In an attempt to give irrigation coverage a hard push, the government on Thursday relaxed the criteria for central assistance under the accelerated irrigation benefits programme to cover drought-prone areas and districts identified under the Prime Minister's package for agrarian distress.
The relaxation is expected to put completion of pending irrigation projects on the fast track. "It will help to complete on-going approved projects for any plan, which the state government undertakes to complete within four years", Union information and broadcasting minister PR Dasmunsi announced after the Union Cabinet approved the relaxation in the programme.
The Bharat Nirman plan seeks to create 10 million hectare additional assured irrigation by 2009. Achieving this target requires the government to scale up irrigation projects from the existing pace of covering 1.42 m ha annually to 2.5 m ha. In this context, the Cabinet also decided to extend the programme to cover tribal areas and states with lower irrigation potential as compared to the national average.
The programme, aimed at accelerating irrigation projects hit by a resource crunch, was launched in 1996-97. But a performance review by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2003-04 had demonstrated that the objective of accelerating irrigation benefits had remained largely unachieved.
In the first seven years, the programme had only created 28 per cent of the envisaged irrigation potential of which merely 11 per cent could be utilised. The poor performance of the programme had prompted government to introduce the concept of 'Fast Track Projects' within the programme in 2002 for completing the selected projects in one year. The CAG report called it a "futile effort"; none of the 29 approved projects could be completed.
Among the relaxations announced on Thursday was removing the distinction between fast track projects and others, states that had delivered on the reforms agenda and those which did not.
Irrespective of these distinctions, the central government would now release 25 per cent of project cost for all irrigation projects in non-special category and 90 per cent for special category states.
The government also decided to scale down the stipulation that surface water minor irrigation schemes should benefit at least 100 hectare. His limit has now been fixed at 50 hectare.
The government has also done away with the rule that beneficiaries should contribute 10 per cent in cost for post-construction maintenance.