh, a member of the Narmada Control Authority overseeing the Narmada Basin. “Dam construction is fuelled by the constructor and contractor lobby.”

There are no firm answers on why less land is irrigated by canals. One possibility could be inadequate treatment of catchment areas, leading to silt in reservoirs.

A committee auditing the Indira Sagar and Sardar Sarovar projects wrote to Environment Secretary Vijai Sharma: “About two-thirds of the catchment that runs into several lakh hectares are yet to be treated.”

The sorry state of our canals implies farmers are forced to use tubewells, as is evident from the explosive growth of groundwater use.

The sustainability of excessive reliance on groundwater is questionable. The Ministry of Water Resources must give answers.